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Diet Detective: Rating the nutrition of airline food

12/17/2013 9:58 AM

12/17/2013 9:59 AM

It’s holiday, which means travel.

So, each year I contact the airlines to request nutrition information for the foods they serve economy-class passengers on domestic flights. There are not too many major changes from last year, but as an overall observation, the good seem to have gotten better.

Virgin America and Air Canada are tied, as they were two years ago, for having the healthiest food in the air. Virgin America has the only Travel Light menu and on-demand ordering (eat when you want). Air Canada has better individual snacks, and the airline prides itself on the freshness and quality of its ingredients.

The airline contracts with a company called Food With a Conscience to help create its menu. Alaska Airlines has real meals that are reasonable in terms of health and calories; United and JetBlue seem to be moving in a better direction. American is not terrible, but it’s not improving either.

It is still a huge mystery to me why airlines don’t see healthy, tasty foods as a profit center. Clearly, the “better for you” food market is on fire (think Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and all the new products on the market).

The big airlines, like American, are slow to improve food service, but I believe we will see changes for the better in the next few years. JetBlue has added a few more healthy (and unhealthy) items on select routes between New York and California.

Delta’s snacks are still not very good, but its meals are getting better. Virgin America needs to offer healthier individual snacks to take the lead, and Air Canada needs to add healthier meals — a merger, perhaps?

The “Shame on You” award, once again, goes to Allegiant. Its foods are packaged but officials wouldn’t even share nutrition facts panels.

Here are the food-service offerings from several of the more popular airlines, along with Diet Detective’s comments, ratings (Health score: 5 = highest), calories and personal favorites.

Virgin America

877-359-8474; www.virginamerica.com

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Excellent

Health score: 4 1/2

Average calories overall (meals, snack boxes and individual snacks): 458.6

Average meal/snack box calories: 360.75

Average individual snack calories: 270.63

Best bets: Avoid the individual snacks. Even the nuts, which are the best choice, are high in calories if you consume the entire package.

For breakfast, Virgin used to have low-calorie oatmeal, which has been replaced by a higher-calorie granola with fruit and yogurt — not too bad if you were rushing to catch the plane and didn’t have any other choice.

The best snack box is the Protein Meal with hummus, nuts and tuna — the others are a bit high in calories and not really worth it. For kids, skip the Jet Set Kid Pack and go for the half peanut butter and jam sandwich.

In general, the best bet is to go for a real meal, even if you save half for later. Nearly all the Travel Light meals are good choices (although the half wrap might not be filling enough). Just reading the menu can make you hungry and excited to fly on Virgin America.

The standouts are the roasted pear and arugula salad with almonds and a fig-mustard dressing, which has lots of fiber and only 310 calories. Also, the chicken protein platter is a bit higher in calories (you can always skip some of the cheese), but the protein will keep you feeling full and alert.

Again, these are meals that will fill you up and help you avoid the junk. The good news is that none of the food goes overboard in terms of calories — so you really can’t go too far wrong.

Alaska Airlines

800-252-7522; www.alaskaair.com

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Very helpful

Health score: 4

Average calories: 402.77

Average meal/snack box calories: 402.77 (no individual snacks)

Best bets: Among the snack boxes, the Mediterranean tapas box hasn’t changed much from last year and is still the healthiest choice. It has olives, hummus, almonds, dried fruit and even a dark chocolate bar. But keep in mind that 497 calories is a bit high for a “snack” (or even a meal), so it’s best if you share.

For kids, the snack box may be tempting, but it’s always better for children (and adults) to eat a real meal than to snack mindlessly. As far as breakfast choices go, those on the west or northbound flights are all high in calories.

The French toast is not healthy. The fruit and cheese plate is available all day and is the best choice for breakfast if you skip the crackers and half the cheese. Among the hot foods, the best choices on the south and eastbound flights are the Mediterranean quinoa salad shaker and the chicken wrap, and on north/westbound flights, the Asian chicken salad shaker.

United Airlines

800-864-8331; www.united.com

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Very helpful

Health score: 3 1/4

Average calories overall (meals, snack boxes and individual snacks): 458.58

Average meal/snack box calories: 521.38

Average individual snack calories: 322.50

Best bets: On flights of more than two hours, choose the Tapas snack box, which is high in calories but has many healthy foods, including almonds, olives, hummus and bruschetta — just toss out the cheese spread.

The snack box should be shared unless you eat it as a meal. On flights of less than three hours, you don’t have much of a choice for a meal, and the tapas will fill you up and provide healthy nutrients. Skip the “Classic” and “Savory” snack boxes — not too much nutritionally going on.

