Tomatoes On a Plane

Julia Bainbridge
·Food Editor

Photo credit: © StockFood / Foodcollection

“Wait, you only order tomato juice on planes? No way! I only order tomato juice on planes!” 

So went a recent conversation with friends. Is it just us? No: Researcher and professor of experimental psychology at Oxford Charles Spence thinks it’s all about umami.

“Your ability to taste can be surpassed by very loud background noise,” (which an airplane cabin on the move certainly possesses), he told Slate in a podcast last week. “That background noise has no effect on umami taste, while it does with sweet and salt.” And that’s why so many people tend to order umami-heavy tomato juice when flying: “It’s rich in tomato, and the umami hangs around in the mouth much longer than other taste,” said Spence.

In his study on the subject, which he wrote about in Flavour Journal, Spence noted that “some carriers, such as Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, have even built specialized testing facilities in order to mimic the conditions of the average passenger without anyone having to leave the ground, all with the aim of making their food taste better in the air.” And he suggested that they load umami-heavy ingredients onto the plate, including mushrooms, beef, and Parmesan cheese.

Singapore Airlines spokesman­ James Bradbury-Boyd clued us into an additional reality of the in-flight environment that effects the dining experience: humidity. “It’s very dry, with just 10 to 15 percent humidity,” he said. “A big component of taste is smell, and when you’re in an environment that’s that dry, there is a negative effect on mucous membranes. You’re not able to smell food as well as you would on the ground.” 

This, said Bradbury-Boyd, is one of the reasons why garlic bread is such a hugely popular dinner item with Singapore airline customers: Its scent is strong enough to overcome these environmental challenges. “It fills the cabin with a nice aroma. Before the dish even arrives, you’re starting to have that sensory experience.” Instant noodles are also a favorite. 

So while we all think airline food is horrible because, well, the results of cooking and freezing and warming chicken cutlets in mediocre ovens arekinda horrible, it’s also because cabin conditions bar our sensual enjoyment of food.

Airliners are devoting hefty resources to the research and development of tasty, umami-heavy meals, but in the meantime, we’ve figured out the tomato juice thing. In the conclusion to his study, Spence writes: “Perhaps all those travelers [sic] who order a Bloody Mary after the seatbelt sign has been turned off have figured out intuitively what scientists are only now slowly coming to recognize empirically, regarding the interaction between what we hear and what we taste.” 

Good job, humans.