Many people have opted for a vegetarian diet for decades now, largely due to concerns about animal welfare and the taste profile of meat, rather than the effect it has on their wellbeing. But in the last few years, there has been a growing movement towards a vegan lifestyle, which also includes the avoidance of dairy and eggs.
Largely driven by more eco and health-conscious millennials, this shift towards plant-based consumption has gained a substantial following over the past 10 years, with meat consumption declining by 17% in the past decade. Indeed in 2020, the World Health Organisation recommended a plant-based diet for a healthy life, encouraging more and more people to turn their backs on animal-origin products. The popularity of veganism has been so significant that the onboard industry has had to expand its airline cabin menus to include plant-based alternatives in order to cater for growing numbers of vegan passengers.
Why is vegan in-flight catering necessary?
The demand for vegan food is continuing to rise. In 2020, the global vegan food market was valued at US$19.7 billion. It is expected to reach US$36.3 billion with a 6.4% CAGR by 2030. And with 4.2 billion people expected to fly in 2023, there is a significant need for suitable in-flight food options.
A plant-based diet is inclusive of almost every dietary requirement. This includes not only vegetarians, but also those who have food allergies. The diet is also suitable for those adhering to religious beliefs as well as those on a weight-loss plan, meaning it covers many different special meal categories. While plant-based food options onboard are certainly improving, according to the Vegan Society, there is still a long way to go. In fact, the society is campaigning for airlines to add well-labelled vegan options to their standard menus, meaning that they do not have to be requested specially and are available for anyone to order.
To do this, the Vegan Society has introduced FlyVe, the first rating system for inflight vegan catering. Passengers are encouraged to share their experiences – good and bad – of flying as a vegan, with the aim of helping prove that there is significant demand for delicious plant-based options, while also celebrating those airlines that already do a great job.
While the term ‘vegan’ is often associated with diets, it also concerns the environment. Veganism presents an opportunity to minimise our individual impact on the environment and nurture a liveable future for generations to come. Going vegan can help reduce our carbon footprint by up to 73%, which also assists the aviation industry in its quest to become more environmentally sustainable. According to research, pro-environmental passengers with a willingness to pay for carbon offsetting also display a willingness to pay for organic or vegan meals.
What did vegan in-flight catering used to look like?
Airline food has come a long way in the past decade. In the not-too-distant past, selections included little more than sandwiches and salads. However, there are some carriers that have been catering to those following plant-based diets for years. Emirates, for instance, has been serving vegan meals on its flights since the 1990s, although these options were only available on a few routes at the time.
As interest in a vegan lifestyle has continued to rise over the years, Emirates has followed suit, and it now offers more than 180 plant-based meals onboard. To achieve this, the carrier spent a year developing a vegan menu in its own flight catering facility, which is recognised as the largest in the world, employing many chefs of different nationalities from across the globe.
What does vegan onboard catering look like now?
While huge progress has been made when it comes to the food itself, there are still some challenges when it comes to obtaining vegan meal options onboard. One of the main issues is around pre-ordering and the fact that passengers need to request a vegan dish at least 24 hours before takeoff.
Another factor to consider is the meal codes that come with vegan meals. Not everything is listed on the menu, so if the passenger is not aware of the airline’s options, they may end up ordering what is easily available, and not what they really want.
However, arguably the biggest obstacle when it comes to special meals onboard is the limited choice. Not all airlines can provide customers with vegan food, and they end up disappointing passengers who expect vegan meals. However, the majority of airlines are listening and constantly identifying ways to produce better food each day for their customers.
Airlines that carry vegan meals
In addition to Emirates, many other airlines also feature plant-based options in their menus. These include:
China Airlines: The state-owned flag carrier of the Republic of China has recently added a plant-based in-flight menu called the ‘Clean and Green Plant-Based Cuisine’ to its roster of food options. China Airlines has partnered with a Michelin Green Star Taiwanese restaurant, Yang Ming Spring, to create this menu, which includes vegan conchiglie bolognese and fruit salsa for economy flyers, as well as okra with black bean and sesame sauce, and truffle risotto and vegan fish fillet with wholegrain mustard for business-class passengers.
