Once you get on your flight, stash your carry-on, and settle into your seat, you probably start thinking about what you are going to order when the beverage service begins. For many, the decision is easy — a Bloody Mary. Most airlines carry some version of a Bloody Mary mix, which is tomato juice combined with a wide variety of ingredients such as horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, pepper, hot sauce, lemon juice, and more. Add vodka and voilá! You have a quick and easy air-travel-friendly Bloody Mary. You don't usually get the fixings you might find in a bar or pub, such as a beef stick, celery, pickle, olives, and other things occasionally piled on top of a Bloody Mary. Yet, this remains one of the most popular drinks on flights.
People who are traveling by air might order a Bloody Mary for several reasons, some more scientific than others. Here are a few reasons why so many people drink Bloody Marys on flights.
Noise Level Makes Tomato Juice Taste Good
While this may be shocking, the white noise that travelers experience from a jet engine causes Bloody Marys to taste better in the air than they do on the ground. Some who order Bloody Marys have known intuitively what scientists have figured out in the last 15 to 20 years. When Lufthansa Airlines noticed they were selling almost as much tomato juice as beer each year, they hired the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics in Germany to do a study. Researchers found that participants who sampled tomato juice inside and outside of a flight simulator were more pleased with the taste during the flight test. This phenomenon has to do with the relationship between umami and loud noise.
We recognize five basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. Umami is a Japanese word that refers to a savory taste of amino acids often found in meats and broths. Monosodium glutamate activates umami tastes in the same way sugar activates sweet tastes in our mouth. A recent study at Cornell University found out that under conditions of loud noise, such as the 85 decibels on a jet airliner, our sense of taste is compromised, specifically our sweet and umami taste buds. During a flight, noise levels reduce the ability to taste sweet things and enhance the ability to taste umami-rich flavors, like tomato juice. Passengers' enhanced taste while flying might just be that the reason so many people drink Bloody Marys on flights.
Nutritional Benefit of Bloody Marys
Many cocktails consist of spirits mixed with liquids that are high in sugar and/or don't have a whole lot of nutritional value. Soda, diet soda, cranberry juice, orange juice, and soda water are a few examples. Bloody Mary mix can have plenty of sugar and be high in sodium, but the tomato juice base of the mix provides some nutritional value. Depending on the exact Bloody Mary Mix an airline uses, you might get as much as 15% of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin A, 20% of your RDA of vitamin C, a splash of calcium and up to 6% of your RDA of iron. The heartiness of the tomato juice in a Bloody Mary also provides more substance, which can slow the absorption of alcohol in your system.
Air Pressure Makes Tomato Juice Taste Good Too
The relationship between air pressure, humidity, and our taste buds also affects the way we experience tomato-based food and beverages, such as Bloody Marys, while we are flying. In the previously mentioned study commissioned by Lufthansa, researchers also attribute the enhancement of umami flavors to dryness and pressure during a fight. The average cruising altitude of most passenger jetliners ranges from 36,000 to 40,000 feet. The combined pressure change and dryness reduce sensitivity to sweetness and saltiness and reduces passengers' ability to smell, resulting in changes in the way an airline passenger experiences food and drink.
The newest research suggests that umami flavors are not inhibited like other tastes, so they stand out even more. In the case of the Bloody Mary, this makes the drink shine, so it tastes rich and flavorful regardless of low pressure and dryness. The Bloody Mary, with its rich tomato flavors, is just the beginning of a scientific understanding about umami flavors — and taste buds in general — at high altitudes. You can expect future airline meals to begin to offer more umami flavors to satisfy passenger palates. Until then, keep on ordering those Bloody Marys.