Your taste buds act differently at higher altitudes
EC: Why Do People Drink So Much Tomato Juice on Airplanes?
Credit: Photo by Flickr user With Wind

It seems to me that 90% of all tomato juice is consumed on airplanes.. Every time I find myself on a flight, I hear at least a few people around me request a tomato juice. This rarely happens in cafes, restaurants or pizza joints. People don’t walk into a Starbucks or McDonalds and ask for tomato juice, so why do they do it on airplanes?

According to a spokesperson from Lufthansa, 1.5 million liters of tomato juice were consumed on their flights in 2015, making it just as popular as beer. In 2010, Lufthansa investigated the science behind this phenomenon and found that tomato juice actually tasted better at dizzying heights. “Due to the changed air pressure during flight, the oxygen content in the blood decreases and the flavors in the aircraft atmosphere unfold differently,” said Andrea Burdack-Freitag, aroma chemist at the Fraunhofer Institute.

Scientists found that at a cruising altitude of about 30,000 feet, cabin humidity and air pressure drops. The change in humidity results in drier throats while the lowered air pressure forces bodily fluids upwards. Your nasal mucus swells, and your sense of smell and taste are dulled. Sobeing in the air has a similar effect on your taste buds as having a cold. That’s why strongly flavored food works better on board. Tomato juice, which is often spiced and comes with the option of adding extra salt and pepper, falls into this category.

Another study found that aircraft noise also affects our sense of taste. Research published by Cornell taste physiologist Robin Dando revealed that our perception of certain flavors, such as sweet and salty, are reduced in noisy environments. However, one flavor,“umami,” a Japanese-coined term used to describe the savoury-meaty taste, is actually enhanced by noise. Tomato juice has lots of umami, so it tastes extra flavorful on airplanes. So what about the Bloody Mary, the tomato-juice based cocktail? How did they become so popular on-board? Aviation historian Guillaume De Syon has explained that alcohol was a staple on early flights, given to passengers to help calm their nerves.

Certainly, a tomato juice based cocktail is a good choice when you’re strapped in and airborne. Not only is the vodka a depressive, but tomato juice is high in potassium, which helps reduce blood pressure and makes you feel calmer. Plus, the Bloody Mary is considered a healthy cocktail, and for good reason. Its non-alcoholic ingredients contain electrolytes, water, vitamin C, and vitamin B6. It’s no secret that flying is bad for you. The constant pressure and recirculated air in the cabin can make you dehydrated and susceptible to other illnesses, making a tomato juice or Bloody Mary just be what the body craves.

The reasons people drink tomato juice on planes are also cultural. Tomato juice and air travel are linked in our collective consciousness. Daniel Engber has argued that this is because the invention of tomato juice and the Bloody Mary coincided with the rise of commercial aviation. In 1936, famous pilot Amelia Earhart was quoted as saying that her favorite working beverage was tomato juice, and in 1965, Ohio, the birthplace of aviation, declared tomato juice the state’s official beverage. For a younger generation of air-travellers, tomato juice is the closest thing to a free meal you can get, aside from peanuts. As 25-year-old Yian Shang, frequent flyer and in-flight tomato juice drinker told me, “It’s like a cold soup. You even get salt and pepper with it,” she said.