The Sensory Experience: Could Veggie Powders Be the Next In-Flight Flavor Enhancers?


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APEX Insight: A lot of science goes into what we hear, see, touch, smell and taste in the airplane cabin. In this multipart feature, we take a look at recent developments targeted at each of the five senses.

When United Airlines decided to cut tomato juice from its in-flight menu in May, it was met with outrage on social media from the beverage’s most devout drinkers. Although the carrier maintains that low demand for the canned beverage was what spurred the decision (it cut Sprite Zero from its beverage cart for the same reason), it responded to the rallying cries, and ultimately reversed the decision.

United’s customers seemed to care more about the tomato juice than the Sprite, and that’s likely because the drink, with its savory flavor, is one of the few that tastes better in the air than on the ground. As Charles Spence, a food scientist and experimental psychologist, explains, most other foods and drinks need 20 to 30 percent more sugar and salt to maintain the same level of taste that they have on the ground.

“The next step is to see whether one can change the design of food or use more tastes that work better in the air” – Charles Spence, food scientist.

It was the beverage’s popularity in flight that gave Spence the idea to incorporate tomato powder into the menu he developed for now defunct Monarch Airlines in 2017. “If people are ‘self-medicating’ by picking a drink that stands up well in the air because of umami, it would seem like an obvious next step to see whether one can change the design of the food as well to use more of those tastes that work better in the air.”

A caramelized nut bar that Spence had sprinkled with tomato powder was also given a dusting of mushroom powder, which seems to be making its way into everything from lattes and protein shakes to morning beauty routines these days – thanks to its concentrated level of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.

Although seemingly trending today, mushroom powder has in fact been around for ages in Asian kitchens as a natural flavor booster; like tomatoes, mushrooms are rich in the naturally occurring glutamate responsible for umami flavor. The effect is so pleasing that when Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at the Tokyo Imperial University, discovered the fifth taste in 1908, he decided to patent a synthetic version: monosodium glutamate (MSG).

MSG still has a bad rap among some, even though most scientists today agree that anecdotes of the flavor enhancer causing sickness in humans are unfounded. Among them is Spence, who thinks adding MSG sachets to passengers’ food trays could improve the in-air culinary experience. “However, I suspect the problem is that people still remember ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,’ and hence may have a negative association with MSG if supplied on airplanes,” he says. “It is better to go with natural vegetable powders instead.”

Apart from assuaging passengers’ fears about added flavor enhancers, tomato and mushroom powders also offer greater convenience than their whole-food counterparts. They have less water content and a longer shelf life, and are especially useful when not in season. And according to Spence, replacing the soft-textured vegetables with powdered versions could free up some space on the tray table for greater variety, too. 

“The Sensory Experience” was originally published in the 8.4 August/September issue of APEX Experience magazine.