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Well, That’s One Way To Make Airline Food Taste Better

In recent years, a number of airlines have made a push for giving better food to their passengers. Qatar hired world renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa to prepare their inflight menu and Delta hired restaurateur Danny Meyer to develop better meals. Check out this list by Thrillist on Airlines That Actually Serve Good Food.

Well, that’s one way to make airline food taste better

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But it's not just the environment inside the cabin that's affecting your senses. The noise coming from the engine isn't helping either. A 2010 study tested people's sense of taste both inside and outside a simulated plane cabin. The researchers found sensitivity to sweet and salty food was reduced by 30% while in the cabin.

And that weakened sense of taste can cause a lot of problems for airline caterers, who have to modify every recipe to account for it. To top it off, not every flavor is affected equally. Some ingredients, like curry and lemongrass, actually become more intense in the sky, while cinnamon, ginger, and garlic tend to maintain their taste. Some airlines will use naturally intense flavors, like certain fruit and vegetable oils and concentrates, which helps to lessen the amount of extra salt a recipe might need.

Have you ever noticed how many people ask for a Bloody Mary or tomato juice from the drinks trolley on airplanes? The air stewards have, and when you ask the people who order, they will tell you that they rarely order such a drink at any other time. Could it be that umami-rich tomato provides one of the only basic tastes that is relatively unaffected by the loud background noise that one is exposed to while in flight? That is the research suggestion, or hypothesis, outlined in this opinion piece. Should such a claim be validated by future research, the potential application for airline catering could be huge.

Of course, anything we can do to gain a better understanding about why most food tastes less than wonderful in the plane has to be welcome (see [14] for some of the earliest research on this topic). Indeed, some carriers, such as Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, have even built specialized testing facilities in order to mimic the conditions of the average passenger without anyone having to leave the ground [8], all with the aim of making their food taste better in the air.

Proactive airlines are now hiring sommeliers and wine experts to taste test wines for their in-flight menus and are working on using the aforementioned factors to their advantage. If your customers are missing 30% of their sense of taste, why not serve wines that cater to this phenomenon?

It turns out it's tough to make food that tastes good at 35,000 feet. The decreased humidity in the cabin dries out your nose, and the increased cabin pressure numbs taste buds. So what's an airline chef to do? Chef Clifton Lyles of Alaska Airlines wants to change the perception of airline food.

Tiny bags of pretzels followed by some kind of rubber mystery meat - for those who fly, you know exactly what I'm talking about: the joys of airplane food. Well, some airlines are now trying to shake things up. They're showcasing some new cuisine in hopes of luring more passengers. But producing food that actually tastes great at cruising altitude is not easy, as NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Every month, managers at Alaska Airlines gather at their catering company's giant kitchen to taste and critique new menu items. Forty-one-year-old Clifton Lyles is ready for them. He's the airline's corporate chef, responsible for creating lovely-to-look-at, wonderful-tasting food that can be served in a flying tube at 35,000 feet.

LYLES: You have to use your eyes. You have to use your nose. You have to use your ears. Every other sense that I can involve in the meal itself in order to translate what it is that you're missing by your sense of taste is what makes it successful. If I was to just go by, OK, it's 20-30 percent less flavor, I'll add 20-30 percent more, it's not going to work.

We've all been there: It's the beginning of a long-haul international flight, you're settling in with your noise-canceling headphones, fully loaded Kindle and complimentary plastic cup of wine just before meal service is about to start. You're mulling over the choices on the in-flight meal menu: meat and potatoes or cheese ravioli? With the reputation that airline food has, this may be one of the most difficult decisions of your entire vacation.

Fret no more. We've rounded up our tips for hacking your airline meals to make them more flavorful, learning how to choose the best in-flight food options, or what to pack in your carry-on so that you can turn your tray table into a prep table.

Sometimes, dietary restrictions or a constant need to be snacking means that airline food and odd meal times don't sync with your dining habits. This is when you'll need to rely more heavily on planning ahead.

