Health & Fitness

Diet Detective’s annual guide to the best and worst airline food

Star-Telegram archives

It’s time to start thinking about our diet again, including when we travel. Once again we contacted the airlines to request nutrition information for the foods they serve economy-class passengers on domestic flights and gathered data stored on websites and other online resources to bring you the 2016-17 Diet Detective Airline Food Survey.

Virgin America is still doing a very good job of creating interesting, thoughtful food in all categories except for individual snacks. In fact, all the airlines could do better with their snack choices — there is no clear leader in this category.

All the airlines have interesting food concepts. That said, Delta wins most improved from last year, and has the ability to take the lead if the airline makes a few easy changes.

This has been a slow year in general for innovation in terms of healthy foods, transparency, and food consciousness (no gmos, organic, lighter and sustainable foods). Airlines other than Delta and Virgin America seem very slow to catch on to the food awareness that is going on around the country and around the world. The average number of calories per menu choice was 360 in 2012; in 2013 it was 388; in 2014 it was 397, 2015 it was 400 and this year it’s 392, an 8-calorie decrease over last year. Calories are not everything; we are looking at the nutrients in these foods when they are provided, as well as innovations moving toward healthy, tasty, inexpensive, sustainable foods.

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

Virgin America

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Excellent

Health score (out of 5): 4.25

Average calories overall: 337

Comments: The airline continues to improve upon its food and its transparency. VA has such a commitment to food, I just don’t understand why it don’t offer healthy individual snacks — nothing even close. How about an apple or an orange? I am impressed that the average meal has dropped by 24.38 calories. But calories aren’t everything.

Best bets: Avoid the individual snack if you can. Even the nuts, which are the best choice, are high in calories if you consume the entire package. Always choose a real meal if you can. Even if it’s slightly more calories, it will keep you full longer.

Delta Air Lines

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Excellent

Health score (out of 5): 4

Average calories overall: 527

Comments: Delta continues its commitment to improving its food in terms of health and consciousness. Over the summer, the airline launched new menus called Flight Fuel, which replaced the EATS program. The new menus attempt to focus on “transparency into ingredient and allergen information for customers.” Along with the new Flight Fuel launch, Delta also upped its nutrition game this year by providing a key on the menu for snack items that are non-GMO, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, and lacto-ovo vegetarian. Also, the tapas box is the U.S. airline industry’s only non-GMO snack box.

Delta continues to work with Luvo (www.Luvoinc.com), which has a very strong commitment to healthy eating. All the calorie information for the Luvo items are listed on Delta’s menu (and online); but be aware that the calories listed apply only to the individual sandwich or wrap, not the entire meal — which can be confusing if you don’t see the asterisk.

Best bets: For a snack, the nuts are the best choice — even over 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). The best bests are the super seed crackers, Snapea Crisps, dark chocolate, almonds, hummus, and quinoa with pepper dip.

JetBlue Airways

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Helpful

Health score (out of 5): 3.5

Average calories overall: 330

Comments: The individual snacks are still low in calories as well as nutritional value. The airline continues to post nutritional information for its meals, however, it doesn’t post the nutritional information for snacks. The a la carte snacks are no longer available, but they were high in calories. Once an innovator in the air, JetBlue, the sixth-largest U.S. carrier, has certainly fallen behind in the food department. We need to see more foods like Chobani yogurt, and fewer Cheez-Its.

Best bets: Still not too much in the way of healthy individual snacks. As for the meal boxes, we still like the Pump Up, which has healthy ingredients (Mary’s Gone Crackers-Original, olives, hummus and bean crisps), but remember that it’s a meal and should not be eaten as a snack (skip the olives if you are sodium sensitive). Skip the other meal boxes, which are high in calories and fat and offer little in terms of nutrition. If you are on a flight that offers the Eat Up Café, the yogurt and granola (you might want to limit the honey), the kale and quinoa salad and the spicy soba and Korean-style chicken are all good choices.

United Airlines

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Helpful

Health score (out of 5): 3.25

Average calories overall: 444

Comments: United’s individual snacks are up in average calories from 283 to 375.6, but the overall calorie count for everything is only slightly higher. United is the fourth-largest airline in the U.S.; it should be thinking about healthy food. Years ago, it was No. 1 in this area. The breakfast, lunch and dinner menu has many new options; however, healthy meal choices are limited.

