Anyone who has eaten airplane food before has probably noticed that it isn’t exactly what you would call a gourmet experience.

The surprising reason why airplane food tastes bad is because your taste buds are less sensitive during a flight, with flying at high altitudes reducing your taste buds’ sensitivity by as much as 30%.

Most people are also less comfortable on flights due to the high noise levels and drier air, so this discomfort can also reduce their enjoyment of airplane food.

Airplane food itself is generally somewhat fresh and completely safe for consumption, though, with airlines cooking meals on the ground 24 hours before they’re intended to be served, which they then reheat and serve to passengers on the flight.

4 Reasons Airplane Food Tastes Bad

1. Drier Air

Planes are pressurized, with the air inside a plane’s cabin being 15% drier than the air on the ground.

The drier air affects your sense of smell and taste.

You’re also more dehydrated and dry-mouthed, so everything tastes worse in the air. 

2. Lower Air Pressure

The lower air pressure in an airplane’s cabin also makes food taste worse.

The low air pressure causes your bodily fluids to move upwards, making your nasal cavities and taste buds swell.

As a result, it’s harder to both taste and smell on a plane. 

3. Higher Noise Levels

Air travel is noisy.

You’ll hear everything from the engines roaring to vibrations from air striking the plane’s hull to loud passengers if you’re unlucky.

Researchers have found that loud noises often make it difficult for people to appreciate sweet flavors. 

4. Airline Food is Cooked Differently

Airplane food has to be mass-produced for a large number of passengers in a short time.

So, the cooks don’t invest much attention into each individual meal.

Instead, the food is cooked in large batches, chilled and stored before being loaded onto a truck that delivers it to the plane where it’s consumed. 

It’s not uncommon for food to deteriorate during this entire process, especially when it’s being heated onboard the plane.

Non-vegetarian food is particularly at risk of becoming dry and tough. 

There Are Ways of Making Airplane Food Taste Better

Many airlines are researching ways to make airplane food more appealing.

One way for you to better enjoy your airplane meal would be to wear comfortable clothes and noise-canceling headphones.

That would reduce the discomfort you’re caused by being on a plane. 

Other than that, airlines have attempted to increase the salt and spice in their food, as doing so improves the taste and compensates for the temporary deterioration of your taste buds when flying.

Another way to enjoy airplane food would be to drink more water, as doing so will prevent you from being dehydrated.

The Food in Business & First Class is Definitely Better

Food in Business and First class is of better quality than in economy class.

Economy class passengers are served food by flight attendants, usually with one or two meal options.

In contrast, Business and First class passengers usually have their own chefs. 

Business and First class passengers usually choose from two to three main meal options, plus additional snacks and desserts.

They’re also provided better quality meals.

The exact quality varies by airline, but many passengers rate Business and First class meals as comparable to restaurant ones. 

Business and First class passengers are still affected by the problems of low pressure and high noise, but their cabins are comparatively more comfortable.

So, they’re more likely to enjoy their meals than economy class passengers. 

Related: Premium Economy vs. Business Class (Differences & Similarities)

Airplane Food is Heated, Not Cooked

Airlines usually receive frozen meals from suppliers for economy class passengers.

The airlines then heat these meals with specialized convection ovens, not microwaves.

It takes 20 minutes to heat the food, after which it’s loaded onto trays and served to passengers. 

Business and First class cabins usually have onboard chefs, though these chefs don’t cook the meals onboard the plane.

Instead, they prepare meals with the same convection ovens used for economy passengers.

The difference is that Business and First class chefs have access to more ingredients and can add some special touches to the food, especially in terms of presentation.

Some airlines offer to cook eggs on board, but that is the closest to freshly cooked meals currently available on airplanes. 

Airplane Food is Actually Pretty Fresh

Airplane food is prepared and frozen within 24 hours before being served.

It’s a common myth that airline food is days old. Instead, airline food is comparatively fresh and can at times even be healthy. 

You Lose 30% of Your Taste Buds During a Flight

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) featured an article that found that the dryness and low pressure of airplanes reduced people’s taste bud sensitivity to sweet and salty foods by 30%. 

You Are Unlikely to Get Sick From Airplane Food

It’s very unlikely that people are more likely to get sick from airplane food.

Airplane food is prepared with the same health and safety regulations as normal food in restaurants.

There are also no studies that support greater chances of food-related illnesses caused by airplane food, either. 

A generally healthy individual is no more likely to get sick from consuming airplane food than they would from eating out at a restaurant.

Airplane Food Can Be Unhealthy

Airplane food is not necessarily unhealthy, depending on your definition.

It’s far from dangerous for you, and it’s unlikely to make you sick.

Occasionally eating airplane food also won’t harm your health. 

The unhealthy aspect of airplane food is that it contains more salt and sugar than regular food to compensate for passengers’ taste buds being affected in-flight.

Airplane food is also often reheated, which means that it likely contains fewer nutrients. 

But, it’s extremely unlikely that airplane food will cause you any health issues.

At most, you may gain weight if you frequently consume airplane food. 

Related: What Foods (and Drinks) to Avoid Before Flying

In conclusion:

  • Airplane food tastes bad because your taste buds are affected when flying, with the drier air, low cabin pressure, and high noise levels preventing you from tasting food as you normally do.
  • You lose taste sensitivity to sweet and salty foods by as much as 30% once in the air.
  • Airplane food is also often reheated, so it’s lower in vitamins and minerals.
  • That being said, airplane food is perfectly fresh and okay to consume.
  • Airplane food contains more sugar and salt than regular food, which may result in weight gain if consumed frequently.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).