The individual snacks on United have improved from a calorie perspective (the range is now 190-650; last year it was 330-1,020), and from a health perspective, the airline has scrapped the Chex Mix, croissants, cinnamon rolls and 1,000-calorie nuts. Great work!

United has also added the Sweet & Savory Bistro Blend trail mix, a good choice if you share it with three others (it’s 560 calories per bag), plus the Two Degrees food bars at 190 calories per bar and the Wild Garden Hummus Dip with chips, at 210 calories. The bars and hummus are both good snack choices. Skip the cheese plate; there are better options.

On flights of more than three hours, United has added the Mediterranean-style salad, a good low-calorie choice that includes grilled zucchini, squash, bell pepper, olives, hummus and pita.

Another reasonable choice is the turkey and Swiss cranberry baguette, but skip the Cobb salad wrap; it is high in calories (do not be fooled by the word “salad”). For breakfast, your best bet is the Morning Energy Selection with fruit, egg and yogurt. The other breakfasts available are not very healthy.

American Airlines

817-963-1234; www.aa.com

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Excellent

Health score: 3

Average calories overall (meals, snack boxes and individual snacks): 456

Average meal/snack box calories: 447.57

Average individual snack calories: 470.75

Best bets: For individual snacks, the hummus and chips is your best choice at 203 calories.

You can pass on the other snacks, especially the fruit and nut mix, unless you have a large family to share it with.

Too bad American dropped the Insalata Caprese. Now there are no real meals available for that two-hour-plus flight time. If you’re on a longer flight (three hours or more), the fresh chicken Caesar salad bowl minus the chips is the way to go.

Avoid the brisket sandwich; even without the chips it’s more than 600 calories. For breakfast on flights of two hours or more, there’s not much except for the shared fruit and nut mix. On flights of three hours or more, the breakfast sandwich is the better choice, without the cookies.

US Airways

480-693-0800; www.usairways.com

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Very helpful

Health score: 3

Average calories overall (meals, snack boxes and individual snacks):442.46

Average meal/snack box calories: 532

Average individual snack calories: 367.50

Best bets: The only individual snacks that work are the nuts (split with three people or more), the Clif chocolate chip protein bar, and the chips and salsa; the rest lack nutritional value (and have too many calories).

However, none of these is a really healthy choice. Among the snack boxes, the Café Plus is much better this year, with mostly healthy items, including roasted garlic hummus, olives, a honey-glazed almond mix and a fig bar. The Café Snack box can also work if you share it, or it can serve as a meal for one. For lunch or dinner the egg and turkey bacon sandwich has actually increased in calories since last year (it was already high), but still, it’s a real meal, and is better than the fruit and cheese plate, which is lower in calories but won’t fill you up.

For breakfast you can opt for the yogurt parfait at 260 calories (the granola adds all the calories). For lunch or dinner, the crispy chicken salad is probably a miss since it has fried chicken as the protein source. The lunch options are all more than 600 calories. Choose the turkey and cheese croissant sandwich, but take off the cheese. You can also choose the chicken cheddar wrap and give away the chips, or go for the penne and remove the meat to save calories.

Delta Air Lines

800-221-1212; www.delta.com

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: More helpful than last year

Health score: 2 3/4

Average calories overall (meals, snack boxes and individual snacks): 447.57

Average meal/snack box calories: 516.91

Average individual snack calories: 294

Best bets: For the free snacks (on flights of 1.5 hours-plus) the peanuts are the best choice. None of the “for sale” individual snacks is a good choice.

If you do get the nut mix, make sure to share it with at least two others. Gosh, the snack boxes are getting worse (higher in calories). Both boxes are poor choices.

However, if you choose the Eats Tapas, eat the hummus, bruschetta, olives, almonds, apricots and dark chocolate — skip the rest, and make this a meal, not a snack.

Of the breakfast options, your best bet is the Kickstart Combo (yogurt, banana and Kind bar) at 340 calories. If you share the fruit and cheese plate at 560 calories, skip the crackers and don’t eat all the cheese, it can be a good choice because of the fruit and almonds (and some of the cheese).

The turkey slider combo is a good choice if you skip the chips. On westbound flights of more than three hours, for lunch/dinner you can have the corned beef sandwich (if no other option suits you), but take off the Swiss cheese and skip the mayo.

On eastbound flights of more than three hours, the roasted chicken breast sandwich is pretty good if you take off the cheddar cheese and skip the aioli. On flights between Atlanta and Hawaii, Delta has two healthy salads: Greek and Caesar.

Southwest Airlines

214-792-4223; www.southwest.com

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Excellent

Health score: 2

Average calories: 108 (no meals or snack boxes available)

Best bet: Go for the nuts and skip the pretzels and other items.

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