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Seeing the Light With Airline Food : Trends: Menus are now offering more white meat and fish. Passengers are also ordering more specially prepared meals. But nutritional data is still lacking.

March 15, 1992|JACK ADLER

In response to the heightened public awareness of health considerations and diet, planners of in-flight commercial airline food have developed menus featuring lighter selections--including a wider variety of white meats and fish dishes.

Airlines are also offering a greater variety of meals that can be prepared to suit individual diets. Most airlines require a minimum of 24 hours' notice to specially prepare meals. Travelers should mention the meal request at check-in. Time permitting, it's a good idea to reconfirm meal requests and ask if the request is in the carrier's computer system.

"The trend seems to be for more passengers to order special meals," noted Rudy Inauen, catering supervisor at Lufthansa. "We arrange about 20 to 30 special meals per flight from LAX, which is more than in the mid-1980s."

Says Peter Feuerstein, Auckland-based menu development chef for Air New Zealand: "Passengers are more knowledgeable about which foods are healthier than others, they're more diet-conscious and there's a greater demand for fresh foods than in the past."

Passengers are eating more white meats, such as fowl, and fish dishes than in the past, according to industry sources. "In line with this trend, we offer more white meat choices to passengers than in the past, especially in business and first-class," Feuerstein said. "Economy sections may just have one white meat or fish option."

Other airline menu trends include more foods served with higher fiber contents, such as cereals and fresh fruit, and more mineral water and fresh fruit juices chosen for beverages.

"Overall, we have seen nutritional improvement in the meals served by airlines, which is good news," said Evelyn Tribole, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn. and author of "Eating On the Run" (Leisure Press, 1992; $13.95).

"But what's still lacking is nutritional data on the meals. We'd like to see a specific calorie count, either on the in-flight menus or available upon request."

Though airlines do offer special low-fat meals upon request, finding out how much fat is in the meal is seldom available, Tribole said. "I've called several airlines to find out how much fat is in their low-fat meals and they were unable to provide that information."

In addition, airline passengers may be eating light meals that, it turns out, aren't all that light.

"For example," Tribole said, "I determined that one light lunch option, which consisted of a grilled chicken sandwich and a green salad with oil and vinegar dressing, a wheat roll, tab of margarine and cookies came to 928 calories and a 60% fat content. The meal sounds like a lighter selection than it really is."

Airlines are also taking steps to highlight certain healthier meals on their menus. For example, following a trend found in many restaurants, some carriers print a little heart by the side of certain dishes to indicate that those dishes have been approved by heart associations.

"We have altered our menu in the past few years to satisfy the requests by passengers who are much more health and diet conscious today," said Agnes Huff, a spokeswoman for USAir. "For example, we use lighter selections with a minimal amount of salt, fat and sugar. More white meat and fish options are also available now."

Specifically, the trend toward healthier dining has resulted in airlines serving less heavy sauces and lighter salad dressings, oven-browned instead of deep fried potatoes, sausages made of turkey rather than pork, whole wheat rolls instead of white bread, margarine instead of butter, and fresh fruit chunks rather than canned fruits.

"More passengers are drinking mineral water with lemon or lime and fruit juices," Huff added. "This is the case even in first-class where the alcoholic beverages are complimentary."

In response to passenger demand, Delta now offers a greater choice of what it says are lighter and healthier meals. "Heavy breakfasts are still available, but now there are more options for lighter breakfasts featuring yogurts, fruits and bran muffins," said Frances Connor, a Delta spokeswoman. "While there are still steaks, we offer more white meat and fish selections for lunches and dinners. And there are even more demands for fruits and vegetables for snack items. Besides roast beef and turkey sandwiches, we now offer such options as soup or perhaps a fish or fruit salad for a snack."

Consumption of alcoholic drinks is also down on Delta flights, Connor said, with mineral water and fruit juices gaining in popularity. "We've considered putting the calorie count next to some meals, but since dieticians seem to disagree on how to calculate the calorie count, we don't plan to do it at this time," Connor added.

Meanwhile, the number and types of special meals that an airline passenger can order has grown.

In the early 1970s, standard special meals covered such options as vegetarian, seafood, salt-free, diabetic, kosher, Muslim and Hindu.

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