Do airline travelers consume more tomato juice or beer at 35,000 feet? If you guessed beer, you would be wrong.
Science writer, Daniel Engber, recently tracked the long association between aviation and tomato juice in a Los Angeles Times OpEd. From Amelia Earhart to present day travelers, tomato juice enjoys greater popularity in flight. What gives?
WHAT’S DIFFERENT AT 35,000 FEET?
As explained by Engber, a study by Lufthansa Airlines in 2010 found that changes in air pressure influences our ability to detect sweet and salty flavors, dampening our sensitivity by 30%. Hence, the attraction of honey roasted peanuts , pretzels, and yes, tomato juice.
More recently a Cornell physiologist, Robin Dando, published findings that linked the sounds of airplane cabin noise with a diminished perception of sweet and a greater sensitivity to the taste perception known as umami (often described as a savory, meaty taste sensation).
A MIX OF SWEET AND SALTY
Unlike fruit juices, tomato juice offers an intriguing blend of sweet and salty, and the balance seems to satisfy in unexpected ways.
On a physiological level tomato juice may somehow prime the cellular glucose-sodium pump, allowing for a significant sense of satiety despite the modest number of calories. In contrast, fruit juices tend to trigger a glycemic roller coaster, destabilizing me for hours.
BURNING MORE SUGAR AT ALTITUDE
For many there may be more to our preference for tomato juice at elevation. Sports enthusiasts often note an increased desire for carbohydrates and sweet at altitude, simply because the body starts to burn more glucose when it is stressed.
Once the body has acclimated (which takes about 10-14 days) the body adapts to its usual glucose tolerance. Flying doesn’t allow for such adaptation, making sweet or savory carbohydrates just that much more attractive at 35,000 feet.
TOMATO JUICE SALES AND AVIATION SOARS
Whatever the biochemistry, history tells us that increasing sales of tomato juice and aviation coincided throughout the early part of the 20th century. It certainly didn’t hurt that Amelia Earhart famously promoted tomato juice as her favorite “working beverage”. Once prohibition ended, Bloody Mary’s spurred even greater sales.
Today if I feel a bit peckish at 35,000 feet, I readily ask for tomato juice, vegetable juice, or a spicy version of the same. Interestingly, tomato and vegetable juices tend to work well at sea level, too.
I recall one far too long outdoor wedding ceremony in the swelter of a summer afternoon years ago. We had hiked for hours that morning and I failed to eat enough at lunch. Later as the bride and groom swept down the aisle, I surrepticiously found my way to the bar and ordered a virgin Blood Mary.
Over hungry and a bit light headed, I didn’t need alcohol to add to my destabilized state. However, the sweet/salty umami of tomato juice served me well. I sighed in relief at every sip as the spicy beverage effectively restored my equilibrium. The crunchy stalk of celery? Bonus.
I’m wondering if anyone else finds themselves ordering Amelia’s favorite working beverage in flight, especially those of you living over 6,000 feet elevation.