As any frequent air traveler knows, trying to eat healthily while at the airport and on a plane can be a challenge.
Indeed, once you’re at 35,000 feet, your food choices quickly narrow — often to just a handful of not-very-healthful snacks.
Charles Platkin, director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and editor of DietDetective.com, believes it’s important for consumers to know which airlines offer the “best” and “worst” food choices from a health perspective. So each year, he and his colleagues release a report that rates the foods offered by 12 airlines: Delta Air Lines, Virgin Atlantic, Air Canada, JetBlue, Alaska Air, United Airlines, American, Frontier Air, Southwest Airlines, Allegiant Air, Spirit Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines.
This year, Delta tied with Virgin Atlantic as the “healthiest airline.” Both scored four out of five stars. Close behind were Air Canada and JetBlue, which tied for second with 3.75 stars.
At the bottom of the list was Hawaiian Airlines with a measly 1 star.
Platkin’s “health score” ratings are based on a long list of factors. Some involve what’s in the airlines’ food offerings (healthful nutrients, calories) and whether or not passengers have much of a choice in selecting more healthful foods. Others have to do with transparency (the displaying of ingredient and nutrient information). Yet another factor is how cooperative the airline was with providing nutritional information to the researchers.
‘A clear leader’
Delta topped the list this year for a variety of reasons, says Platkin.
“Delta is doing an incredible job focusing on improving its food, transparency and communication,” he writes in the report. “It is the clear leader among the big carriers.”
The airline has decreased the overall average calories of its meals, snack boxes and individual snacks from 527 to 480, Platkin notes, and its menus are transparent about ingredient and allergen information. He also praises Delta for working with the Canadian-based frozen-food company Luvo, which “has a very strong commitment to healthy eating,” he says.
Here are Platkin’s “Best Bets” for Delta passengers. (Note: Earlier this year, Delta began offering complimentary meals in economy class on selected domestic flights.):
For a snack, the almonds are the best choice-even over the Kind bar or the lower-calorie pretzels. The vegan, GMO-free Tapas Snack Box is a good healthy choice if you share or make it a meal (it’s too high in calories as a snack). Within the box the best bets are the Super Seed Crackers, Snapea Crisps, dark chocolate almonds, hummus, and quinoa with pepper dip. You can pass on the rest.
For morning travel, choose the continental breakfast (fruit and yogurt) at 345 calories, but save the Kind bar for a snack later in the day. For Lunch/Dinner, choose the Sesame Noodle Salad or the Greek Meze Plate. You can skip the caramel-filled chocolate to save calories.
At the other end of the list is Hawaiian Airlines, which apparently refused to respond to Platkin’s requests for information. He and his colleagues therefore had to estimate all the nutritional information for Hawaiian’s food offerings. Those estimates revealed some rather unhealthful numbers: 971 calories in the airline’s average meal, for example, and 460 calories in its average snack.
Platkin’s review of Hawaiian Airlines’ food offerings is scathing.
“Hawaiian Airlines’ food is high in calories and the menu doesn’t offer much choice either in terms of health or in the way of food system consciousness (caring about sustainability, organic growing, no GMOs, etc.),” Platkin writes. “This could be a real disappointment if you are on a long flight and have not planned in advance. Plus, when free food is put down in front of you, you have a tendency to eat it. All of it. That could be a lot of unhealthy food.”
Here are some of Platkin’s “best bets” for Hawaiian Airlines passengers:
Among the snacks, choose the Hummus & Pita Chips. It’s really the best choice, and better than any of the individual snacks, which are very high in calories. You might think the Salted Macadamia Nuts would be a good choice, and they do have healthy properties, but only if you split them with 5 other people or have them over the course of a few weeks. The two oatmeal options are lower in calories but likely high in sugar, while the beef and cheese sticks (the lowest calorie individual snack option) are high in saturated fat and sodium.
Bring Your Own
You may disagree with Platkin’s ratings and reviews of the 12 airlines’ food offerings (or, more particularly, with some of the assumptions behind those ratings, such as saturated fat being unhealthful), but it’s difficult to disagree with the basic premise of this report: that passengers who want to eat healthful foods while on a plane have extremely limited options.
To broaden those options, Platkin strongly advises bringing your own healthful snacks onto every flight.
“Even if you ate before you left home, you are still going to get hungry,” he writes. “We often underestimate the amount of time a trip can take. A two-hour flight could mean four or five hours of travel.”
You can get most food through security, he adds, but be sure to check with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) before you get to the airport.
Here are some ideas from Platkin about what to bring onto the plane with you:
Water: Bring your own empty, reusable water bottle to fill at an airport water fountain when you are past the security checkpoint, take onboard and refill throughout your trip. Dehydration can cause or exacerbate hunger, jet lag and fatigue. Alternatively, buy a bottle after the security checkpoint.
Cereal: Shredded Wheat or other low-calorie cereals. Look for portable choices at under 120 calories per cup. You can also look for cereal in a cup. It’s portion controlled in 1.5-ounce packs that are easy to store and easy to use.
Fruit and salads: Stick with fruits such as apples and oranges that can withstand some rough treatment. You can even bring a banana if you put it in a container such as a banana saver. Grapes or almost any other fruit can be carried in a plastic container. Also, fruit and salads are often sold in the airport. They’re a bit more expensive than bringing your own, but at least they’re healthy alternatives to what is served onboard.
Energy bars: Although they tend to be high in calories and fat, they are generally better than a slice of pizza or a candy bar at the airport. Choose Larabars; they have nothing but healthy ingredients.
Sandwiches: Pre-cut them into portion-controlled sections so you can pull them out at different times during the trip without making a mess. Chicken, turkey, cold cuts and cheese (on 100 percent whole-wheat bread) are all great options for sandwiches on the go.
Nuts: They’re a good source of protein, and they help fend off hunger. Portion them into 1-ounce bags (about 160 calories each).
Dried or freeze-dried fruit and vegetable snacks: Eat dried fruit in moderation: It’s high in calories.
All Natural Fruit Roll-Ups (no sugar added)
Beef jerky: Especially if you’re a low-carb fan, but not if you’re watching your sodium.
FMI: You can read the full report at Platkin’s Diet Detective website.