Air travel affects our sense of taste through changes in altitude, cabin pressure, and humidity levels. Reduced pressure and low humidity can make food and drinks seem less flavourful, while umami flavours can become more pronounced. Furthermore, a diminished sense of smell dampens the overall taste experience. Airlines adjust their menus to compensate for these changes, offering more flavourful options.
Air travel has revolutionized the way we explore the world, allowing us to reach distant destinations in a matter of hours. Amidst the excitement and convenience of flying, it is fascinating to explore the lesser-known aspect of how air travel affects our sense of taste.
The science behind taste reveals that flying at high altitudes can significantly alter our palate and the way we perceive flavours. In this article, we will delve deeper into the intricate mechanisms that shape our taste buds during air travel and explore the various factors that contribute to this phenomenon.
Altitude and Cabin Pressure:
One of the primary factors influencing our sense of taste during air travel is the change in altitude. As the aircraft ascends, the cabin pressure decreases, resulting in a lower atmospheric pressure inside the cabin.
This reduction in pressure affects the taste receptors on our tongue, making flavours seem different than they would on the ground. The lower pressure can dull our taste perception, making foods taste less flavourful and vibrant.
Humidity Levels and Dehydration:
Low humidity levels inside the aircraft cabin also play a crucial role in altering our taste experience. As the plane climbs to higher altitudes, the humidity decreases, leading to dry cabin air. This dryness affects our bodies' hydration levels and, consequently, our ability to taste.
Dehydration is a common side effect of air travel due to the low humidity and dry air, which can result in reduced saliva production. The lack of saliva impairs the dissolution of food chemicals, making it more challenging to taste and enjoy the flavours fully.
Impacts on Sweetness Perception:
Air travel can significantly influence our perception of sweetness. The combination of reduced humidity and low cabin pressure can make sweet foods and beverages seem less sugary. Our taste buds rely on moisture in our mouths to detect and transmit the signals of sweetness to our brain. Without adequate moisture, the perception of sweetness is diminished, resulting in a muted taste experience. This is why foods that are typically enjoyable and sweet may seem less satisfying during a flight.
While sweetness may be dampened, the taste sensation of umami can become more pronounced during air travel. Umami, often described as savoury or meaty, is the fifth taste that complements sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.
The dry cabin air and decreased atmospheric pressure can enhance the perception of umami flavours, making foods rich in naturally occurring glutamates taste more intense and satisfying. Ingredients such as tomatoes, mushrooms, aged cheeses, and soy-based products can exhibit a heightened umami taste at high altitudes.
Impact on Smell and Aromas:
Our sense of smell is intricately connected to our perception of taste. The dry cabin air during air travel can cause nasal congestion and dry nasal passages, reducing our ability to detect aromas effectively. Since taste and smell work together to create the overall flavour experience, a diminished sense of smell can lead to a dulled taste sensation. Even foods that are typically flavourful may seem less appealing and enjoyable when our sense of smell is compromised.
Culinary Adjustments and Food Choices:
Airlines are aware of the impact of air travel on taste perception and often make adjustments to their in-flight menus accordingly. To counteract the diminished taste experience, airlines may include foods that are rich in flavour, such as dishes with spices or umami elements.
These flavour profiles aim to compensate for the dulled taste buds and provide a more enjoyable dining experience at altitude. Similarly, beverage choices may lean towards sweeter options, as the reduced perception of sweetness may prompt passengers to gravitate towards drinks with a more pronounced sugary taste, such as tomato juice or soft drinks.
Air travel has undoubtedly transformed our ability to explore the world, but it also affects our sense of taste in remarkable ways. The combination of altitude, cabin pressure, humidity levels, and the interplay between taste and smell significantly impact our perception of flavours during flights.
Understanding the science behind taste during air travel can help us appreciate the efforts made by airlines to provide enjoyable culinary experiences despite the challenging conditions. So, the next time you embark on a journey, take a moment to savour your in-flight meal, knowing that the science behind taste is at work, shaping your palate at 30,000 feet in the air.