Meat or Chicken? The Nutrition Behind Meals Served 30,000ft Above Ground

by Hassan Dashti

While traveling over spring break, I realized passengers get to make very few choices; their seats are assigned, their TV entertainment movie list is set, and the time permitted to move about the cabin is limited. But on some short-haul and most long-haul flights, every passenger faces a critical question which demands an immediate response: what to eat?

The concept of in-flight means was developed in 1936 by United Airlines. Since then, all airlines began providing food to their passengers to keep up with the competition. A few years ago, however, as a result of rising fuel costs, many airlines began eliminating certain foods or meals altogether. For instance, peanuts were no longer given out on most short-haul United Airlines flights. This small change helped the airline company save millions of dollars without upping their seat prices.

Other airlines still rely on good, gourmet (do you really think it’s gourmet?) food to attract customers. British Airways, for example, serves a complete afternoon tea to their first class passengers prepared by London’s premier Dorchestor Hotel. US based airlines including Delta decided to provide gourmet sandwiches prepared by celebrity chef Todd English.

I decided to take a closer look at the nutrition content of the common foods offered and I found that they share several characteristics: they are high in salt, high in saturated fat, low in vitamins and minerals and contain no nutrition information on them whatsoever, even the packaged ones!

Studies have found that white noise due to flying decreases the sensitivity of taste buds. So instead, airlines increase the salt and sugar in order bring out more flavor in their food. Since little information is published on the exact caloric content of these inflight meals, I was not able to identify exactly how much more salt is added. Although extra salt from one meall isn’t the end of the world, it is important for individuals on strict diets to be aware of this.

Since many inflight meals are stored for a long period of time, many vitamins are lost from the meals, especially vitamins C and B12. So even the fruit salads that are presumably high in vitamins and minerals might lose their nutritional benefit due to prolonged storing. In order to cope with this, many airlines are now providing fresh fruits and vegetables instead.

The FDA has warned various airlines on the seriousness of over-salted foods and is requiring airlines to list calorie content on nutrition labels on in-flight meals soon. In the meantime, there are numerous ways to cope with this. Many airlines offer alternative meals, including low-sodium and Kosher, which many people agree are just tastier since they are usually prepared by restaurants, in smaller quantities. These alternative meals tend to be safer options. Another way to go about it is to purchase food from the airport.

With that said, even though it seems like airlines are providing the passengers with a choice- meat or chicken, pasta or fish- the airlines are only providing the passengers with the option of consuming unhealthy, high salt, high fat meals. Now think back to last week, what did you have as your in-flight meal?

Hassan Dashti is a first-year student in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition program from Kuwait, and is the current editor-in-chief of the Friedman Sprout. Hassan is currently engaged in nutrigenomics research at the HNRCA, trying to identify genes that affect saturated fat metabolism in human. He is interested in collecting foods from all over the world, and in restocking his pantry.

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