Gordon Ramsay would never eat airplane food.
“There’s no f–king way I eat on planes,” Ramsay, known for his Michelin-starred restaurants and explosive television personality, told Refinery29 earlier this year. “I worked for airlines for 10 years, so I know where this food’s been and where it goes, and how long it took before it got on board.”
Neither would fellow Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud — unless he was flying in business class.
“On an American flight, if it’s local, I try to avoid any sort of food,” Boulud, who has designed meals for Air France’s business and La Premiere classes for two years, said in an interview. “Sometimes there’s weird food combinations.”
Both Ramsay and Boulud have a point. Meals served on airplanes are hardly gourmet, especially for people who fly economy class on international or long-distance flights. Airplane food has a bad reputation for a number of reasons — the way the food itself is prepared and stored, the environment in which it is served onboard and the flight conditions all combine to affect the way the meals taste. While there’s a little more variety in first or business class — Boulud’s menu for Air France includes lobster, lamb chops and braised chicken — a typical airline meal served in economy class is comprised of food covered in sauce to keep it from drying out. Take, for example, a less-than-satisfying egg sandwich a customer flying on British Airways dubbed “literally pointless.”
“The egg sandwich was totally bland — the only clue to the filling was a slight change in texture,” Jon Burrage, who flew from the United Kingdom to the United Arab Emirates, wrote in a post on Airline Meals, a website that compiles customer-submitted reviews of airplane food. His meal received a 1 rating, out of a possible 10 on the website, which tracks airline meals every day. British Airways said it regularly reviews feedback from customers and crew members.
Prior to takeoff, airlines freeze pre-made meals on the ground and thaw them out while in air, according to Charles Spence, an experimental psychology professor at the University of Oxford. Although planes generally cruise at altitudes of about 40,000 feet, air pressure in cabins is about 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level, making it difficult to prepare fresh meals onboard.
“Meals are prepared in advance, so they are shelf-stable for a number of hours,” Spence said. “Then it’s reheated in less than ideal conditions, which contributes to it not tasting great.”
While airplane food is prepared in a method similar to that of making and delivering fast food, flight attendants have to serve a larger number of people in a smaller amount of time than in fast food establishments, said Guillaume de Syon, a professor at Albright College in Pennsylvania. Because airlines regularly serve hundreds of people at once, they do everything possible to keep the food from drying out. That means typical economy class fare consists of chicken floating in cream sauce, extra gravy for beef or potatoes that are mashed until they are runny.
“Airlines came to understand that by the time you have served 250-plus passengers, the food would either get cold or dry,” said de Syon, whose work focuses on the history of aviation. “The solution? Douse whatever you are serving in a fluid.”
But even when airplane food is made in a way that might taste good before the flight takes off, the combination of dry air, low pressure and loud engine noises in flight cabins heavily impact the passengers’ ability to smell and taste — causing even the best-prepared food to seem slightly off.
The dry air of a flight cabin tends to suppress our sense of smell, which is an important factor in taste. Low air pressure and background noises further impact the way we taste, by repressing the ability to taste sweet and salty foods, according to Spence. For food to taste the same before it is in the air, airline caterers have to add up to 30% more of sugar or salt to a meal.
A 2010 study from the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, commissioned by Lufthansa, found that while the loud noises on aircrafts further suppress the taste of sweet foods, they enhance the flavor of umami — the savory taste found in foods like parmesan cheese and soy sauce. The amped up ability to taste umami explains why tomato juice is a popular beverage choice in the air.
Following the study, Lufthansa began experimenting with the way it seasons food, according to Ernst Derenthal, a product design and area manager for the airline. Adding more seasonings to the food like salt, pepper and sugar helped — to an extent. The airline found that ingredients such as cinnamon, ginger, garlic, chile and curry do not need as much adjustment and maintain the taste of the food, even in the air. Such discoveries prompted Luthansa to rely on naturally intense flavors, such as orange and tomato oils and tomato concentrate to enhance the food the airline served “instead of just increasing the salt and sugar,” according to Derenthal. The airline doubled the amount of fresh herbs used in sauces and lowered the amount of acidity included in salad dressing. Menu modifications affected all of Lufthansa’s flight classes and passengers.
“We try really to meet a wide range of passengers,” Derenthal said. “The food we are designing needs to meet everybody’s taste.”
Other airlines are combatting the reputation of plane food by upping the umami. Much like Lufthansa, Delta Airlines has started incorporating different oils, herbs and bold seasonings to enhance the aroma of its food, said Lisa Bauer, vice president of Delta’s onboarding services. British Airways started introducing more umami-rich items to its menu in 2013, replacing flavorless items like bland cheeses with stronger foods like goat cheese and sundried tomatoes. Earlier this year, Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific announced a new beer brewed with honey and longan berries that is made specifically to taste good while in flight.
Spence said he’s noticed the effort in his own travels. He recently experienced an umami-rich meal on a flight to Bogota, Colombia, via Colombian airline Avianca. when he was served lamb with tomato and mushrooms.
“It was surprisingly good,” he said.