Delta Air Lines: Delta strives to live up to its reputation as one of the major airlines in the United States by offering special meals, including plant-based meal options. To attract more vegans, the carrier has partnered with several plant-based meat alternative brands. Part of its vegan airline food selection is the green chilli spice-rubbed Impossible Burger and “lamb” meatballs.
Qatar Airways: The state-owned flag carrier airline of Qatar has been offering fully vegan dishes since 2020. The menu is available to all business-class passengers, but economy-class customers can also pre-order these items. The menu includes Asian barbecue tofu, chickpea flour omelette, and spiralised courgette with arrabbiata sauce.
Cathay Pacific: Special meals are also available on Hong-Kong-based Cathay Pacific, including vegan food. In fact, it is the first airline in the world to serve OmniPork, which is a plant-based pork alternative. The airline has also been serving Beyond Meat (a beef alternative marketed by Green Monday) since 2018 at Hong Kong International Airport’s The Pier First Class Lounge.
British Airways: Vegan vegetarian, Asian vegetarian, Indian vegetarian, and Lacto-ovo-vegetarian are included in the special meals British Airways offers.
Singapore Airlines: Gourmet-style vegan dishes are offered at Singapore Airlines. Its cooking team prepares vegan meals with a traditional Western and Asian take. Its appetisers are also vegan.
American Airlines: American Airlines prides itself on its vegan meal offerings, including a special snack box. It was also recently reported that the airline will serve vegan cookie dough bars.
Swiss International Air Lines: The flagship Swiss carrier works with the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, Hiltl, to cater to passengers’ cravings for vegan airline food. Its vegan menu includes vegetable green curry with basmati rice, a mesclun salad with salad dressing from Hiltl (the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world), and a mango mousse with fresh mango compote.
Qantas: The vegan meals available at Qantas vary by season and location. The Australian airline offers vegetarian options for all meals and is now testing several plant-based meat dishes, such as cocktail pies with tomato sauce and penne pasta bolognese with parmesan.
United Airlines: Customers in the lounges and first-class cabin of US-based United Airlines were first treated to plant-based offerings in the summer of 2022. Impossible Meatball Bowl selections were available on selected flights, and domestic flights now have vegetarian breakfast sandwiches incorporated with Impossible Foods’ sausage patties.
Current trends/innovations and the future
The future of in-flight vegan catering is exciting, with airlines working hard to create delicious tasting plant-based options for their passengers. However, while veganism is gaining in popularity, it is still not part of the mainstream inflight menu for many airlines, and passengers who require a plant-based meal must still notify the carrier in advance. If the aviation sector wants to provide widespread comfort for passengers, then greater attention needs to be paid to the availability and accessibility of vegan dishes onboard.
Exhibitors at WTCE with vegan offerings
There are a number of exhibitors at WTCE with plant-based food and drink offerings suitable for airlines. Below is a snapshot of companies that took part in the May 2023 event in Hamburg:
Tops Food NV: Founded in 1993 in Belgium, Tops Food NV creates innovative and tasty ready-made dishes that meet the stringent requirements of the inflight, retail and healthcare markets. It is the first company in the food-processing industry to use microwave technology for the sterilisation of ready meals. Its food products include traditional European and contemporary Asian cuisine, as well as a variety of vegan, halal, lactose or gluten-free recipes.
Foodcase International BV: Foodcase creates food and beverage solutions for the travel industry. It produces ambient, frozen, and chilled food and beverage concepts. Its Asian and Western style ambient hot meal range offers a variety of authentic, vegan, lactose or gluten-free recipes.
PlayIn Choc: This company caters to the health-conscious consumer who wants to indulge in chocolate without feeling guilty. This company offers delicious vegan, organic, and allergy-friendly chocolates. Furthermore, its chocolates for children include collectible 3D puzzle toys and animal fun facts cards.