Wondering what to eat on airplanes when you’re trying to stay healthy?

Charles Platkin PhD, MPH, public health advocate, editor of DietDetective.com and Distinguished Lecturer (professor) at HUNTER College and the City University of New York School of Public Health conducted an airline food investigation of major airlines’ snack and food offerings while up in the air.

Which airlines do you think had the best and worst options?

Some of the DietDetective results may surprise you. Last year, the survey found that the average number of calories per food item was 388 and this year it dropped to 360 calories (good news!).

The survey also included a Health Score (the best being 5 stars and the lowest being 0 star) based on the health of snack boxes, individual snacks, offerings, calorie levels, improvement from 2012, enhancements in the menu and ease of communication (in supplying nutritional values for the study). Additionally, individual items measured were rated for health ratings, average calories per airline, cost, comments, food offerings, calories and exercise equivalents.

The top ten airlines for healthy onboard snacks and meals are:

Virgin America and Air Canada took the top spots with overall Health Scores of 4.5 stars each. This means that they fit the health bill fairly well and have improved since last year. Virgin America’s Protein Meal with hummus, nuts and tuna is the best snack box offered by the airline. Their Travel Light meals sound very appealing and are lower in calories than most airlines’ offerings.

Air Canada, who also received 4.5 stars on the Health Score, does not feature the best individual snacks (as they would be better off shared). Most of the full meals are low on calories and even include a salad. The Greek yogurt or fruit plate breakfast options are only 150 and 186 calories respectively.

Alaska Airlines received 4 stars. The airline does not sell any individual snacks  But the Mediterranean Tapas box is the healthiest choice and their Salad Shaker options are the best hot foods offered. Avoid the French toast, as it is definitely not healthy.

JetBlue Airways does not have any healthy individual snacks and because of that, they only received 3.5 stars. The Shape Up snack box is more of a meal than a snack and the other snack boxes feature high calorie counts and low nutritional value. If you’re fortunate enough to be onboard the Eat Up Café flights, the Yogurt Parfait and the Quinoa Salad are your best bets.

United Airlines received 3.25 stars. The Tapas snack box is a good option (minus the cheese spread) but avoid the other snack boxes as they do not have much nutritional value. If you’re looking for a snack, look to the Two Degrees Food Bars and the Hummus Dip with Chips – or consider sharing the Sweet & Savory Bistro Blend Trail Mix. If you’re on a longer flight, choose the Mediterranean-Style Salad or the Turkey and Swiss Cranberry Baguette.

American Airlines received 3 stars. Yet again, hummus and chips is a healthy choice but on a longer flight, the Fresh Chicken Caesar Salad Bowl (sans chips) is your safest bet. The options for breakfast are limiting but you can share the Fruit and Nut Mix (with three or more people) for a healthier snack while on board. Overall, few choices are healthy on American Airlines.

US Airways also received 3 stars. If you want a snack while aboard US Airways, the nuts should be split three ways to make it a healthy option. The Clif Chocolate Chip Protein Bar, as well as the chips and salsa are also decent options. The Café Plus box has improved since 2012 and now features garlic hummus (it’s a trend!), olives, almonds and a fig bar. This can be eaten as a snack or a meal for one. On December 6 the carrier changed their lunch menu and none of the new dishes are under 600 calories. To cut back on calories, remove the cheese from the Turkey & Cheese Croissant Sandwich, give away the chips from the Chicken Cheddar Wrap or remove the meat from the Penne.

Delta Air Lines received 2.75 stars. The free peanuts are by far your best snack option and the Eats Tapas is a better meal (than snack choice). The Kickstart Combo is a good breakfast option and the Turkey Slider Combo is a good choice (without chips) for the flight. If you decide to order any of their sandwiches, it is recommended you remove the sauce, cheese or mayonnaise to make them healthier. On the longer flights from Atlanta to Hawaii, there are two salad options available for the health-inclined.

Frontier Airlines also received 2.75 stars. Try The Larabar (snack) or The Mediterranean Snack Box for a healthy, tasty meal.

Southwest Airlines received 2 stars. There’s really not any really healthy options, so if you are hungry, reach for the nuts (nothing else!).

Overall, airlines appear to be focused on providing a few healthy options, and often these dishes are Mediterranean-influenced foods, such as hummus, olives and vegetables. If you prefer something a little different, aim for a salad, wrap or an item where you can remove the cheese and sauce or leave the chips and cookies on the side.

Bon appétit!


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