Airline Food and Whine

Kim Egan

Kim Egan, Founder, Saltbox Consulting

My boyfriend and I were recently discussing why it is that wine on an airplane tastes so terrible.  The only perk these days in many first class cabins is a free glass of gawdawful wine.  Just gawdawful.


wineIt turns out that the airplane food and wine taste so terrible because they are being served to you on an airplane. Apparently one’s ability to taste food and wine decreases by 30 percent at altitude.  Cabin pressure suppresses the effect of odor, so you cannot smell what you eat, either.  Moreover, the dry air dries your noise out, so even if odor molecules were as abundant at 10,000 feet as on the ground, your noise would be oblivious.  And most interesting, the din of the airplane engines makes one think the food is bland.   The only explanation I found for that is that brain is distracted by the noise and can’t focus on the food (I think there must be more to it than that).

The effect of sound on food was new to me.  But there is data to back it up.  An airplane’s engines emit 95 decibels, almost as much as a motorcycle (100 decibels).  According to Food Quality and Preference journal, that much noise makes salt taste less salty, but also makes everything seem crunchier.   Hence stewards and stewardesses plying pretzels and sun chips.

The effect of airline travel on food is not uniform.  Tomato juice and tomato sauces tastes better at altitude.  So does ice cream.  Coffee and, as noted earlier, most wines taste worse.  Cream sauces and lemon slices taste abominable.  The data I read offer conflicting reasons for all this.

I think the airline and its route also has an affect.  I had a wonderful vegetarian meal flying business class on United from Dulles to Heathrow.  Sprouts and grains and carrots and other (I now see) especially crunchy things.  And I had possibly the best hot sesame noodles I have ever consumed in my life on a United flight from Chicago to Hong Kong.  Descending through the clouds over the South China Sea with steaming noodles in my business class alcove, warm and cozy under my blanket, was divine.

I’d like to think it was my exquisite sense of taste, and not the altitude.

Kim Egan is the Founder of Saltbox Consulting, a firm that provides legal and compliance advice to entities regulated by FDA and USDA.  She can be reached at and on Twitter at @saltboxlaw.

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