If you're not very good at planning ahead or can't spare any liquid ounces for some Tapatío, go for saucy dishes rather than big cuts of meat when the meal cart rolls around. Food tends to dry out in the air because of the lack of humidity, but saucy dishes like pasta or curries will maintain some integrity after the cooking, freezing and reheating process. When it comes to what tastes better, choosing meals that tap into your umami flavor receptors like mushrooms, tomatoes or soy sauce will be more enjoyable than their simpler counterparts.

If you've got the cash to spare, you can hack your airline meal by choosing an airline that pays more attention to the food it serves like Singapore Airlines or Air France. If those airlines don't fly to your destination, some offer reasonable upgrades for better food or access to airport lounges that offer fresh fruit and name brand snacks before boarding.

While airplane food is prepared in a method similar to that of making and delivering fast food, flight attendants have to serve a larger number of people in a smaller amount of time than in fast food establishments, said Guillaume de Syon, a professor at Albright College in Pennsylvania. Because airlines regularly serve hundreds of people at once, they do everything possible to keep the food from drying out. That means typical economy class fare consists of chicken floating in cream sauce, extra gravy for beef or potatoes that are mashed until they are runny.

The dry air of a flight cabin tends to suppress our sense of smell, which is an important factor in taste. Low air pressure and background noises further impact the way we taste, by repressing the ability to taste sweet and salty foods, according to Spence. For food to taste the same before it is in the air, airline caterers have to add up to 30% more of sugar or salt to a meal.

Perhaps a more surprising thing that affects the taste of airplane food is the loud engine noise. There have been multiple studies that have demonstrated that the loud noise makes sweet tastes less so and savory tastes more so. The loud noise also makes food less crunchy.

Our study confirmed that in an environment of loud noise, our sense of taste is compromised. Interestingly, this was specific to sweet and umami tastes, with sweet taste inhibited and umami taste significantly enhanced. The multisensory properties of the environment where we consume our food can alter our perception of the foods we eat.

Scene 1: You've measured the ingredients for your vegetable soup, and put them in a pre-made broth to cook. After adding all the herbs and spices, and salt and pepper, you taste the soup and realize that the broth was already quite salty. Now your soup is salty enough to make you run for running water. How can you take the salty edge off?

The reverse of this is also true: Bitter, sour, and salty tastes can lower the intensity of sugar. Keep this relationship in mind when checking the labels on processed foods: Sugar and salt are often used to cover less pleasant flavors that arise when food is processed. Processed foods often contain much more sugar and salt than your palate can detect, and often more than is necessary to balance flavors.

C. Ah, the richness! While fats themselves don’t have a taste, anyone who savors a good cheesecake knows how important fat is to making food enjoyable. Fat won't actually reduce the amount of salt in your soup, but it will coat the tongues of your guests and block some salt from reaching their taste buds. There's another approach that might also be effective. Try the other answers to see what it is, or move on to the next question.

Scene 2: Endive is a rather bitter green, and this batch you bought is particularly memorable in that regard. You'd like to tone it down so you don't frighten off your dinner guests, who have never eaten it before. How can you prepare it to make it taste best?

A. You're onto something here. Warm temperatures hide bitter tastes. That’s one reason why cold coffee tastes so unbearable. Above about 86 F (30 C), your perception of taste decreases. In order for something to feel warm in your mouth, it has to be above body temperature, which is 98 F (32 C). So if you serve the salad warm, you'll hide some of the bitterness. Many of the compounds that make your endive bitter are also easily altered or destroyed with a little heat. In fact, some chefs actually grill endive with a little sugar, You don't want to cook it too much, or you'll cook the distinctive flavor right out of it. But a bit of warming might go a long way to making it more palatable. As an added bonus, the warmth will help bring out sweet flavors in the leaves to counteract the bitterness. There's another approach that would also be effective. Try the other answers to see what it is, or move on to the next question.

B. It's not just your imagination that the food you eat on airplanes doesn't taste as good as the food you eat in your kitchen. Altitude and the cabin environment do have an effect on how your food tastes. Try another answer to learn why.


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