Read this and you’ll never eat aero­plane food again!

It’s part-cooked on the ground, left in a fridge for up to 5 days – then nuked on­board to make sure it’s com­pletely fraz­zled . . .

Irish Daily Mail - - Life - by Sarah Rainey and David Der­byshire

THE worst thing about a long­haul flight is, with­out doubt, the food. For­get tur­bu­lence, scream­ing tod­dlers or un­ex­plained de­lays, meal times on a plane are al­most uni­ver­sally un­pleas­ant — and of­ten stom­ach-churn­ing — ex­pe­ri­ences.

At best, the food is edi­ble. At worst, it’s a scald­ing hot plas­tic tub of gloopy stew, over­cooked rice or leath­ery meat and veg­eta­bles that have been boiled be­yond all recog­ni­tion.

Chef Gor­don Ram­say is cer­tainly no fan. He re­cently re­vealed he re­fuses to eat on planes, bring­ing his own spread to keep him go­ing.

‘I worked on air­lines for ten years, so I know where this food’s been and where it goes, and how long it took be­fore it got on board,’ he said. Ram­say, it must be ac­knowl­edged, has a vested in­ter­est in knock­ing in-flight cui­sine. His restau­rant, Plane Food, based in Heathrow’s Ter­mi­nal 5, sells take­away boxes de­signed to be eaten at 35,000ft. But is he right? Is it re­ally all that bad? We re­veal the un­ap­petis­ing truth about air­line meals . . .


WHETHER you sit in first or cat­tle class, the food comes from the same place: an in­dus­trial kitchen near the air­port, where it’s cooked be­fore take-off — then re­heated on board.

In Europe, most meals come from Gate Gourmet in Switzer­land or LSG Sky Chefs in Ger­many — serv­ing more than 260 air­lines.

Most of th­ese in­dus­trial kitchens pre­pare around 25,000 meals a day; the world’s big­gest, the Emi­rates Flight Cater­ing Cen­tre in Dubai, makes up to 170,000. That’s 58 mil­lion bread rolls, 4,300 tons of chicken and 3.6 tons of lob­ster a year. Peter Jones, a re­tired pro­fes­sor of travel cater­ing says one bil­lion air­line meals are con­sumed an­nu­ally in an in­dus­try worth €12 bil­lion a year.

‘The chal­lenge isn’t the food,’ he says, ‘it is get­ting the food and the other items on board. A jumbo jet needs 40,000 separate items loaded every flight, some­times in 90 min­utes.’


DE­SPITE stick­ers claim­ing it is ‘freshly pre­pared’, most plane food is pro­duced long be­fore it is served to pas­sen­gers. Usu­ally, the meals are made be­tween 12 and 72 hours in ad­vance. But, adds Pro­fes­sor Jones: ‘It can be kept in a chilled stage for five days un­der the in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised food hy­giene stan­dards.’

Sal­ads, desserts, bread rolls, plas­tic cut­lery and nap­kins are put on trays in cater­ing units on the ground and then stacked in trol­leys ready to be wheeled down the cabin aisle.

Hot dishes are made in large in­dus­trial pans and de­canted into plas­tic con­tain­ers with foil lids be­fore be­ing ‘blast chilled’ to around 5c in 90 min­utes.

They’re then stacked in chilled metal boxes un­til they’re taken on board the plane.


FIRST class pas­sen­gers like to think they’re get­ting freshly cooked meals. But their food is also pre­pared on the ground, though it may be plated up in the first class cabin.

Some chefs pro­vide ‘step-by-step’ assem­bly in­struc­tions to help cabin crew present more in­tri­cate dishes — so even if the dishes come from the same place, at least they look more ap­peal­ing.

There’s also the ben­e­fit of metal knives and forks over the in­fa­mous plas­tic cut­lery that is pro­vided to econ­omy pas­sen­gers.

Not only is the lat­ter very fid­dly to use, but sci­en­tists have shown that it makes food taste worse — be­cause of a phe­nom­e­non known as ‘sen­sa­tion trans­fer­ence’, which con­verts a neg­a­tive vis­ual sen­sa­tion into an un­pleas­ant flavour.

Pro­fes­sor Charles Spence, psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor of Gas­tro­physics: The New Sci­ence Of Eat­ing, says: ‘We’ve shown that if you have heavy cut­lery you rate food bet­ter and will pay more. Plas­tic takes you down by 10%.’


THERE’S only one way to en­sure your food isn’t dried out and dis­gust­ing: choose the sauci­est op­tion. Stews, soups or casseroles al­ways taste best on board.

French chef Ray­mond Oliver is cred­ited with com­ing up with the ‘wet­ter is bet­ter’ the­ory in 1973, when he cre­ated beef bour­guignon, coq au vin and veal in cream sauce as the three sta­ple dishes for a new French air­line. The meals were a roar­ing suc­cess and soon be­gan to ap­pear on all Euro­pean planes.

