Ever wonder why so many people drink tomato juice on planes? I always have. And now we know why! It has always flummoxed me when the person in the seat next to me says, in all seriousness that they want tomato juice, and the flight attendant doesn’t bat an eyelash. This same person would never keep tomato juice in their fridge, or order it in a restaurant, unless maybe if it was filled with vodka and Tabasco…so why do people feel the urge to drink tomato juice high up in the sky? Science I tell you.
German airline Luftansa wanted to know why they were serving 53,000 gallons of tomato juice a year, particularly when they compared it to their beer output of 59,000 gallons a year. It seemed strange, why was this nation of beer drinkers consuming so much tomato juice when they flew? They hired the German research institute, the Fraunhofer Society, to investigate. Setting up a simulated environment of a plane’s interior, complete with cabin pressure and adjusted humidity levels, the team conducted a taste test – people consistently rated the taste of tomato juice as better than when on the ground.
Here is where the science comes in – the low pressure of the plane’s cabin when at altitude causes several things to happen in the human body – first, oxygen levels in your blood lower, which makes your odor and taste receptors less sensitive. Next, the mucus in your nasal cavities expands which again makes taste even harder to discern. The dryness of the cabin – airlines generally keep the humidity at 10-15 percent – causes your nose and mouth to become dry, further exasperating the lack of taste. All of these factors make you feel like you have a cold, that horrible congested, dehydrated, foggy head feeling that makes everything taste bland.
However, tomato juice actually tastes better. Reason being, the same factors that make the human body feel dreadful, causes the tomato juice to taste more acidic, gives it a more mineralic taste (similar to that dry taste sensation you get from wine), and at the same time the tomato juice is more refreshing to the dry palate.
The other quirk of tomato juice ordering is being a copycat. Seriously. The same study found that many people just order what the person in front of them orders, for no reason other than they heard someone else order it, and they follow suit.
There were a few other reasons people gave for ordering tomato juice on planes, including; it filled them up, it helped with air sickness, and just because it was there. This last one seems a tad strange to me however, there is also a variety of other options ‘just there’, so that one isn’t so scientific if you ask me.
There you have it, mystery solved. Science of the body, and the mind, causes tomato juice to be THE choice of beverage when at altitude. It certainly does not have quite the same fan base down here at sea level.