If you've been on a plane, they often serve a snack. If you've ever been on an international flight or on first class, you've probably had a meal or two onboard.

You may feel that food tastes different on a plane. Turns out you're not crazy because there are scientific reasons behind why food can taste so different on planes.

Taste Buds and Sense of Smell

Emma Giancarlo

You’re moving at 500 miles per hour in the air. Like the air inside the plane, your body is also pressurized. This directly affects your senses, like smell and taste. You start to lose your sense of smell when you're in that tight space and so high in the sky. Tasting is as much about your nasal passages as it is your taste buds.

As the plane gets higher, the air pressure drops while humidity levels plummet. At about 30,000 feet, humidity is less than 12%, which is drier than most deserts. The combination of dryness and low pressure reduces the sensitivity of your taste buds to sweet and salty foods by around 30%.

Even the noise that jet engines produce can impact your tongue. Loud noise can interfere with our taste preferences, inhibiting our ability to taste sweet and enhancing our appreciation for umami flavors. 

Some airlines have started to take these factors into account and have attempted to improve their meals (mainly for first and business class). It is important to understand the types of flavors that are affected by pressure, dryness, and loud noise on flights.

Flavors That Are Affected

Interestingly, the elevation primarily affects our perception of salty and sweet flavors. Sour, bitter, umami, and spicy flavors are almost unaffected.

Recent research has found that loud noise — specifically the noise in an airplane cabin — can significantly alter our perceptions of taste, making sweet foods less potent and umami flavors more robust.

What Should I Get to Eat and Drink?

tomato, vegetable, cherry tomato, juice
Xufei Huang

Tomatoes are chock-full of umami and have a strong flavor. This is why many flights offer tomato juice as a complimentary beverage option. Unfortunately, complimentary snacks like peanuts and pretzels are on the saltier side. It's better to bring your own.

If you'd like to purchase food at the airport or bring something from home that will have a bit of flavor, go for foods that are spicy or full of umami ingredients such as parmesan cheese, soy sauce, meat, and tuna. 

Food on airplanes actually tastes different for various reasons. You have to stay fueled throughout the flight, so make wise decisions while planning out your meals and snacks. Safe travels!