It's a question every traveler has asked themselves at some point: Why does airplane food taste so bad? No matter what it is—fish, chicken, even pasta—every meal served in the air seems to taste undeniably worse than its on-the-ground counterpart. To get to the bottom of this dilemma, we consulted Grant Mickels, the executive chef for culinary development of Lufthansa's LSG Sky Chefs—who had some surprising revelations. Namely: That the food's not really the problem here.
"At 35,000 feet, the first thing that goes is your sense of taste," explained Mickels. He explained that the quality of the food and its ingredients isn't to blame, it's the way you experience it. It's even been tested: The Fraunhofer Institute, a research organization based in Germany, did a study on why a dish that would be delicious in a fine dining restaurant could be, as Mickels put it, "so dull in the air." In a mock aircraft cabin, researchers tried out ingredients at both sea level and in a pressurized condition—and the differences in taste were startling.
The tests revealed that the cabin atmosphere—pressurized at 8,000 feet—combined with the cool, dry cabin air "makes your taste buds go numb, almost as if you had a cold," explained Mickels. In fact, our perception of saltiness and sweetness drops by around 30 percent at high altitude. It also doesn't help that the decreased humidity in the cabin dries out your nose and dulls the olfactory sensors essential for tasting the flavor of an ingredient or dish.
Though your muted taste buds are the main reason behind your unpalatable airline food, its journey from the catering kitchen to your plate admittedly doesn't help, according to Harold McGee, a scientist and the author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. After the food is prepared, it's chilled and stored until it's time to load it onto a truck and, finally, onto the plane where it's served to passengers—which could be hours later. "When food gets warmed up to room temperature or above, it starts to deteriorate, and once it crosses a threshold—160 degrees for meat, 140 degrees for fish—it is going to be dry and tough, no matter what you do," McGee explained when I interviewed him for an article on celebrity chefs a few years ago.
Still, don't write off airline food yet—Lufthansa and Mickel are doing something to fix it. Read about it here.
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