Best bets: Among the individual snacks, the hummus is the best choice. Or else share the Sweet & Savory Bistro Blend Trail Mix with at least a few others. Get 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. For breakfast, your best bet is the chicken sausage egg skillet, but skip the chicken sausage to save calories. Also, skip the ham baguette. For lunch/dinner, the airline removed last year’s best bet, the wrap and salad combo. The new options are not great; however, the Mediterranean chicken wrap is your best bet and should keep you full.

American Airlines

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Good

Health score (out of 5): 3

Average calories overall: 367

Comments: American now provides complimentary snacks on flights of more than 250 miles — not healthy ones though. The average number of calories per meal has gone done, other than the snack boxes (398 to 497). Unfortunately, AA decided to remove the chicken Cobb salad, which was one of our Best Bets last year, and replaced it with a higher-calorie turkey and chutney sandwich.

Furthermore, we were unhappy to find out that the Fort Worth-based airline decided not to publish food menu information on its website, a strange move leading to even less food transparency. The airline continues to lose out on what could be a tremendous financial opportunity — healthy foods often have larger profit margins and customers will be happier.

Best bets: For individual snacks, the hummus and chips is still your best choice. Skip the snack box unless you toss the salami and cheese. The Thai ginger chicken wrap is a good choice, but skip the sesame-ginger dressing. For breakfast on flights of more than two but less than three hours, there’s not much to eat; and while the trail mix may seem like a healthy choice, it’s very high in calories. On flights of three hours or more, the breakfast sandwich is an OK choice as long as you go light on the honey mustard dressing.

Southwest Airlines

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Very good

Health score (out of 5): 2

Average calories overall:190.4

Comments: Not much variety and not much in terms of nutritional value. We wish it would add some healthy snacks or at least test a few. The Dallas-based airline is one of the larger carriers in the U.S., so it would be great for Southwest to set an example and show that healthy food can sell if it is tasty and curated with consciousness.

Best bet: The peanuts are the best, even though the pretzels are lower in calories. There haven’t been many healthy changes to the menu, and don’t be fooled by the word “veggie” in the wheat thins.

Spirit Airlines

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Terrible

Health score (out of 5): 1

Average calories overall: 383

Comments: The airline’s media spokesperson doesn’t respond to emails or calls. Paraphrasing him from previous years: passengers should bring their own food and drinks. But in my opinion, the airline has a responsibility to serve foods that are healthier. The good news: The calorie count has gone down from last year to 366. The bad news is that there are few healthy options.

Best bet: The cup of noodle soup at 290 calories is still the only choice that will feel like a real meal, but it is very high in sodium, so it is not the best bet for someone who is sodium-sensitive or has high blood pressure. All the muffins are at least 400 calories — not the best choices unless you split one (if you’re the type of person who can do that). The chips and salsa is the lowest-calorie choice of all the snacks but probably won’t fill you up. Skip the snack box.

Frontier Airlines

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Terrible and rude

Health score(out of 5): 1

Average calories overall: 380

Comments: The PR team was back with its typical nasty, condescending tone. Here is an abbreviated quote from the email: “Without impeding operations I cannot go pillage through a catering carts while a plane is on the ground to take photos of these items, nor as we indicated can we get access to the catering kitchen … feel free to state that for the most recently added items (Chewy Candy – Spree, and the trail mix) the nutritional information was unavailable.” Transparency is important, and people do care about the foods they eat. Also, calories and offerings are moving in the wrong direction. Calories are up over last year.

Best bets: Perhaps the trail mix — but we had to estimate the calories and don’t know the nutrient values. Also, if you’re not sodium sensitive you can grab the jerky.

Charles Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com.

Summary of health ratings (5 stars is highest)

Virgin America, 4.25 stars; Delta, 4 stars; JetBlue, 3.5 stars; United Airlines, 3.25 stars; American, 3 stars; Southwest Airlines, 2 stars; Spirit Airlines, 1; Frontier Air, 1 star.

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