Feature: Special Meals

BY LAURA GELDER

Demand for special meals is set to rise. Find out why and how the increased demand will be catered for.

We live in a world where the consumer gets what the consumer wants – a world where the trend tends to be all about the tailormade – create your own pizza topping, get your dressing on the side, have your cake fat-free and eat it.

In the travel industry, catering is often a step behind high street trends because dull but necessary concerns like logistics tend to stifle creativity. But special meals, whether for religious, dietary or allergy reasons, are an established must.

In fact, the demand for special meals is set to increase. The International Diabetes Federation claims that by the year 2040, one in ten people will have diabetes – that’s 642 million compared to 415 million in 2015. The World Health Organisation cites cardiovascular disease as the number one cause of death globally; and food allergies are becoming more prevalent too.

According to a study released in 2013 by the USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies amongst American children increased around 50% between 1997 and 2011.

Aside from medical necessity, fashion is a big driver in dietary requirements. Alexandre Berger, ceo of special meal experts World and More (WAM), thinks we are in an era where consumer expectation is very high regarding “habits, tastes and/or religious requirements. “

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Berger says:“The two fastest-growing special meal sectors are halal, globally, and gluten-free in Europe. I have also witnessed a rise in the demand for halal and kosher buy-on-board snacks.”

A quick look at any airline’s website reveals a plethora of special meal options already catered. Singapore Airlines lists a mind-boggling 34 – ranging from a seafood-only meal to a fruit platter and specific catering for vegetarians from the Far East and India.

Virgin Atlantic provides 18 restricted diet meals and has seen demand for vegan, low-salt and diabetic meals go up 10-15% over the last 12 months. The airline’s manager of inflight services food and beverage, Chet Hansra, puts this down to the public becoming more health conscious as well as an actual rise in health issues like diabetes and heart disease.

Virgin has seen a drop in demand for Hindu meals. Hansra explains: “These days, a lot of Hindus are more open to having the chicken option from the standard Western menu, probably because they are more assimilated into the culture.”

Virgin has seen its biggest rise in demand for gluten-free (GF), a massive 25% increase in the last year. Although many of the customers ordering GF may be coeliac or genuinely gluten-intolerant, many others are influenced by fashionable diets or just want to avoid feeling bloated.

Playing it safe

The challenge with airline catering is to please customers while keeping weight and wastage to a minimum. Most airlines only offer two or three meal choices and are very careful to load these in the proportions they think will reflect demand – once the chicken has gone, it’s gone! With special meals there is even less of a chance to please, because customers receive only one choice.

“We are under huge pressure to please, so we have to play it extra safe when it comes to restricted meals,” says Hansra. “We avoid beef and pork even when we could include them, just in case we have a diabetic who is Muslim or a coeliac who is Hindu. This means the meals are almost always chicken or fish (normally salmom) because alternating protein types is important. There are negative connotations attached to fish products, because of the smell and the unfounded association is has with food poisoning.”

Adding flavour without compromising on health or quality is another challenge but creating a special meal adds even more operating restrictions. “The challenge with special meals is the lack of diversity in ingredients, says WAM’s Berger. “This means there are less options for the customers but it can also mean less distinction between Economy and Business meals – there is no such thing as kosher caviar!

Hansra puts the challenge quite simply: “Fat and salt taste good!” Virgin’s guidelines dictate that no artificial flavours or colours can be used and flavour and texture replacements must be supermarket-available ingredients. Virgin uses gluten-free pastas and breads and tries to offer equivalent products, like a hand-held frittata instead of a pastry.

Says Hansra: “Lemon juice is a great replacement for salt, as are flavours naturally high in umami such as roasted mushrooms, tomatoes, salt-free soy sauce and Parmesan. Seaweed is an up and coming ingredient. too being used to add flavour” For diabetic meals, complex carbohydrates are best and for vegetarian or vegan meals, flavourful curries work well. “If you have enough flavour, you don’t miss protein,” says Hansra.

Berger cites packaging as one of the most important details when it comes to maintaining flavour: “We are now using bi-compartment packaging which is fantastic because it allows flavours to be maintained as each product is cooked individually.”

Pious concerns

WAM works with rabbinate or distributors approved by the Central Consistory for kosher products and by The Grand Mosque for halal. For its kosher foods it has hired a rabbinate representative (a chômer) who works with WAM on a daily basis to ensure products and the entire production process meet kosher needs.

For Virgin, the production of its religious special meals is outsourced to specialists, but there are still challenges due to the company’s list of 10 stringent animal welfare principles, which must be adhered to too. One such principle is humane killing with the use of a stun gun before slaughter, which not all halal and kosher slaughterers believe is the best way.

“100% of our halal meat is stunned before slaughter and we are working closely with our kosher meal providers to see how we can make a change in their slaughtering methods too, one that suits both our ethical principles and their religious beliefs,” says Hansra.

But sometimes, no matter what the airline or caterer does, it’s impossible to please human beings, who are naturally drawn to envy their fellow passengers’ meals. It’s not uncommon for customers who’ve ordered a special meal to ask for the standard one when they see it, or for those who ordered a low-salt meal to request salt to season it. However special the meal, there’s always a special person to challenge it!

Revenue potential

US-based Air Meals has partnered with Hawaiian Airlines to launch a pre-purchase meal programme offering health-conscious and allergen-free options to passengers in lieu of the otherwise complimentary meal service.
Feedback from the pilot has been extremely positive with passenger comments including: “why doesn’t every airline give me this option?” and “it’s about time!”

Air Meals vp, Mark Allen, says: “We are focusing our efforts on forward-thinking opportunities to enable our travel partners to evolve their service offerings. We pride ourselves on offering an enhanced travel experience in food and beyond. The pilot clearly suggests this is what passengers want.”

Special snack picks

Suppliers are increasingly targeting products to suit special requirements.The Coconut Collaborative (Coconutco.co.uk), for example, offers fresh or frozen yoghurts which tick plenty of boxes. Made from coconut milk, free-from dairy, soya, and gluten, it is available in several different flavours, each with a layer of fruit compote. The company also offers frozen yoghurts.

Dutch company, MadeGood (madegoodfoods.com), offers bite-size Muesli Minis certified free from eight common allergens. They are also gluten-free and kosher and come in chocolate banana, apple cinnamon and strawberry flavours.

Group Soi (Groupsoi.com) is now offering gluten-free pizzas with vegan toppings in margarita and cosentina (with aubergine) flavours; and also has a range of vegan oils, gluten-free pasta meals and quinoa salads and a new selection of vegan and gluten-free soups, made with lentils, pulses, vegetables, beans and corn pasta.

For paleo, vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free and raw diets, The Primal Pantry (primalpantry.com) has grain-free cold-pressed snack bars made from chopped fruits and nut. They contain no soya, refined sugar or vegetable oils.