According to the comic strip "Mother Goose and Grimm," the Wright Brothers invented airplane food using just flour, glue and mayonnaise.
Why does airplane food seem so tasteless? It might be because the average full meal is said to cost less than $3.50 per passenger (down from twice that last decade!) But maybe, just maybe, our own senses are to blame...
According to the Lufthansa in-flight magazine from May 2010, that airline contracted with the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics to test food in their decommissioned Airbus A310 fuselage fitted inside a huge low-pressure chamber (pictured at left).
In this research, they've discovered, for example, that tomato juice is not just consumed on flights because of the bloody marys! Instead, the mustiness of tomato juice when tasted on the ground apparently becomes refreshing and fruity at 30,000 feet (because, they say, that's when those usually-masked flavor notes are finally released).
We may likewise perceive the average airplane meal differently after take-off: according to the researchers, sugar seems about 20% less sweet in flight and salt about 30% less salty; spicy foods have to be made even spicier, herbs seem to lose their punch, while acids still manage to keep tasting every bit as sour.
Why the difference? Even back in 2005, a researcher at Surrey University had discovered that the combination of low air pressure and low humidity generally have a dulling effect on our tastebuds. As a result, he said, some (unmentioned) airlines apparently even have special kitchens which can replicate high-altitude conditions so that their chefs' compositions don't lose something in the translation between take-off and dinner time. In the end, Lufthansa itself declared, "These findings are in line with phenomena we already knew about and will be adopting in our recipes."
Hopefully, for long-haul flyers like myself, airlines will manage to get it figured out sometime before in-flight meals are eliminated all together! Or, as another editorial cartoon put it, "Sir, would you like juice, milk, a soft drink, coffee? Actually, it's just a rhetorical question."
UPDATED (7/27/2010): Everything you ever wanted to know (and surely way more!) about airline food can be found at AirlineMeals.net, including a gallery of meals from the '70s, '80s, & '90s! (via "50 Best Travel Sites You've Probably Never Heard Of")