Why do you only drink tomato juice on airplanes?

Jul 21, 2015, 6:06 PM | Updated: Jul 22, 2015, 10:26 am
Researchers from around the world have considered why tomato juice tastes differently at 35,000 fee...
Researchers from around the world have considered why tomato juice tastes differently at 35,000 feet. (Photo by Pedro Fernandes, CC Images)
(Photo by Pedro Fernandes, CC Images)

Many of you order tomato juice when you fly. Something you probably rarely, if ever, drink on the ground. So why do you choose to drink it at 35,000 feet?

According to researchers from around the world, there are a few reasons.

Argument 1: Tomato juice tastes better in flight. Or at least different, according to Charles Spence, a professor at Oxford University who has spent the past 13 years studying the relationship between food and sound. He says the airplane’s engine noise can influence the way you taste food and beverages.

“It seems to suppress people’s ability to taste sweet and saltiness. But, if anything, it actually enhances your ability to taste umami.”

Argument 2: Umami, the fifth taste.

What is “umami?”

“[It] is this meaty, proteiny type flavor that the Japanese came up with,” explains Adam Drewnowski, director of the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington.

“Tomatoes [have umami], absolutely. But also Parmesan, also ham and seafood and shrimp,” he said. “So when you get on a plane, I notice that a lot of the foods really pack umami wallop. Cheese ravioli with mushrooms, you have asparagus, you have shellfish. Unless, of course, you’re flying economy, then you have none of those!”

Which brings us to argument three.

Argument 3:

“This is the only non-sweet option available on planes,” Drewnowski said. “If you look at sodas &#8212 sweet. If you look at juices &#8212 sweet. Thirty grams of sugar.”

“So tomato juice is the only savory, non-sweet option available,” he said. “And its more of a meal. It’s more satisfying, it’s kind of thicker. The calories are much lower than they would be for a soda.”

The history of the flying tomato

Let’s add in a historical element before getting to argument four.

Albright College history professor, Guillaume de Syon, says airlines started carrying tomato juice to make Bloody Marys.

“It was one way, for example, for passengers who wish to drink something a little bit stronger to not sort of embarrass their fellow passengers,” de Syon said. “They could order a Bloody Mary instead of straight vodka.”

Tomato juice: the way to secretly drink booze in the morning!

Lufthansa Airlines serves almost as much tomato juice as it serves beer. And that is an earth shattering statistic for a German airline. Determined to unravel the tomato juice mystery, the airline launched a study. First they served people tomato juice on the ground.

“These people were kind of talking, ‘A bit boring, tomato. It’s a bit earthy. It tastes almost a bit moldy,'”
said Ernst Derenthal, Lufthansa’s product manager of in-flight service.

“Then we took the same group of people and served the same brands of tomato juice and put them in a low pressure environment under flight conditions,” he said. “We learned that the same group of people suddenly gave totally different statements like, ‘It’s fresh. It has a nice acidity. It is refreshing.'”

Argument 4: Derenthal says it could be the lower pressure or the dryer air that changes the taste buds.

“We have asked people also, ‘Would any one of you have tomato juice at home?’ And people would usually say, ‘No.,'” Derenthal said. “And we would ask them, ‘Would you drink it on the flight?’ And they’d say, ‘Yes.’ Almost collectively. But would not have an explanation why they do not have this habit at home.”

Lufthansa has also concluded that certain wines and foods taste better or worse in flight. Meanwhile, Professor Spence says he may have a solution for making everything taste good.

“Probably one of the solutions is actually just to put on the noise canceling headphones. On top of that we’re looking into ways, with one of the big airlines, of matching the music you listen to in the air, in order to enhance the taste of the food,” Spence said. “So if you know that that airline noise especially suppresses sweetness, can you use music to kind of season the food and to somehow bring back a bit of sweetness? I think we are making some good progress.”

Now I know what you’re thinking: why do I drink ginger ale on a plane and no where else? Well, that my friends is another story for another day.

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Why do you only drink tomato juice on airplanes?