Changing game

Yesterday we reconnected Netflix after having gone off the platform for a month – we had thought we were wasting too much time on the platform, and so pulled the plug, until the paucity of quality non-sport content on our other streaming platforms forced us to return.

The first thing I did upon reconnecting Netflix was watching Gamechangers, a documentary about the benefits of vegan food, which had been recommended to me by a couple of business associates a few weeks back.

The documentary basically picks a bunch of research that talks about the benefits of plant-based food and staying away from animal-based food. The key idea is that animals are “just middlemen of protein”, and by eating plants we might be going straight to source.

And it is filled with examples of elite athletes and strong-persons who have turned vegan, and how going vegan is helping them build more stamina and have better health indicators, including the length and hardness of erections.

The documentary did end up making me feel uncomfortable – I grew up vegetarian, but for the last 7-8 years I’ve been eating pretty much everything. And I’ve come to a point of life where I’m not sure if I’ll get my required nutrient mix from plant-based foods only.

And there comes this documentary presenting evidence upon evidence that plant based foods are good, and you should avoid animal based food if you want your arteries to not be clogged, to keep your stamina high, and so on. There were points during the documentary where I seriously considered turning vegetarian once again.

Having given it a day, I think the basic point of the documentary as I see it is that, ceteris paribus, a plant based diet is likely to keep you healthier and fitter than an animal-based diet. But then, ceteris is not paribus.

The nutrient mix that you get from the sort of vegetarian diet that I grew up on is very different from the nutrient mix you get from a meat-based diet. Some of the examples of vegan diets shown in the documentary, for example, rely heavily on mock meats (made with soybean), which have a similar nutritional profile to meats they are meant to mock. And that is very different from the carb-fests that south indian vegetarian food have turned into.

So for me to get influenced by the documentary and turn back vegetarian (or even vegan, which I’d imagine will be very hard for me to do), I need to supplement my diet with seemingly unnatural foods such as “mock meat” if I need to get the same nutritional balance that I’ve gotten used to of late. Simply eliminating all meat or animal based products from my diet is not going to make me any more healthier, notwithstanding what the documentary states, or what Virat Kohli does.

In other words, it seems to me that getting the right balance of nutrients is a tradeoff between eating animal-based food, and eating highly processed unnatural food (mock meat). And I’m not willing to switch on that yet.

Flight food and choice

The topic of outrage for the day on Twitter seems to be Air India’s decision to serve only vegetarian food on flights that last less than 90 minutes. Predictably, given the current government’s policies and track record so far, people are decrying this as some sort of a “brahminical conspiracy”. This was even quoted as  a reason to privatise Air India (while I don’t agree with this reason, I fully agree that there are several other reasons to privatise Air India).

While outragers will outrage (and they might have a pathological need to outrage), this decision of Air India actually has sound basis. I had touched upon this in an earlier  blog post about why I get irritated with Indigo’s in-flight service.

The problem is that the more the choice you give customers, the slower the overall service will be. While this may not affect people seated in rows where service begins, it can be an immense cause of frustration for passengers who are seated in rows that will be served last.

In longer duration flights, this matters less since people who are served last will have sufficient amount of time to finish their meals before the trays have to be cleared in time for the flight to land. On shorter flights, however, the time available for meal service is so short that it is possible that trays might have to be cleared barely after a section of the passengers have started eating.

Eliminating choice significantly speeds up the meal delivery process (refer to my post on Indigo’s food for more on this), and ensures that people who have been served last have sufficient time to finish their meals before trays have to be cleared. While it may not take much time for the steward to ask the customer her choice, considering the total cycle time (along with passengers asking details of the menu, etc.) and the number of passengers to be served, cutting choice is a sound decision indeed.

As for the vegetarian option, when there is no choice offered, it is natural to go with the option that satisfies the maximum number of people. Considering that Indians don’t eat much meat (while only a small proportion of Indians are vegetarian, overall meat consumption is very low), it is a rather obvious choice that only vegetarian food will be served.

This is a commendable decision by Air India and I hope they stick to it. I hope other airlines will also learn from this and cut choice in their inflight menus (Indigo, I’m looking at you) so that passengers can be served with the minimum uncertainty and minimum fuss.

Tailpiece The above linked NDTV Profit piece has a bizarre comment from an expert. Quoting:

However, according to travel industry expert Rajji Rai, the state-owned airline should have first carried out a passenger survey, which is an industry practice, before affecting any change in the menu.

“Airlines world over carry out customer surveys before taking such decisions. Unfortunately, Air India is very poor in such practices. This decision to discontinue non-vegetarian food on these non-metro flights is just one-sided,” he said.

Surveys are overrated in my opinion, and there is no reason Air India should have conducted a survey before making this decision – for they have access to significant amounts of actual customer preferences over a large number of schedules. The value of a survey in this case is at best marginal

What a vegetarian missed out on


This is the menu card that I was given on my flight from Paris to Bangalore on Thursday. Lets look at what all a vegetarian would have missed out on:

1. Mashed potatoes with vegetables
2. Camembert cheese
3. Pineapple
4. Chocolate Tartlet

I ate all of the above and can attest that they were all most excellent – even if I were to judge them by standards not normally applied to airline food.

But someone who asked got a vegetarian platter (or had a vegetarian meal pre-booked) would have had none of the above. They would’ve instead had to make do with a sealed cup of yogurt, and a saffron semolina cake with almonds. Sounds rather sad, even if it were part of a special menu created by the oberoi group.

The problem is that the number of travelers who are vegetarian and foodies is quite small – so small that it makes no sense for the airline to career specifically to them.

Serving food on board is expensive business for airlines, and the less the number of choices they offer the better it is for them in terms of slack they have to build into their system. Hence they offer only what they believe are popular choices and hope that people’s preferences are within one of the choices they offer.

There are special meals on offer though for people with special dietary requirements but they are on offer only for those who have specifically pre booked them – this restriction means airlines don’t need to carry slack on this count. But for everyone else it’s a choice between one of the main meals on offer, and for vegetarians who like to eat well it’s a rather sad choice.

If I were offered this menu three years back when I was still vegetarian there’s a high probability I would have asked for the French cuisine. And eaten everything but for the chicken (and perhaps the mashed potatoes since they came in the same container as the chicken).

Or better I might have tried to negotiate with the airline staff to give me everything from the French menu but for the hot stuff – which would come from the vegetarian option. Given its air France I don’t know if I would’ve succeeded but would’ve tried.

I remember this fight in 2011 on Aegean airways from Rome to Athens when we had pre booked vegetarian meals and were given sad looking fruit bowls in lieu of pastries. We has asked the staff if they could give us pastries instead of our fruit. And they ended up giving us both! But then not all airline staff are so empowered!

It’s not easy being a minority, on whatever axis. Markets are too illiquid to cater to you.