Stew is a safe choice be­cause it’s packed full of umami — a meaty, savoury flavour — which com­pen­sates for the bland­ness of most on-board meals.

‘You of­ten have dishes with tomato, parme­san or mush­rooms; this al­lows you to make food tastier with­out adding too much salt,’ ex­plains Prof Spence.

On the other hand, pasta, noo­dle and rice-based dishes are best avoided. They don’t hold their tex­ture when re­heated. ‘It just goes into a big lump,’ says James Grif­fith, as­sis­tant vice pres­i­dent at Emi­rates Flight Cater­ing. An­other no-no is fried food, which turns soggy and flavour­less when heated for a sec­ond time.


CON­TRARY to what most peo­ple think, planes don’t tend to have mi­crowaves on board. In­stead, food is heated in con­ven­tional elec­tric ovens for around 20 min­utes.

Th­ese use fans, which push hot air on to the sur­face of the food, mak­ing them more ef­fi­cient than ro­tat­ing mi­crowave ovens.

To avoid dishes be­ing un­der­cooked or raw, cabin crew tend to over­cook them. Fish must be heated to a su­per-charged 65c and chicken blasted to 74c.

Medium rare steaks and raw del­i­ca­cies such as oys­ters or sushi are out: the risks of food poi­son­ing are sim­ply too high.

‘I’ve heard cater­ers com­plain that the cabin crew ruin meals be­cause they put the food in the oven and turn it as high as they can and don’t worry about how long it’s in there,’ says Prof Jones.

‘The crew will al­ways err on the side of cau­tion be­cause they don’t want com­plaints that food is too cold.’

Most econ­omy meals are fully cooked and then heated up in the plane, but some air­lines par­tially cook food to save time and en­ergy costs. Steak may be cooked 30% in ad­vance, and chicken 60% .


CON­DI­TIONS in­side the plane dull our senses and make food and drink seem blander than nor­mal.

Prof Barry Smith, of the Cen­tre For The Study Of Senses at Univer­sity of Lon­don, says: ‘The en­vi­ron­ment of an air­craft is about the most hos­tile to hav­ing a good din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that you could imag­ine.’

At 30,000 ft, hu­mid­ity is less than 12%: drier than most deserts. This de­hy­drates our nose, mak­ing it harder to smell food and appreciate its flavour, while low air pres­sure numbs our taste­buds.

A 2010 study at the Fraun­hofer In­sti­tute For Build­ing Physics showed our per­cep­tion of salti­ness falls by up to 30% on a plane, while our sense of sweet­ness plum­mets by some 20%.

So even if a dish is per­fectly cooked and sea­soned on the ground, in the air it could be taste­less — mean­ing those lit­tle sa­chets of salt, pep­per and even tabasco sauce could come in handy.

Air­line chefs com­pen­sate by adding hot spices such as chilli and wasabi. We de­tect the kick from spicy food through the trigem­i­nal nerve in the nose, which is un­af­fected by fly­ing.


THE low cabin pres­sure means wa­ter boils at 90C, not the usual 100C, re­sult­ing in a poor cup of tea. Mean­while, pas­sen­gers’ dry si­nuses can al­ter the taste of cof­fee.

There’s also the mat­ter of the wa­ter. Air­craft cof­fee isn’t al­ways made with bot­tled wa­ter; rather, the drink­ing wa­ter on board a plane, which — though clean — is far from high qual­ity.

Short lay­overs mean there is lit­tle time to clean the valves in the pipes, re­sult­ing in a build-up of min­er­als and grit.

Some air­lines have com­pen­sated by com­ing up with dif­fer­ent blends of our favourite hot drinks.

Sin­ga­pore Air­lines cre­ated a spe­cial plane cof­fee (with more flavour­some Ro­busta beans than the usual Ara­bica blend); while Twin­ings de­signed a ‘high tea’ which is in­tended to taste good when brewed at a lower tem­per­a­ture.


SOME air­lines of­fer truly world-class cui­sine, by part­ner­ing with celebrity chefs who help de­vise their menus —

and have strict in­struc­tions for how they should be pre­pared, cooked and served.

Vir­gin At­lantic con­tracted model-turned-chef Lor­raine Pas­cale to come up with Thai beef salad and chilli con carne, while He­s­ton Blu­men­thal’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with Bri­tish Air­ways in­volved shep­herd’s pie with a sea­weed crust.

The in­volve­ment of high-pro­file chefs has led to in­creased con­trol over the in­gre­di­ents and pre­sen­ta­tion of the food.

Strict reg­u­la­tions on the weight ca­pac­ity of planes means there is also much scru­tiny over recipes, which are as­ton­ish­ingly ex­act — even in econ­omy.

