Tomato-haters: You might want to think twice about your beverage choice on your next flight.
Have you ever noticed how some foods taste completely different when you’re on an airplane? If you have, it's not in your head.
There’s some very interesting science behind why certain things—like tomato juice—taste differently at 35,000 feet. In fact, for some, they even taste better. As mentioned in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, studies have proven that those who usually turn their nose up at the idea of drinking tomato juice tend to like it when it’s served sky-high.
Several things factor in to what causes this taste change to happen. Once you step onto a plane, senses like taste and smell begin to dull due to the low humidity, and once you’re thousands of feet in the air, those senses change completely—the sensation is similar to struggling to taste or smell when you have a cold.
Sweet and salty flavors become particularly difficult to detect in the air. You need a functioning sense of smell to properly taste flavor, but when you’re on an airplane, the dry cabin air inhibits our odor receptors causing food to taste a bit blander than what we’re used to. It’s about 30 percent more difficult to detect those sweet and salty tastes, according to a 2010 study from the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics in Germany.
So, because of tomato juice’s earthy flavor at a normal pressure, with cabin pressure it becomes sweeter—fruity, even.
Additionally, tomatoes are rich in flavor known as umami—a taste that is thought of by most as very savory and pleasant. Because umami is unaffected by altitude (and perhaps even enhanced by loud background noise, like a plane engine), this savory flavor becomes more noticeable in tomato juice, thus making it appealing to someone who may not enjoy it on the ground.
Now find out why your ears pop when you’re on an airplane.