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Why is tomato juice so popular on a long-haul flights?

Have you ever wondered why people like to order tomato juice on an airplane or have you ever felt a desire for this sky-high popular drink?

photo: Claus Ableiter/Creative Commons

The answer to this question is a tricky one and there are many theories that try to give an answer, some of these theories even have a scientific approach. Let's take a quick overview regarding this matter.

According to some aviation historians, tradition of tomato juice origins at the very beginning of the commercial aviation. Back in the past aircrafts weren't that high performing like today, so the flights were pretty noisy with a lot of turbulences and the flights were giving a lot of stress to passengers. In order to ease their minds and to amuse themselves on a long haul flights passengers tried various of activities, including the drinking time. The more stressful and longer the flights were, more alcoholic drinks were consumed. Therefore, it was a common thing that the passengers were completely wasted by the alcohol during the travel. As the aviation kept on improving by introducing more comfortable and bigger aircrafts and as the number of passengers was increasing constantly, the airline companies weren't able to keep on with the free drink policy on every single flight. In addition, airline companies realised that sales of alcohol drinks can be a good way to earn some money and to prevent passengers from getting drunk during the flights. During the 70's there were a lot of new airline companies and the competition got stiff, so everyone were trying to charge as much as possible services, including the food and beverages. Free alcohol drinks started to fade away, but mixers like tomato juice stayed firmly on the menu. As the time passed, tomato juice became an cover photo of an in-flight drinks. Basically, we can say that tomato juice goes with the flights as popcorn go with the movies.

Another theory is more practical one and it perfectly fits the previous theory. Nowadays, airline companies are trying to optimize their meals and to establish certain standards for all flights. Some of them are doing well, while some of them are still fighting with this optimization process. One thing is for sure, every passenger either had a bad personal experience with the airplane food or had heard a lot of complaints regarding the number and volume of the meals served in the aircrafts. Some of the passengers become really hungry during the flight and need to wait for breakfast or dinner for the additional couple of hours until it is served. That gap between the meals is a perfect fit for the tomato juice to stop your hunger as a refreshing and healthy drink or for some of the passengers as a nice, cold tomato soup. Therefore, a lot of people see the value and popularity of the tomato juice as a perfect small meal during the flight.

Some airline companies were so stunned by the popularity of the tomato juice that they wanted to take additional research steps in order to find the cause to this case. E.g. Lufthansa noticed that they served about 53,000 gallons of tomato juice annually, while the consumption of beer was pretty much the same, about 59,000 gallons per year. In addition, they decided to find a professional help for this research, so they hired Fraunhofer Society, a German research institute. Researchers put people in a flight simulator that was made out of the fuselage of an old Airbus A310. All the conditions such as engine noise, humidity, cabin pressure were set as if the people were flying the aircraft. They even posted pictures on the windows. Then they served the participants tomato juice and had them report on how it tasted. Researches discovered that people find tomato juice much more tastier and pleasant while drinking in the air. The same tomato juice was rated as it had earthy taste on the ground level. The explanation of this is that when people are cruising at altitude, cabin pressure is low, similar to the atmosphere one mile above sea level. That low pressure does several things. Human blood gets less oxygen, which makes odor and taste receptors less sensitive. That is why people prefer stronger taste stimulus in the air. We could say that these conditions are pretty much the same as when people have some kind of a bad cold. Furthermore, the sense of umami, the Japanese term for that elusive balance of sweet and salty flavor, is enhanced. Additional research conducted by the Cornell University points out that when passengers hear 85 decibels while soaring through the sky in a metal tube at 575 miles per hour, sweet receptors are deadened, but sense of umami is enhanced.

Finally, we can all agree that there is no one single explanation that show us why tomato juice is so popular in the air. Probably a list of different factors and theories combined together are the answer upon this topic. Nevertheless, tomato juice has been one of the most popular sky-high drinks for ages and we believe that it will continue to be popular in the future that follows. We tried this juice and we are really not big fans of it! :)

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