In­gre­di­ents — right down to the sprin­kle of flat-leaf pars­ley on top of a tomato con­sommé — are mea­sured out to a hun­dredth of a gram. This can help com­pa­nies save vast sums of money, too. In the Eight­ies, Amer­i­can Air­lines re­alised it could save €37,000 a year by re­mov­ing a sin­gle olive from each pas­sen­ger’s salad.


THE noise of a whirring jumbo jet en­gine — which can reach an ear-split­ting 85 deci­bels — can ruin a good meal. This is be­cause it’s akin to white noise — ran­dom col­lec­tions of sounds at dif­fer­ent fre­quen­cies — which is dis­tract­ing to the hu­man brain and di­min­ishes our sense of taste.

Prof Spence ex­plains: ‘Back­ground noise sup­presses the abil­ity to taste sweet and salty, but en­hances the abil­ity to taste umami, the meaty, savoury taste you find in food such as toma­toes. ‘It’s been shown that a large num­ber of peo­ple only drink Bloody Marys, made from vodka, toma­toes and Worces­ter­shire sauce, when fly­ing.’

Ex­perts ad­vise lis­ten­ing to sooth­ing mu­sic or us­ing sound-can­celling head­phones to coun­ter­act the en­gine’s dulling ef­fect.

In 2014, BA de­vised a mu­sic menu to be en­joyed along­side its meals on long-haul flights, in­clud­ing De­bussy’s Clair De Lune paired with roast din­ner and Scottish singer Paolo Nu­tini with a smoked salmon starter.


AS ANY­ONE who’s ever tucked into a chilled, card­board-like cake on a plane can at­test, air­line chefs tend to pri­ori­tise prac­ti­cal­ity over taste when it comes to your on­board dessert. Choco­late is al­most al­ways used be­cause it acts like a glue, keep­ing lay­ers of pas­try, cake or mousse to­gether and stop­ping them from dis­in­te­grat­ing be­fore take-off.

The only prob­lem is its ten­dency to melt when placed be­side the hot main course, mean­ing all the desserts are chilled be­fore they’re served to pas­sen­gers.

Sci­en­tists don’t know why, but so­phis­ti­cated sea­son­ings such as car­damom, gin­ger and cin­na­mon taste even more in­tense in the sky, so th­ese are of­ten found in plane pud­dings.


WINES that taste amaz­ing on the ground can lose all their flavour mid-flight. Sub­tle fruit flavours are di­min­ished and drinkers are left with bit­ter tan­nins.

This is be­cause the liq­uid thins out and be­comes leaner in the air, in re­sponse to chang­ing at­mo­spheric pres­sure. As a re­sult, most air­lines serve younger, fruitier reds over light whites.

Prof Smith says the best wines on board are those grown on moun­tains, such as Ar­gen­tinian Mal­bec, pro­duced at 5,500ft, where air pres­sure is close to that found in air­craft cab­ins.

Even bet­ter, how­ever, are sparkling drinks.

‘Cham­pagne is a win­ner be­cause it has a flavour de­liv­ery sys­tem of its own,’ says Prof Smith.

‘The bub­bles rise in the mouth and nose and are coated with liq­uid so they de­liver the odour and flavour.’

What­ever your tip­ple, ex­perts ad­vise drink­ing it early in the flight (be­fore your taste­buds dry out) and not in­dulging too much.

Low air pres­sure has been shown to thin the blood, mean­ing the con­cen­tra­tion of al­co­hol in our body — and its ef­fects — can be stronger on a plane.


FOOD poi­son­ing in­ci­dents on planes are rare. But, just in case, cater­ers keep a sam­ple of every meal cooked to check later if there are com­plaints.

And pi­lots and co-pi­lots are served dif­fer­ent foods, to avoid the risk of the en­tire cock­pit fall­ing ill.

When­ever you fly, hy­giene ex­perts ad­vise bring­ing dis­in­fec­tant wipes on board. Fold-down trays are thought to be the dirt­i­est sur­faces on a plane, with more bac­te­ria than a toi­let seat.

For­mer air­line worker Al­li­son Hope last year warned against putting food down on your tray. ‘Sadly, they are cleaned far less than you’d be com­forted to know,’ she re­vealed.


THE low pres­sure makes your body swell — no­tice­ably the feet, but also your in­ter­nal or­gans. En­gorged in­testines strug­gle to di­gest food, so you feel bloated.

Nutri­tion­ists rec­om­mend foods that re­quire the least amount of oxy­gen to di­gest: car­bo­hy­drates such as pota­toes, beans and nuts.

The av­er­age plane meal is far from healthy, with around 360-400 calo­ries per food item (so roughly 1,500 calo­ries to­tal) and high quan­ti­ties of fat, salt and sugar.

Prof Jones says: ‘Air­lines are not hugely concerned about nutri­tion be­cause their view is that one meal con­sumed by a pas­sen­ger will not make the slight­est bit of dif­fer­ence to them out of the thou­sands of meals they con­sume.’


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