The Curious Popularity of Tomato Juice on Airplanes

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Tomato juice rules the skies.
The terrestrial market is all about orange, apple, and cranberry, but when that beverage cart rolls through the airplane aisle, tomato juice reigns supreme. About a quarter of the passengers on most flights will choose it, and a quarter of them say they never, ever drink it on land.

Over the years there’ve been many attempts to explain this curious phenomenon.
It’s been theorized that airline passengers choose tomato juice for its nutritional profile; it’s more filling than most soft drinks and it’s loaded with vitamin C, giving it a prophylactic effect against the germ-laden recycled air of an airplane cabin. Others hypothesize that the sense of dislocation and limbo of air travel can embolden us to deviate from routine behaviors, or just make us more susceptible to the domino effect when the guy in 12D orders a glass.
Finally, science has given us the answer.

It’s a matter of physics.
Lufthansa Airlines commissioned a study by 
The Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics that revealed the ways in which the sense of taste loses its bearings in an airline cabin. Airplanes deliberately maintain low humidity levels to prevent corrosion in the fuselage, so even before a plane takes off, the the nostrils dry out, impairing the sense of smell. As the plane begins to ascend, the changing air pressure numbs the taste buds, and by the time a cruising altitude is reached, more than a third of them are missing in action. Fruit flavors will taste about the same but salt, sugar, herbs, and acids are all muted.

To most people’s taste, tomato juice improves at higher altitudes.
While still grounded, test subjects in the Lufthansa study overwhelmingly reported undesirable attributes when they tasted tomato juice. ‘Musty’, ‘earthy’, and ‘sour smelling’ were common descriptors. But when altitudes above 10,000 feet were simulated, those same respondents described the same juice as ‘sweet’, ‘refreshing’, and ‘pleasantly fruity in its aroma.’ Ginger ale is another tart beverage that appeals to cotton-mouthed fliers, while cola and lemon-lime soft drinks lose the acid tang that makes them so popular at sea level. Tea suffers most because the low air pressure reduces the boiling point of water and flavors aren’t properly extracted.

See the high altitude effect for yourself. Order a tomato juice the next time you’re strapped in at 30,000 feet and the beverage cart rolls your way. At least until free soft drinks go the way of checked bags, blankets, and lunch trays.

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