Fellow roadtrippers flying to the start of your next road trip, and anyone else planning to board a domestic flight in the next few months, DietDetective.com has examined food available from eight U.S. airlines. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to pack your own snacks, this information could help you make healthier decisions. For those who believe Twinkies and French fries cover the major food groups, or those in the red-wine-and-chocolate camp, well, never mind.
This survey was conducted by DietDetective.com and health advocate, Charles Platkin, PhD, MPH, assistant professor at CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College. The survey provides the calorie information of snacks and on-board menu choices and gives each airline a health rating. The survey assigned a “Health Score” (5 stars = highest rate, 0 star = lowest) based on snack/on-board food service offerings, number of healthy offerings, airline cooperation, fruit and vegetable offerings, and improvements. The survey includes health ratings, cost, comments, food offerings, calories, and exercise equivalents.
This year Virgin America and Air Canada provided the "healthiest" choices in the sky, while United had a fall from grace, and Spirit Airlines received the lowest score. Spirit Airlines and Delta were the least cooperative and received low health ratings. Here is a summary of their findings:
Health Score: (****)
Best Bets: This airline cares about its passengers’ health--that's for sure. The airline calls their food Air Canada NutriCuisine and prides itself on the freshness and optimum quality of ingredients. They contract with a company called Food with a Conscience nutritional program ( www.foodwithaconscience.com) to help create their menu.
They can do slightly better on the individual snack offerings though. Pick the Nissin – Chicken Ramen Noodle Soup. It will fill you up and it's more like a meal. The cashews need to be shared. They will fill you up but have too many calories for one person. I love the idea of the Celery & Carrots with Ranch Dip -- nice touch. I just wish the dip were hummus or something healthier than ranch. As far as the meals go, they are all relatively low in calories. Go for the chicken or roast beef wrap or the vegetarian sandwich (nice!). The healthy oatmeal is also a great offering.
Virgin America (877-359-8474, www.virginamerica.com)
Health Score: (****)
Best Bets: In terms of individual snacks, the PopChips are a low-calorie choice; however, the best choice is the nuts. They are packed with important nutrients and will help keep you full longer than other snack choices. But you still need to split them with someone. The oatmeal is a good breakfast choice at 310 calories -- a nice whole grain to get you started in the morning. Virgin's snack boxes, such as the protein meal with hummus, nuts and tuna, are great. They’ll fill you up and will be a real meal. To be honest, the Jet Set Kid’s Pack could set a better example. I wish it had some healthier choices, but at least it's relatively low in calories (compared to other airline snack boxes). In terms of meals, the Edamame and Portobello Mushroom Wrap is filled with great stuff and has 9g of fiber and 20g of protein. Wow! The only negative is the high sodium content (1300mg). Another good choice is the Egg and Vegetable Salad Wrap, which is filled with high quality protein and has only 370 calories.
United Airlines (800-864-8331, www.united.com) / Continental Airlines (800.523.3273, www.continental.com)
Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information:
Health Score: (*** 1/4)
Best Bets: On flights longer than two hours, go for the Tapas; it has some great foods, including almonds, olives, hummus and bruschetta – just toss out the cheese spread. All the individual snacks are pretty high in calories. I realize they're meant to be shared, but even so, there is no one standout among them. If you have a family of five or six (not very likely) and wanted to split the almonds, they are really the only snack choice that has real nutritional value. You should avoid the chips and cinnamon rolls. That doesn't leave too many individual snack options. All the snack packs are very high in calories. There are elements in each that are ok; however, if I had to choose, the Savory is probably the best -- just watch that fruit-and-nut mix. In terms of meals, the yogurt is not too bad for breakfast. Skip the cheese and fruit plate -- it gives the illusion of being healthy, but it's not at all, and there is really not much fruit to speak of other than the dried fruit.
For flights longer than three hours, United has several healthy choices, but I really like the Grilled Chicken Spinach Salad at 360 calories including the dressing. The other choices, including the Asian Noodle Salad, Thai Chicken Wrap and Turkey Sandwich are ok choices compared to those of other airlines, and in term of calories they are decent for lunch or dinner. For breakfast, your best bet is the Yogurt Parfait – or, if you're interested in meat ,you can order the Ham and Cheddar Rustic Ciabatta Sandwich, which is 318 calories (not bad), and you can get rid of half the roll and save about 100 calories.
