If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that it can be tough to get great food when flying. Interestingly there’s a whole host of scientific reasons why your airborne bagel is so bland.
A trio of taste sensations
It may not be news that your mouth, nose and ears are all connected, particularly when it comes to taste, but it’s far more complex when you’re thousands of feet up in the air. For starters, up to 80% of what we think we taste is actually smell. Cruising at high-altitudes breaks down our ability to smell as moisture levels are an arid 12%, dryer than the Sahara Desert! Think of it being like trying to eat with a cold – tasteless at best.
Now this alone might seem enough to make your bacon and egg roll a bit bland, but the remaining 20% representing your taste buds has a lot to combat too.
Sensitivity of your taste buds reduces by 30%
According to a study undertaken at the Fraunhofer Flight Test Facility (FTF) in Germany, the combination of dryness and low air pressure experienced at high-altitudes reduces the sensitivity of your taste buds to sweet and salty foods by up to 30%. The experiment recreated flight conditions at 35,000ft by dehumidifying and pressurising the air of a simulation cabin, even going so far as to replicate the loud noise of the jet engine. Surprisingly, this is because our ears also play a large part in how much we enjoy our food.
Sound affects the way we eat far more than you would imagine. A study carried out by Unilever and the University of Manchester found that subjects reported food to be much less salty and sweet when eating with loud background noise. So, when you take into account that a plane’s engine roars at a deafening 85db, it’s clear that airline food really needs to pack a punch in the flavour department.
Sour, bitter and spicy flavours are unaffected at altitude
The FTF study found that while salt and sugar were diminished, other flavours like sour, bitter and spicy were almost unaffected and in particular, seasonings like lemon grass, cardamom and curry taste just as intense while in the air as on the ground. So what can we do to salvage those sweet and salty tastes we all hold so dear? Well, you don’t have to pass on the peanuts just yet, most airlines actually add extra salt and sugar to foods to compensate for the loss of flavour, but we’ve found a better (and healthier!) way…
Solutions for apetising in-flight food
There are a few ways around the bland in-flight meal conundrum and our very own celebrity chef, James Martin, has been working on the holy grail of in-flight meals: umami.
If you haven’t heard of umami yet, it’s been named “the fifth flavour”, and while it’s not as well-known as salty, sweet, sour and bitter, it’s certainly got a lot more to offer when it comes to flying. But first, a little more science.
Umami: the fifth flavour
Umami is a Japanese word meaning “a pleasant savoury taste” and it was discovered by a Japanese chemist called Kikunae Ikeda back in 1908. After studying the chemical composition of kelp, which gave the signature umami flavour, he discovered that it was an amino acid which gave off this moreish taste, as well as discovering that umami is present in not just seaweed, but meat, mushrooms and tomatoes too.
So how does this affect your in-flight food? Well it’s these umami foods that retain the most flavour while cruising thousands of feet up in the air. Foods like red meat, miso soup and tomato based dishes are chocked full of umami flavours, making them the best choice while flying. That explains why the legendary tomato juice-based Bloody Mary is so popular!
To harness this tongue tingling umami power, our head chef, TV personality James Martin, has created a whole new menu for Thomas Cook Airline flights, chock full of those bold umami flavours. This was no easy feat, and James has avoided using the unhealthy airline quick fixes like extra salt and sugar, or sprinkling dishes with the synthetic MSG which only masks the true taste of food.
Instead James has used natural flavourings like maple syrup for sweetness and cured meats for that crucial salty sensation. Not only do these ingredients give the all-important umami taste, but they also enhance the other flavours in the dish, creating a menu as mouth-watering as a restaurant in the sky should deliver.
So regardless of what your mouth, nose and ears are doing, our new umami-rich menu means you can sit back comfortably and wave goodbye to the days of bland beef bourguignon and tasteless chicken, and welcome in the future of airline food.