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Plane Food Needn’t Be Plain

25/05/2017 – Trends in Trade / Aviation / Inflight catering / Umami / On Air Dining

Inflight catering is not often the most enjoyable culinary experience, but research shows the problem is a scientific one rather than being related to the quality of the food itself. To combat this, several leading players within the aviation industry are exploring new methods and recipes to enhance passengers’ inflight experience. Fran Roberts learns more.

The loss of humidity and the change in pressure from flying at altitude affects our taste buds by reducing flavour – particularly in the case of salt, which loses 50 per cent of its taste in the sky. One key to increased satisfaction of inflight catering is ‘umami’, the savoury taste often referred to as the fifth taste sense. “It is like a salty effect on the mouth and generates saliva,” explains Daniel Hulme of UK-based On Air Dining – a leading inflight catering company. “Umami basically keeps the flavour of the food as if you were eating on the ground. So we use techniques to extract it from certain products. It is particularly great with sushi.” The effect on the saliva is also key to improving how we experience food, as saliva is very important in the sense of taste. It is the liquid medium in which chemicals are carried to taste receptor cells. According to a 2010 Lufthansa-backed study undertaken by the Munich-based Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, cabin air is about 15 per cent less humid during flight. That makes a passenger feel more dehydrated and dry-mouthed. Therefore, eating something that generates saliva should help with mouth-feel and the enjoyment of the food.


The umami effect is also why many people enjoy a Bloody Mary during a flight when they might normally order something else on land. Tomato juice and Worcestershire sauce are both high in umami. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Lufthansa gets through about 1.8 million litres of tomato juice each year. Intriguingly, as well helping to produce saliva, inflight conditions actually make us crave the sweet-savoury taste, according to findings from Cornell University. “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,” said Robin Dando, Assistant Professor of Food Science. “The multisensory properties of the environment where we consume our food can alter our perception of the foods we eat.” A normal conversation takes place at around 60 decibels, whereas the engines on a jetliner operate at around 85 decibels, in addition to the other sounds generated on an airliner. And the louder the environment, the more the umami taste is enhanced.


Our sense of smell also plays an important part in how food tastes, as anyone with a cold can attest. When flying at 35,000 feet, even if the cabin is pressurised, low humidity can dry out your nose, reducing sensations of taste. To combat the lack of moisture, most meat dishes served at altitude come in a thick sauce. French chef Raymond Oliver is credited with devising this strategy for modern airline food. In 1973, French airline Union de Transports Aériens asked Oliver to design its menu, and he suggested three staple items: beef bourguignon, coq au vin, and veal in a cream sauce. All of these dishes are covered in sauce, which protects the meat from drying out when reheated and served in the bone-dry environment of an airplane cabin. Indeed, the Fraunhofer study recommends that airline caterers put more spice in food to make it more palatable – for this reason, curries tend to survive well – and also to follow the cardinal rule of wetness.


Now that we understand why food tastes different at altitude, many airlines have begun to invest in making their dishes more palatable – at least for first- and business-class passengers. Previous menus at Air France, for instance, have included Basque shrimp and turmeric-scented pasta with lemongrass, as created by multi-Michelin star chef Joël Robuchon. Yet Air France isn’t alone in reaching out to celebrity chefs. Lufthansa collaborates with chefs from the luxury hotel chain Mandarin Oriental to prepare meals for its flights between the United States and Germany. Singapore Airlines, meanwhile, has published a book of inflight recipes from 10 chefs, including Gordon Ramsay. Its business- and first-class passengers can pick their meals from an online menu 24 hours before take-off. With many short-haul flights no longer serving complementary food and many longer-haul carriers taking the new research on board, the days of dry chicken and stodgy pasta at 35,000 feet should hopefully soon come to an end.

Latest issue – Vol 1/23
– Health & Nutrition focus
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