Special dietary needs are creating a nightmare for airline caterers as more passengers demand gluten-free, vegan or culturally specific meals.

So extensive has the list of demands become from travellers, some airlines are now devising up to 35 different menus for flights.

Chef Luke Mangan who designs meals for Virgin Australia's Business Class cabins, said there was no longer any such thing as one menu for all.

"You've got to think of gluten free, vegetarian, diabetic - you just can't write a menu nowadays, you have to do three or four," Mr Mangan said.


Or in the case of Singapore Airlines, 35.

The airline leads the pack with its range of variations to meet cultural or dietary needs, including an ulcer diet meal, post-weaning meal, vegetarian lacto-ovo, lactose-free, raw vegetable and high-fibre.

Emirates and Cathay Pacific are not far behind with more than 20 specialty meals each, while Virgin Australia offers 19 variations on the standard menu and Qantas 16.

Menu design and preparation is a work in progress at Qantas where dedicated chefs work on over 300 menus at any one time, testing countless recipes before deciding on the final dish.

Cathay Pacific Head of Catering Aaron Claxton said meeting special dietary needs had become "increasingly topical" during recent years.

"We've seen a distinct increase in demand for food to meet special dietary needs," said Mr Claxton.

"We have seen the rise of vegetarian meals over the years and for that reason, we offer more than five types of vegetarian cuisine including Indian, oriental, lacto-ovo and vegan.

"There is also a surge in demand for healthier meals including requests for fruit platters, low salt meals and low calorie meals."

Jimmy Pierson from The Vegan Society, said it was high time every airline listened to their customers and provided decent vegan options.

"Vegans for too long have had to be creative when travelling by plane - either resorting to eating around the veg around some meat or fish, bringing their own food on board or even eating before departure," said Mr Pierson.

"To have a vegan option as standard is definitely progress."

Dieticians' Association of Australia spokesman Duane Miller encouraged travellers to investigate what "special meals" were available for their own well-being.

"The more demand there is for healthy options, the more likely the airlines are to provide them," said Mr Miller.

"Pressure needs to come from people flying on the airlines and dieticians are happy to help."