Frequent flyer: the science behind in-flight meals

Malaysia-based airline AirAsia has opened a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur that sells its in-flight meals. But why does food often taste so different in the skies?

Saturday, February 15, 2020,
By David Whitley

When were in-flight meals first served?
Sandwiches or fruit were the options offered 101 years ago for the first ever in-flight meal, which was served on a Handley Page Transport London to Paris flight.
Dining in the skies has changed since 1919 and, although the reputation of in-flight meals varies, things have improved. So much so, that after noting positive conversations on social media about their in-flight meals, airline AirAsia has successfully opened a fast food restaurant — Santan.

Why can they taste so bad?
The human ability to taste is significantly reduced at altitude — studies reckon our perception of saltiness and sweetness are 30% lower. Cabin conditions play a part too — the pressurisation and lack of humidity leads to nasal passages drying up, so everyone’s effectively eating with a minor cold. Even noise plays a part — in a loud cabin, biting into crunchy food doesn’t provide the same aural satisfaction.

Why all the sauce?
In-flight meals tend to skew towards curries, stews and anything else slathered in sauce. That’s due to the dehydration factor, both for the food and the people eating it. Reheat chicken while inside a dry cabin, and it’s going to come out devoid of moisture and tenderness, unless it’s covered in something wet.
It’s partly a flavouring thing, too. When the taste buds and olfactory system aren’t working quite as well, being able to bung extra seasoning in or ramp up the salt can be the difference between bleakly bland and tasting pretty good.

Which foods don’t work?
There’s a reason bread rolls are usually served straight out of the oven — bread goes stale very quickly in-flight. You’re also much more likely to get rice than chips, as fried food is hard to stop from going grimly soggy. Fattier cuts of meat are usually used, too, as they’re more moist and tender to the dehydrated mouth.
Some wines don’t work as well, either. Earthier, tannin-heavy wines can taste like dirt in the air, whereas more aromatic varietals and fruitier, sweeter types like Rieslings and Shirazes work much better with the sky high palate.

Are meals cooked on board?
No — due to time, space and safety. They’re designed and made in often vast factories near the airport. Singapore Airlines’ facility in Singapore has around 1,200 chefs and 19 kitchens producing more than 80,000 items a day. It even has a simulated cabin to replicate the pressurisation for tasting when experimenting with new recipes.
The aim is to keep things as fresh as possible, so meals are cooked and cooled on the ground as close to departure as possible, then wheeled on board and heated up in the galley ovens. Cabin crew then follow instructions on how to serve the various dishes.

What if I have special dietary requirements?
Most airlines are very accommodating. British Airways, for example, offers 14 different special meals, including those compliant with Hindu, Jain, Jewish and Muslim religious beliefs, plus low-calorie, gluten-free, diabetic-friendly, low-fat, low-salt and low-lactose options. Not all are automatically carried on board, so ask in advance.

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Published in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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