Why tomato juice?

Yesterday I came across this story about why people drink tomato juice on planes but couldn’t read the German. Tyler Cowen summarizes:

During a flight, everything tastes quite a bit weaker, as if you had a cold. You might think die deutschen would turn to Sichuan Chili Chicken, but no…Tomatensaft!

Growing up I would always drink ginger ale on planes. I rarely drank it other times and to this day I associate ginger ale with flying. I assumed this was a random preference, but perhaps not.

Comments

  1. A quick translation:

    Why is the boring juice of tomatoes so desired over the clouds? For decades airlines and passengers have struggled to answer the riddle – is it psychology or physiology? A flavor chemist provides the answers.

    Is it because one’s neighbor requests it (the domino-effect) or because of the nutritional value (a snack replacement)? Why so much tomato juice was drunk on-board airplanes was, until now, a mystery. It is known that Lufthansa had to carry enormous amounts: 1.7 million liters in 2008, compared to only 1.65 million liters of beer served. “Juice with salt and pepper?”, asks the flight attendant, pouring the red creamy liquid from the carton into red plastic cups, in addition to handing you a napkin and stir-stick.

    The airline industry and passengers are surprised at the hype, while the juice industry rejoices. Because the tomato is not typically considered gourmet there is suspicion. On the ground tomatoes are described as smelly, said Andrea Burdack-Freitag to the newspaper “Die Zeit”. Over the clouds, however, they are described as having a “pleasant fruity smell and a sweet, refreshing taste in the background”. The flavor chemist from the Fraunhofer Institute in Holzkirchen was commissioned by Lufthansa to taste-test on-board meals. She sent test subjects to taste the meals in a low-pressure chamber which simulated the conditions of cruising altitude.

    The test subjects provided the scientifically-informed answer: at low-pressures there is an increase to the so-called smell and taste thresholds – herbs, spices, salt and sugar all required higher doses in order to be perceived. One smells the dishes and drinks “as if they have a cold”, said Burdack-Freitag. Salt tasted 20 to 30 percent less intense and sugar 15 to 20 percent less. By contrast, fruity flavors remained stable. And voilà, what was otherwise boring and slightly toxic-smelling, becomes a taste sensation – as long as it’s strongly salted.

    At the same time, however, coffee is perceived as bitter and Riesling as too acidic, explains the 36 year-old chemist. On the other hand, the testers enjoyed heavy red wines with aromas of red berries. What tastes excellent on the ground, can, in the air, make a bad impression. The cooks from Lufthansa’s catering subsidiary, LSG Sky Chefs, are aware of the effects of air pressure on taste, said Lufthansa spokesman Jan Bärwalde to SPIEGEL ONLINE, and have already taken that into account. The study from the Holzkirchen-based researchers should help to quantify the differences between meals on the ground and in the air. “The findings respecting salt, sugar, herbs and acids will be incorporated into 1:1 formulations.”

    The insights of the flavor chemist are now available to other airlines but also they serve as a wonderful excuse for the less successful dishes in aluminum packages. There now exists an excuse for mushy Broccoli, overcooked noodles and fibrous meat scraps and also the increasing “taste threshold” that it cannot deliver. To commemorate the suffering over the clouds you can visit an English-language website called Airlinemeals and click through thousands of meals, past and present – Lufthansa alone has 777 dishes represented.

  2. Jacob Grier says:

    @Robert S. Porter: Excellent, thank you! Interesting that fruity flavors perform well in low pressure.

  3. Barzelay says:

    That’s funny that fruity flavors are less affected, because I always drink cran-apple on flights, and almost never drink it at other times. Still, I suppose the sweetness reduction has something to do with it.

  4. mimi says:

    thanks! my years of wonder why I get thirst of tomato juice ONLY on flights..and No where eles (i NEVER drink it on ground) got somehow explained!!

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