Why does tomato juice taste so much better on a plane?

There are two occasions when I will reliably order tomato juice: if I’m hungover or if I’m on a plane. Regarding the latter, I am not the only one.

In May 2018, United Airlines announced that it would “streamline” its inflight catering service on flights under four hours. Excluding coast-to-coast transcontinental flights, the move would have encompassed “virtually all flights” the airline operated domestically.

According to CNBC, hot breakfasts would be replaced with fruit plates and muffins, while “heavier lunches” were “replaced with wraps and chocolate slabs.” Changes have also been made to the drinks menu. While some of the moves were pretty insignificant (I don’t think anyone was really mourning the loss of Sprite Zero from the beverage cart), one loss seemed to hit Travelers particularly hard.

The announcement that United would remove tomato juice from its menu sparked an outcry among customers and staff. At the time, an anonymous flight attendant told CNBC, “We are once again in full apology mode on board our flights, although the issue is more minor compared to forcibly removing customers or suffocating passengers. dogs.”

Within a month, United Airlines announced that it had made a mistake.

“We want our customers to know we value them and listen to them,” United said in a statement to USA Today. “Our customers have told us they weren’t happy with the removal of tomato juice, so we’re bringing it back on board as part of our free drink offer.”

But what gives the in-flight popularity of tomato juice? According to researchers from the Fraunhofer Society, a German research institute, it has to do with how altitude and air travel enhance or diminish our relative senses. A study was initiated by the management of the German airline Lufthansa, who realized that they were serving about 53,000 gallons of tomato juice per year compared to 59,000 gallons of beer.

The researchers set up an experiment in which they divided the taste testers into two groups. One group tasted tomato juice samples in a sterile test environment, while the other was placed in a flight simulator. Those in the flight simulator consistently rated the tomato juice as tasting better than those in the control group.


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“We learned that the tomato juice on the ground floor is rather – I’m not saying musty, but it tastes earthy, it doesn’t taste too fresh,” said Ernst Derenthal, director of the Lufthansa catering, at the NBC subsidiary in Philadelphia. “However, as soon as you have it at 30,000 feet, tomato juice shows, let’s say, its best side. It shows more acidity, it tastes mineral, and it’s very refreshing.”

why is this the case? Researchers have identified a few reasons. First, cabin pressure is low when flying at altitude. Your blood receives less oxygen, which means that the receptors responsible for detecting taste and smell are less sensitive. The low humidity in the cabins – most airlines keep it at 10-15% humidity – only exacerbates these changes in your senses.

The result is a bit like having a cold or a sinus infection. You can only taste the big notes of certain foods, like the acidity and saltiness of tomato juice. Additional research, which has been featured in Flavor Journal, suggests that umami, the “salty” or “meaty” taste found in foods like tomatoes and soy, may actually be increased by cabin conditions, which would further explain why tomato juice is particularly valuable. in the air.

So, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s been enough outrage over United’s decision to withdraw the drink the airline has ultimately tweeted this excuse: “You say tomato. We say, we hear you. Tomato juice is here to stay.”

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