For New Meat-Free Meal Options, 1 U.S. Airline Hits the Spot

Many airline passengers seek plant-based meal options, whether for ethical or environmental reasons — or to avoid a rubbery, reheated chicken breast. According to a 2020 Gallup poll, 23% of Americans claimed to be cutting back on meat in the past year. So it’s not just dedicated vegetarians and vegans who could be looking for meat-free meal choices during transit.

Yet until recently, these options were limited.

Although almost every airline provides vegetarian meal options for long-haul flights, these can be underwhelming. Delta Air Lines recently partnered with several plant-based meat alternative brands, including Impossible Foods, to counter this trend and appeal to flyers who prefer meat-free meal options.

Delta gets plant-based

In March 2022, Delta began offering menu items with meat alternatives on select flights over 900 miles. These include a green chili spice-rubbed Impossible Burger and “lamb” meatballs from plant-based Black Sheep Foods.

The Impossible Burger makes its domestic airline debut with Delta. (Photo courtesy of Impossible Foods)

These items supplement the meat-based menu options available onboard and offer a way for those seeking meat-free options to get full on something other than cheese and crackers.

Unlike traditional vegetarian burgers, Impossible Burgers include a special molecule — heme — which gives it a distinctive “meaty” flavor. This, and some other engineering wizardry, help make it taste remarkably like the real thing.

In addition, research suggests that plant-based beef alternatives are more environmentally friendly since they require less water and contribute fewer carbon emissions in production than stock farming. According to a study in the journal Nature Food, meat production accounts for 57% of carbon emissions from all food production.

The carbon reduction gained from eating an Impossible Burger is unlikely to make a significant dent in the carbon footprint of flying in the first place, but it’s better than nothing.

Other options for vegetarians

Delta isn’t the only airline catering to vegetarians. Qatar Airlines introduced a fully vegan menu for premium cabin customers in 2020. It includes zucchini noodles and arrabbiata sauce, tofu and spinach tortellini, and Asian barbecue tofu.

And while no other U.S. airlines have rolled out meat-free meal options that showcase plant-based meat alternatives like Delta, some have begun offering more and better meat-free options. Alaska Airlines offers a popular cheese and fruit platter on most flights, for example. And several U.S. airlines now let passengers pre-order meals before the flight, ensuring they don’t get left out when others scoop up the limited vegetarian or vegan meals.

Travelers who want a meat-free meal on international routes should preselect their meals while purchasing their tickets or during check-in. These special meals may include a vegan option, with no animal products, and an “ovo-lacto” choice, including dairy and eggs.

The bottom line

The skies haven’t always been a friendly place for vegetarian travelers. Beyond a packet of peanuts and a cola, travelers who prefer meat-free meal options may feel like they are left to fend for themselves, especially on domestic flights.

Delta has made a statement, partnering with Impossible Foods and other plant-based meat alternative producers to stake their claim as the best case for vegetarian airline food.

Will other airlines follow suit?