US Airways (480-693-0800, www.usairways.com)
Health Score: (** 3/4)
Best Bets: The CafePlus is not bad because, at the very least, you get the protein from the tuna, and it's low in calories. Maybe you can get rid of the cookies (give them to the flight attendant as a gift). I also like the Cobb Salad, and the good news is that the dressing is typically on the side. In terms of snacks, the only one that looks good is the chips and salsa at 130 calories. The nuts would be great; however, you need to split them with 8 to 10 people. Avoid the new Bacon/Egg Salad Croissant Box at more than 700 calories.
JetBlue Airways (800-538-2583, www.jetblue.com)
Health Score: (**3/4)
Best Bets: Not much in the snack area to eat other than the Quaker Multigrain Fiber Crisps. They are made with whole grain oats-- nice touch. Try to stick with no more than one snack. Just because they are free and they let you take more than one doesn’t mean you have to take them, especially if you’re not hungry. In terms of the meal boxes, the Shape Up is the clear winner if you're thinking of this as a meal. It has 8 grams of fiber and only 2g of unhealthy saturated fat. While the Cheer Up is low in calories, I’m not sure it will do the trick as a meal. However, if you're just looking for a snack and you share it with someone, you're only at 130 calories. Last year JetBlue started to offer more than just snacks, but only on longer flights. The problem is that they still need to add some healthier real meals and snack options. The individually packaged snacks are portion-controlled; however, most are lacking in any real nutritional value. And the worst part is that they no longer sell nuts -- which were the most nutrient-dense offering they had.
American Airlines (817-963-1234, www.aa.com)
Health Score: (**1/2) Their snacks are still high in calories with few healthy offerings.
Best Bets: Your best bet is the Sabra Roasted Red Pepper Hummus with Pretzels; at least the hummus has a few health benefits. The Fruit and Nut Blend is a decent nutrition choice, but make sure to split it with at least two other people. Nuts are very high in calories but will help fill you up. If you're on a longer flight, the best choice is a new item -- Marcus Samuelsson’s New American Table Turkey and Chutney Sandwich, which is packed with protein and even has apple slices on the sandwich for flavor. It’s only 323 calories without the chips (give them away or refuse them). Another good choice is the Boston Market Chicken Caesar Salad with chips (which you can give away) and dressing for 660 calories. I like the fact that the dressing is on the side (use it sparingly). Again, you need to make sure you differentiate a snack from a meal. A 600-calorie snack is very high; however, a 600-calorie meal, especially for dinner, can be reasonable. Watch out for the Boston Market Deli Chicken Pesto and the Boston Market Turkey Carver -- they have way too many calories for one person. For breakfast, the fruit and cheese plate is an ok choice. I like it because at least it has walnuts and grapes, and the cheese portions are small. The Breakfast Café Croissant Sandwich is low in calories at 320, and the ham might fill you up nicely. The other breakfast choices are high in calories, low in nutrients, or both.
Delta Air Lines (404-773-0305, www.delta.com)
Health Score: (** 1/4)
Best Bets: In terms of individual snacks, there are no good options; however, sharing a Flight Delights snack box is a pretty good idea (or have it as a meal and eat the whole thing). It has a variety of nutrient-dense foods that are low in calories for what you get. Of the breakfast options (on flights of 3 ½ hours or longer) your best bet is the Breakfast Snack, which has light yogurt and a fresh banana. Delta also offers a fruit and cheese plate that’s available for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The cheese is very high in calories, but it’s still a nice option if you skip the crackers; at least you're getting some nutritional benefit from what you're eating. For lunch/dinner options, there are not too many offerings. You have the Chicken and Turkey Cuban at 552.5 calories or the Turkey Peppercorn Ranch Ciabatta at 576 calories. The chicken and turkey is the lower-calorie choice and is probably healthier based on the ingredients -- try to have only half the bread.
Southwest Airlines (214-792-4223, www.southwest.com)
Health Score: (*3/4) Not much variety and not much in terms of nutritional value.
Best Bet: Go for the nuts and skip the pretzels and other items.
Spirit Airlines (800-772-7117, www.spirit.com)
Health Score: ( *)
Best Bet: Bring your own food!!! However, I guess the soup, at only 300 calories, could work as a meal. Keep in mind that all the calorie information below was estimated by our staff from the Spirit Airline menu descriptions and food manufacturers’ websites.