Fussy eaters take flight

Travellers are demanding healthy food options — and discovering them in some unlikely places, writes Patricia Maunder.

Travel is about indulgence, for the leisure market at least, but according to Cathay Pacific, its passengers are increasingly requesting apples, not ice-cream. Between 2008 and 2012, there was a 14 per cent increase in demand for Cathay's various vegetarian in-flight special meals, including vegan. As a food revolution has taken place in the air, with airlines partnering with celebrity chefs to produce gourmet on-board menus, many passengers, it seems, would prefer to keep it simple. Demand for Cathay's overtly healthy special meals increased even more dramatically than the demand for vegetarian during the same period: requests for low-fat/low-cholesterol meals rose by 181 per cent, fruit platters and low-salt meals by more than 200 per cent, and low-calorie by almost 300 per cent.

Cathay is not alone. Many other airlines have also introduced health-conscious choices to their regular in-flight meals and snacks, including Virgin America, whose Travel Light selection even comes with nutritional information. So, instead of chocolate-chip cookies, some passengers are choosing sea-salt and caramel popcorn with its 4.1 grams of fat and 18 grams of carbohydrates. Among Australian airlines, the availability of healthier food varies. Virgin's special-meal selection, for example, has several options with healthy credentials, such as low-calorie, low-salt and five vegetarian dishes - including one likely to disappoint indulgence seekers: the Raw Vegetable Meal. Qantas also offers five vegetarian options, but the only other special meal likely to appeal to health-conscious flyers is a fruit platter.

Asked about its approach to offering healthier food, Qantas provided a statement from its consulting chef, Neil Perry. "My philosophy has always been about sourcing the finest, seasonal produce and serving healthy and freshly cooked food," Perry says. "A healthy light option is always available, where a simple seared fillet of fish or chicken is accompanied by seasonal vegetables and a fresh vinaigrette."

Perry designs Qantas' business- and first-class menus, though in a 2009 interview with Traveller said that he had no involvement with special meals. Qantas declined to respond when asked if this was still the case. According to a Qantas spokesperson, all international-flight menus indicate the "healthier option", while refreshments such as muesli bars and fruit are offered in all cabins.

Travellers' capacity to eat healthily at their destination can be feast or famine, but one place long associated with the indulgence scale's heart-attack end is Las Vegas. Doorstopping steaks still abound, but jaws dropped when veganism convert and casino mogul Steve Wynn made vegan options available at his Wynn and Encore casino resorts' 22 restaurants in 2010.

From the all-you-can-eat buffet to SW Steakhouse, celebrity vegan chef Tal Ronnen introduced dishes such as root vegetable quinoa cakes with brussels sprouts, pomegranate reduction and apple-sherry sauce. Many other Vegas restaurants followed suit to some extent.

Sin City became such a vegan paradise that in June 2011 Paul Graham set himself the challenge of 365 vegan meals in 365 days, and blogged about his experience (eatingveganinvegas.tumblr .com). A year after completing the challenge, Graham is still blogging about plant-only eating in the city some are now calling Las Vegan.