Plane Food 101: What you need to know when travelling with food allergies or preferences

2018-08-04 06:30 - Saara Mowlana
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fancy airplane food

See what you need to know when travelling with a food allergy or preference. (Photo: iStock)

When it comes to dietary requirements and allergies - flights can be touch and go - especially with severe allergies.

From unhelpful staff to food allergy misconceptions and miscommunication on-board - flying can seem like a nightmare to many.

We've listed some of the best airlines that will cater to both your food allergy and dietary needs below and what you need to know when travelling with the risk of food allergies.

SEE PICS: Eat with flair while up in the air with these 10 airlines

Don't chuck your worry to the wind - check out what you need to know about your food preference and allergy below:


Food allergies are a big concern when having to leave your food safety net and venture out into the world of public transportation - particularly long-haul travel.

Some of the most common food allergies include:

  • Cow's Milk - which in turn leads to a host of other dairy-related threats like cheese, yoghurt, butter etc.
  • Eggs
  • Nuts - of both the tree (Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, pistachios, pine nuts and walnuts) and pea (peanuts - which originate from the legume family) variety
  • Shellfish - this involves your shrimp, prawns, crayfish, lobster, squid and scallops. 
  • Wheat 
  • Soy and
  • Fish

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A major allergy concern among many while trapped within the confines of a plane - particularly in economy - is the uncomfortably close proximity to peanuts.

Pre-packaged peanuts are a staple hand-out on many airlines and this is not sitting well with a large number of people - some of whom don't have a nut allergy. 

However, there are people who have a severe allergy to peanuts and the mere smell of it could set off a reaction. A situation that a famous songstress, Dua Lipa, and her sister found themselves in while on a United Airlines flight.

The airline, who no longer serve peanuts on their flights, have stated on their website that they do recognise that their food might contain major allergens and that they aren't able to control whether fellow passengers bring their own peanuts on board or not.

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So, what can you do when caught in a tricky situation with your allergies?

While peanuts, eggs and milk are staples on flights and in in-flight meals - if you have a severe allergy to any specific food it's always best to call in a heads up and let the airline know your dietary requirements or allergies.

There are some airlines who are likely to comply and happily oblige to restrict or ban the selling of that specific item to passengers for the duration of your flight. 

Spokin used reviews from their app to determine the best and worst airlines to use if you have food allergies. They isolated the best for each class - first, business and economy - as well as international airline and the overall worst airlines.

Spokin examined positive and negative reviews to source out the ones ranked as best and worst when it comes to dealing with food allergies on board.

The positive defining attributes involved: Accommodating Staff, Makes Announcement, Pre-Board Available, Safe Snacks, Auto-Injector Onboard and Safe Meals.

The negative defining attributes involved: No Special Accommodations, Won't Make Announcement, Serves Nuts, No Pre-Board Option, Untrained Staff, Insensitive Staff.

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Best Airlines:

  • JetBlue's First Class
  • Southwest's Business Class
  • Delta Airlines' Economy Class
  • British Airways for International Flights

Worst Airlines:

  • American Airlines and United Airlines are tied 
  • Iberia Airlines also featured as less than ideal for food allergy travels

SA carriers & food allergies:

  • South African Airways advises passengers to order and confirm your requirement no less than 48 hours before departure time - should you have a special meal request or a food allergy.
  • Mango unfortunately does not cater to special dietary requirements and suggest passengers bring along their own meals should they have a preference or allergy as their food is prepared in a kitchen which contains nuts.
  • Kulula has an onboard snack store where you can purchase items - the menu does feature allergens like cashews and dairy products and requires onboard payment - to avoid the risk or extra charge, it's best to bring along a prepped and safe snack. 
  • FlySafair, similar to Kulula, has an onboard snack store which does feature allergens. However, they urge passengers to consult with the cabin crew should they require more information on possible allergens on the menu. 

READ ABOUT 10 life-changing tips to deal with allergies

Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) have published an article outlining what you can do at the airport and on the flight to avoid a rather unpleasant or threatening situation. 

At the airport you can... 

    • Follow up on your earlier request to notify airline personnel about your food allergy. It is best to reconfirm this at every opportunity and ensure that your food allergy is not at risk. Notify every authoritative figure you engage with: the ticket agent, the gate agent and reconfirm it again with the flight attendants.
    • Visit an airport eatery or kiosk to buy safe snacks for you or your child to have onboard the flight - in case you didn't already bring pre-packaged safe food from home
    • You could try your luck and ask the gate agent if you may pre-board the plane to inspect and clean your seating area. However, note that some airline policies will not allow pre-boarding for this reason.

    On the flight you can...

    • Check your seating area. Whip out your disinfectant wipes and wipe down the seat, tray, armrests, belt buckle and so on - which are some of the most germ-filled places you encounter on a flight. Touching or eating food off an unclean surface area could expose you to food allergens through cross-contact with food particles or spills.
    • Be courteous and polite with the flight crew and remember they are there to help you. It's best to help educate them about food allergies and work with them to make accommodations for your flight.
    • Never risk it for an in-flight biscuit. take a risk with food, especially when in the air and away from access to medical help. Don't eat food provided by an airline or a store in the airport unless you have read the ingredient label and can confirm it does not contain your allergen. If in doubt, don't eat it and bring your own snack or meal instead.
    • If you are dissatisfied with the airline, you could send a formal complaint to the airline which might assist them in reshaping their food policies.

    ALSO SEE: So you think you have a food allergy?

    10 tips to deal with allergies:

    Health24 has released a list of 10 life-changing tips to help you deal with allergies, which include:

    • Determine whether your symptoms are actually a cause of allergy or something else
    • Take your allergy meds before symptoms kick in
    • Thoroughly clean your environment - get rid of the pesky dust and pollen lurking in your home
    • Praise be to the neti pot, steam and sinus rinse! 
    • Consult your doctor for any form of persistent cough or chest problem
    • Always read food packaging and look out for allergens
    • Scrub the day off when you return home - hit the showers and splash off the potential trailing threats
    • Invest in a dehumidifier 
    • Know your indoor triggers and try to minimise your risk. It might not just be dust and pollen seeping in from outdoors, but indoor threats like dust mites, pet dander and mould - which is why it is key to always clean your space
    • If all else fails - consult a certified allergist

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    Dietary requirements

    While dietary preferences might not be as risky as a severe food allergy, it can be a real hindrance on long-haul flights if they don't cater to your dietary preference - be it: Vegetarian, Vegan, Halaal or Kosher. 

    Similarly to the process of notifying the airline about food allergies - it is recommended to give the airline a heads up about any specific dietary requirements or preferences. 

    Since most airlines offer vegetarian options, it becomes a bit harder to source airlines that cater to Halaal, Kosher or vegan preferences. See which are your best bet for Halaal, vegan and Kosher in-flight food options below:

    If you're looking for Halaal in-flight food options, some of the best airlines you could try out, according to Muslim Break, include:

    • Emirates Airlines
    • Turkish Airlines
    • Qatar Airways
    • Etihad Airways
    • British Airways
    • Qantas Airways and
    • Virgin Atlantic

    If you're looking for vegan in-flight food options, some of the best airlines you could try out, according to TRTL, include:

    • Jetstar Airlines
    • Qantas Airways
    • Emirates Airlines
    • Virgin America Airlines

    If you're looking for Kosher in-flight food options, some of the best airlines you could try out, according to commentators on the FlyerTalk forum, include:

    • British Airways
    • Swiss Air

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