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airline meal airplane food air travelAirline meals have a well-deserved reputation for being mediocre and bland (that is, of course, when the airlines bother to feed us at all). But instead of blaming high altitude, dry air or cheap ingredients, researchers are now offering a new explanation for why that rubbery chicken on your transatlantic flight is so lousy: engine noise.

A recent study conducted by Unilever and the University of Manchester shows that the more background noise you hear while you’re eating, the less able you are to distinguish salty or sweet flavors, reports ABC News. In the study, participants were blindfolded and asked to eat various foods while listening to different levels of white noise (or no noise at all). Participants who heard higher volumes of noise noticed less intense sweet and salty flavors, and were more sensitive to how crunchy their food was.

According to the researchers, it’s not just the volume of noise that matters but also your feelings about it. If you like the sounds you’re hearing, even if they’re loud (such as music and chatter in a trendy restaurant), you’re more likely to enjoy your meal. But in the air, the constant noisy whine of the plane’s engines could make your dinner significantly less palatable. Add to that the fact that airline food rarely looks all that appetizing either, and it’s no wonder most of us are scowling into our trays.

So what’s an air traveler to do? Andy Woods, one of the researchers who contributed to the study, recommends wearing noise-canceling headphones as a way to overcome the effects of engine noise. Bon appetit!

–written by Sarah Schlichter

7 Responses to “Why Airline Food Stinks: A Scientific Explanation”

  1. Pemberton says:

    The smell of airplane food is the worst part about it. Can anyone explain to me why all airplane food — no matter on what airline it’s served or what kind of food it is — smells exactly the same?

    I’ve never flown first class, so perhaps this is the exception. Does the food served to the gods in first class have the same “airplane food” odor as the food served to us mere mortals in economy?

  2. Dillon says:

    Pemberton There are only about three companies in the US that do all of the catering for airlines. So when you fly CO JFK to LAX and the flight attendant asks “chicken or beef” take the chicken. And when you make the connection on AA to HNL, you might as well have the beef, because the chicken is the same.

  3. Stanley says:

    The comment about engine noise & vibration affecting food taste and aroma is nonsense. We recently flew first class on Cathay Pacific from HongKong to San Francisco, a very long flight. The food, several meals and snacks, was outstanding in every way, comparable to a fine restaurant. We have flown Cathay Pacific previously, and the difference between economy and first class food was obvious. I have a friend who works at one of the major airline food providers at San Francisco International Airport, who recently confirmed the similarity of food for different airlines. She detailed that the airlines decide what each will pay per meal per passenger, and select exactly what will be served. She confirmed that food quality & choice exactly follows price, hence the similarity of the tasteless junk we are offered. She said the food from foreign airlines on international flights from NYC, LAX, SFO is better because they pay more.

  4. My opinion for travelling a lot to Europe, is that I am not a Drinker but I do enjoy a Glass of wine before dinner and a small meal to complement evrything.

    I am fine with what is happening right now on flight, I love to fly, so it is great! Kudoz to good airlines.

  5. Jeff in DCA says:

    There is a gigantic difference between 1st/business class, and economy on US-based airlines. Having flown Continental from the US to Tokyo in biz many times over the past 8 years, I can tell you I look tremendously forward to the excellent meals they serve. The same is true on the other intl long haul routes; NY to Hong Kong, Houston-Brasil, NY-Paris. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed by the food in BF on Continental (now United) in over 8 years. I have had some truly outstanding food in Intl first on Air France (with wines that outperform a fine US restaurant’s wine list). Turkish Airlines’ economy plus product (JFK-IST) served amazing food; they are so sure their food rocks that they make it part of their marketing pitch – and with good reason. Even economy food service on South African Airways is decent, better than US carriers’ economy food. No, the REAL reason US airlines serve crappy food in back is because the large majority of Americans do not appreciate good food. We do not have a food culture here like that in Europe, or Japan, Asia, South America, or even South Africa. In the US, industrial-scale food is mass-produced at lowest cost, which necessarily uses cheaper or synthetic ingredients, all of which sacrifices taste for the bare minimum of palatability. (One example: compare a tomato grown in your garden to one grown for transport and display at the store. that store tomato is bred specifically for long shelf life and durable skin. to do that, they bred out things like sugar and water content. result: red cardboard.) Many Americans – and let me be clear that I am one and am proud to be one – really can’t appreciate fine food because, sadly, they’ve never really had it. I am heartened by a growing number of people who are demanding better quality food at restaurants – and by the restaurateurs who are providing it. Lets hope that move makes it onboard our airlines’ economy food service. Meanwhile, fly in front if you want good food. (And always skip the steak onboard; steak can’t be properly cooked in the ovens they have onboard, so you’ll only be disappointed.)

  6. Chuck says:

    Back when airlines served hot food in domestic coach, I thought AA’s food was reasonably good. Its pasta dishes were certainly better than pasta dishes at the Olive Garden and other Italian restaurant chains.

    Back when AA used to serve roast beef in domestic first class, I also thought it was reasonably good. I’ve been to conventions and wedding receptions where the beef dry, tough, and not at all seasoned.

    Part of AA’s current rotation of first class meals is a cheeseburger. Considering that it’s partly cooked, chilled, and reheated, I think it’s pretty good, especially with the array of toppings that come on the side. Granted, it isn’t In-N-Out, but it’s far better than some of the dried-out, chewy burgers I’ve gotten at fast-food and casual dining restaurants.

    But, I don’t get the enigne noise study. If that study is true, then wouldn’t food have less taste at very noisy restaurants with Muzak, when compared to very quiet restaurants?

    My understanding is that because of the mass production of meals and the lack of choices, airline food isn’t overly seasoned, lest someone thinks the food is too spicy. If an airline meal included chilli, it has to be bland, becasue there are people who don’t even like 2-alarm chilli, let alone 5-alarm.

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