“What’s the deal with airline food?” The question may be a comedy cliché, but it struck a chord in the ‘90s when people did indeed begin to note how bad food seemed when flying. Airlines have made real efforts to increase the appeal of their catering, but they might be fighting a losing battle, according to scientists.
Have you ever found that food on a plane just tastes bland, causing you to resort to unhealthier options full of flavor enhancers like salt, sugar and fat? It can be tempting to abandon healthy options, but there are a few ways to make the most of plane food without sacrificing nutrition.
Food and Flavour at 30,000 Feet
German airline Lufthansa AG has been an industry leader in airline food, investing in a number of scientific studies aimed at figuring out the reasons behind the unappealing nature of plane food and how to make it more appetizing. Working with scientists from Denmark’s Fraunhofer Institute, they discovered that foods actually taste different at altitude.
“In the air, food and drink tastes as it does when we have a cold,” says taste scientist Dr. Andrea Burdack-Freitag. The psychological effects of being in a confined space, coupled with the low pressure of the cabin tend to dull our senses, including our ability to taste. Food seems bland on a plane because our perception has changed. This creates a tendency to compensate by choosing foods loaded with sugar, salt and fat but this isn’t a good idea as Fraunhofer researches have revealed that our ability to taste sugar is reduced by 15-20 percent, and salt loses its intensity by 20-30 percent.
Dr. Amit Sethi, Medical Director at Bupa suggests that passengers, “Avoid main courses that are drowned in sauce as they are often loaded with butter or sugar. Pick a dish that has good amounts of protein and vegetables.” As well as being unhealthy, it’s unlikely that these dishes will satisfy your taste buds anyway. So should you eat on a plane?
The Power of Umami
Most of us are familiar with the basic four flavours sweet, salty, sour and bitter, but the Japanese have been long-time proponents of the fifth flavor of “umami.” Umami is essentially the taste of satisfaction, having a savoury or “meaty” flavor. Not actually limited to meat, it comes from substances in certain foods called glutamates, which are not processed through the normal taste receptors. Because they’re perceived through a different type of receptors, foods rich in umami don’t suffer the same loss of intensity as other flavours.
Umami rich foods, far from losing their taste, can actually taste better in the air. Tomatoes in particular tend to shine on a plane, providing “a harmonious taste experience” according to Dr. Andrea Burdack-Freitag. Indeed, it was the extraordinary popularity of passengers ordering tomato beverages that caused Lufthansa to begin their food research. They serve 1.8 million liters of tomato juice to passengers per year, the same quantity as beer!
Caterers including the celebrity chef and food science advocate Heston Blumenthal are investigating opportunities to cut unhealthy flavor enhancers and replace excess salt and fat with umami ingredients. So what are the best foods when travelling on a plane? Look out for these umami foods for maximum flavor when flying:
- Soy sauce
- Parmesan cheese
- Green tea
Avoiding Gastrointestinal Discomfort
Intestinal discomfort is a common and unfortunate aliment on long-haul flights, since the low pressure cabin environment causes gases to expand. Certain foods can be hard to digest, creating uncomfortable gas and bloating, which is especially awkward in the crowded, enclosed plane environment. Since you’ll be sitting for a long period of time, you body won’t be able to eliminate the gases that it usually gets rid of as you simply walk around. To prevent digestive issues, avoid gas producing foods like carbonated drinks and beers, as well as fatty or starchy foods, which take a long time to digest. “Watch out for white bread, white rice, and pasta, as these could leave you feeling bloated afterwards,” warns Dr. Sethi.
Beans and cruciferous vegetables including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts should be avoided. Choose vegetables which are easier to digest, like carrots and mushrooms (which, luckily, are also high in umami).
The other major problem associated with flying is dehydration. Moisture content in a plane cabin is very low, only around 10-20 percent, which can really cause you to feel dried out. Drinks commonly offered on board, such as tea, coffee, beer wine spirits, will not only taste less intense, but will also dehydrate you even more.
Instead, try non-caffeinated herbal teas or just plain old water. They’ll keep you feeling less exhausted and irritable overall, but herbal teas like peppermint can also be soothing to the stomach and aid digestion. Snacking of fruit is also a good way to keep hydrated, so don’t dismiss that little dish of fruit salad you get with your desert!
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