There’s nothing quite like that first sip of a drink when you settle down on a flight to your next holiday destination. But choosing which one to opt for is a challenging task. We know how drying airplanes can be, so drinking lots of water is paramount, but how does that drying atmosphere alter your experience of other beverages? Below, we chat with food scientists and nutritionists to uncover what actually happens to your taste buds on a plane – and which drinks taste the best at 38,000 feet.
Does flying affect how you taste?
Plane food has a reputation for being particularly bland, and while some airlines do have a tendency to serve up trays of flavourless meals, the taste of the food itself might have more to do with your own body. Dr Thivi Maruthappu, nutritionist and author of SkinFood, tells us that all of the external factors involved with flying can impact how we experience food and drink. “Cabin pressure and a low humidity environment influence our taste buds, making them less sensitive and as a consequence, food and drink are less flavourful,” she says.
Nutritionist and food writer Joy Skipper agrees. “Flying can have a noticeable effect on our taste buds due to the low humidity, which can drop as low as 10-20 per cent. This dry environment can impact the mucous membranes in our mouths and noses, reducing our ability to taste and smell. The lower air pressure at high altitudes can also affect taste perception – sweet and salty tastes less prominent, whilst bitter, sour and spicy flavours are unaffected,” she tells us.
How does this happen?
“Altitude changes can significantly affect oxygen levels in the body, leading to a decrease in oxygen supply during flights,” wellness expert Marie Reynolds explains. “Normally, when grounded, our red blood cells absorb roughly 27 per cent of the oxygen from the air, which is then distributed throughout the body to support the functioning of our organs. Consequently, a decrease in oxygen can significantly affect the rest of the body when considering how the organs interact with tongue and taste sensations.”
Are there specific flavours that taste better on planes?
Naturally, everyone has different tastes and preferences when it comes to drink. “It varies for each individual, similar to asking what clothing colour is universally suitable for everyone during a flight!” says Marie. However, as flying has such a universal dampening impact on our taste buds, certain flavour profiles have the potential to taste stronger on the palette. And remember that the longer the flight, the more significant the impact of cabin pressure and low humidity on your taste buds. “Drinking earlier in the flight rather than later may provide a better tasting experience – as we dry out, our taste buds become less effective,” Joy tells us.
Ingredients: tomato juice, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, vodka
A Bloody Mary has long been known as the best cocktail to order on a plane. It’s punchy, packed with flavour and can have a spicy hit to tickle your taste buds. “Tomato-based drinks such as a Bloody Mary or Virgin Mary with a big dash of Worcestershire Sauce will provide a great umami kick,” says Joy.
Gin and Tonic
Ingredients: gin, tonic water, lemon slice
“Air pressure affects the sensitivity of taste buds, often diminishing the perception of certain flavours, especially those that are bitter or salty. This effect is connected to the kidney meridian, responsible for regulating the body’s waterways,” Marie explains. “Considering this, drinking a gin and tonic, known for its bitterness, could potentially be one of the preferred choices during a flight. Its bitter taste may be less pronounced in the altered air pressure, effectively overcoming a dulled taste sensation.”
Ingredients: ginger beer, vodka
“A ginger beer-based Moscow Mule may provide a bit of a kick,” says Joy. This fizziness of the ginger beer mixed with the spicy after taste of the ginger could help you taste this drink more so than other more meek options.
Ingredients: Champagne or prosecco, orange juice
This is an easy one to make for yourself and adds to the celebratory mood of travelling. Order a glass of something sparkling (the bubbles should help stimulate your taste buds) and top it up with some zesty orange juice – the acidity of the juice will help with the flavour.
Ingredients: tequila, lime, jalapeños, sugar syrup
This cocktail involves slightly more prep, but it’s worth it. “Make it as spicy as you dare,” says Joy. The kick from the jalapeños should help your taste buds wake up with a hot kick. Obviously, for this one you’ll need to bring some jalapeños with you on the flight (take some out of a jar at home so there’s no liquid for security check) and on the flight, make a quick sugar syrup – ask the cabin crew for some sugar and mix with equal part water until dissolved. Pair it with umami-rich food, too. “Spices and bold flavours, such as curries or salty snacks, can provide a more satisfying eating experience whilst flying,” Joy explains.
Ingredients: vodka, lemon juice, sugar syrup, wasabi paste
Similarly, this one requires some extra effort, but it could seriously “help clear out your nasal passages”, according to Joy. “Spicy flavours, alongside sweet or acidic foods, can taste more pronounced,” Dr Thivi agrees. Wasabi is the trickier ingredient here, but many airports have sushi restaurants or takeaway spots where you can buy sachets or alternatively buy some to keep at home and pack a small dollop of paste into a container in your hand luggage.
Wine is always a good accompaniment with food, particularly when choosing food that could help overcome those muted taste buds. Joy tells us that “if you are trying to choose foods with complex and layered flavours, drinking wine allows for the nuances of these conditions to enhance the drinker’s enjoyment,” in the same way that it does on the ground. “Some airlines offer selected wines that are fruity with low acid and low tannin to allow for the changes that happen to the wines in the air, too,” she expands.
These are the best non-alcoholic drinks to order on a plane
“Since the effect of alcohol is enhanced at high altitudes, be mindful of drinks such as spirits with higher alcohol content,” Dr Thivi warns. “Light beers, wine and lower alcohol cocktails would be more mindful choices. More importantly, make sure to hydrate well to avoid the dehydration linked to alcohol intake. Look for low-alcohol alternatives made with soda water, enhanced with lemon or lime to help improve the flavour in the cabin environment,” she advises.
Marie agrees. “The most beneficial drink to have on a flight is plain water, but if you prefer something more flavourful, you could opt for beetroot juice, known to support the kidneys and improve circulation – a vital function when sitting still for extended periods during a flight,” she says. “Alternatively, bitter Grapefruit Juice can benefit the heart meridian, an essential pathway for the flow of vital energy (Qi) and blood,” plus the bitter taste could taste better than other drinks in mid-flight.
This article originally appeared on Conde Nast Traveller.