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Does Tomato Juice Taste Better among the Clouds?


Research and surveys suggest that umami-rich flavors — like tomato juice — taste better at higher altitudes.

A food of contention on the ground, it seems that the tomato may have greater appeal at higher altitudes. In Britain, a poll of Telegraph Travel writers revealed a love-hate relationship with the fruit at sea level, but paradoxically indicated that for some, tomato juice was the favorite in-flight refreshment. While anecdotal, this survey supports a growing body of research suggesting that the juice may taste better at higher altitudes.

In 2010, German carrier Lufthansa noted that its passengers consumed as much tomato juice as beer — more than 475 thousand gallons of the stuff, to be precise. Intrigued by the discovery, the airline commissioned Munich-based Frauenhofer Institute to investigate.

Devising a test which simulated flight conditions, the Frauenhofer study highlighted the impact of air travel on passengers’ taste buds. “At normal pressure, people give tomato juice a much lower rating, typically describing it as musty,” researcher Andrea Burdack-Freitag explained in the institute’s February 2010 magazine. During the experiment, however, Burdak-Freitag said subjects reported the taste of the juice to be pleasant.

Out of the basic tastes — sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory umami — the first two were perceived less intensely at altitude. In these conditions, however, the taste of umami-rich tomato seemed to be enhanced.

The science behind these results isn’t straightforward. An article published in the journal Flavour earlier this year cited sound levels — not cabin pressure — as the greatest influence on taste at altitude, indicating the possibility that umami-rich foods are resistant to an aircraft’s white noise.

In light of these findings, Lufthansa and British Airways have changed their menus to include umami flavors. As for the popularity of tomato juice on airlines around the world, the results are inconclusive. Air France, KLM and Malaysia Airlines cited water, tea/coffee and wine, respectively, as their passengers’ favorite beverages. Taste, it seems, remains a matter of subjectivity, not science.


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