The only unpleasant thing about flying, besides flight delays of course, is when the flight attendant comes and parks the food cart next to you. For years, just the idea of in-flight food used to make me cringe with fear. But going hungry on an 8 hour flight was no easy task - I had to eat not for pleasure but for stamina!
So I would hesitantly browse between the vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals hoping that this time would be better than the last. That got me thinking - Why would airlines willingly serve bad tasting food instead of sourcing better ingredients and closing in on smarter recipes. After talking to a few food experts and some factual digging, the science of it all dawned on me.
At ground level, your taste buds work as well as they were intended to. Salt, spice, bitter and sour taste just how they were meant to. Potato gratin tastes like potato gratin and turkey tastes like turkey. But as you take off, so does your sense of taste.
At 35,000 feet you'll feel queasy and your taste buds feel numb. So if your food tastes bland or unappetizing then it's not the food you should be blaming. Studies show that saltiness and sweetness are tastes we cannot process in a pressurized air cabin. Instead, sour, bitter and spice grow more prominent.
In-flight food needs to be carefully designed - it's first cooked on-ground, parceled, shoved in a blast freezer, transported, re-heated and then served. And all of this is done while making sure that it doesn't spoil along the way.
But despite all the fringes, in-flight food has come a long way - from cold cut sandwiches to grilled fish with cauliflower puree, from a bag of regular chips to peppery cashews and from canned orange juice to tomato juice-based Bloody Mary, in-flight food stands a few feet away from being called delicious.
Umami, a strong savoury taste (also known as the 'fifth basic sense' along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter) was identified by the Japanese and is what put an end to British Airway's unappealing in-flight food.
Dry cabin conditions and high-altitude pressure would exhaust the food of its entire flavor and so in 2013, British Airways brought in the big guns. They worked with celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal to introduce umami-rich dishes, which Blumenthal called the 'umami factor'. He was quoted saying, "you can't up the salt, but you can up the umami'.
British Airways also worked with a popular tea brand to create tea specifically designed to taste good at high altitudes. Besides food and tea, even the wine you drink in-flight could be tricky. Certain wines, especially the fruity ones don't taste as good up-in-the-air as they do on-ground.
Prateek Arora, an Indian wine expert tells us, "Fruity wines are not recommended on-board but this could also be subjective. There's no exact science which decided which wine could work and which couldn't but all wines go through a testing process. They're first sampled on-ground and then under the influence of cabin pressure."
He added, "Some people believe champagne shouldn't be consumed on-board but we've found that vintage champagnes taste particularly good in-flight. Also, tannic wines (the ones that grip your mouth, making it dry) taste mellow at high altitudes making them more suitable for a certain few."
Another important factor which comes into play here is smell. If they smell good together, they'll most likely taste good together.
In-flight food is definitely more difficult to crack, but it also opens the floor for airlines, especially the domestic ones to jump in, innovate, execute and cash-in on the rewards.