An annual nutrition study of meals provided inflight by 12 U.S. airlines has been released by DietDetective.com, with Delta Air Lines and Virgin America coming out on top with a "health score" of 4 stars out of 5; Hawaiian Airlines occupied the bottom rung with just 1 star.
According to the website, which is edited by Charles Platkin, Ph.D., JD, MPH, executive director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, the health scores are based on criteria such as the healthy nutrients and calorie levels in meals, snack boxes and individual snacks; the level of transparency (whether airlines display nutrient information and ingredients); improvement and maintenance of healthy offerings; menu innovation, and cooperation in providing nutritional information. The survey includes health ratings, average calories per airline, comments, best bets, food offerings, costs and nutrition information (e.g., calories, and exercise equivalents).
"This year, Delta and Virgin America share the top spot as the airlines with the 'healthiest' food choices in the sky, with Air Canada and JetBlue tied for second," said Platkin.
The average number of calories per menu choice for 2017 was 405, compared with 360 calories in 2012, 388 in 2013, 397 in 2014, 400 in 2015 and 392 in 2016. But calories are not everything, Platkin pointed out, as the survey also looks at nutrients in the foods (when such information is provided) as well as innovations moving toward healthy, tasty, inexpensive and sustainable foods.
Among other findings:
• Alaska Air has purchased Virgin America and said the goal is to maintain the status-quo when it comes to food in all categories until next year.
• American Airlines and Delta have once again begun offering complimentary meals in economy class on domestic flights, "something we haven't seen in more than 15 years," according to the study.
• Airlines are eliminating oversized packages of snack foods and offering individual, smaller packages or eliminating individual snacks altogether.
• Some airlines are going back to serving individual complimentary snacks, but they're not very healthy. The study suggest carriers should offer an apple or an orange, or maybe a clementine or a mandarin orange.
The study added that travelers should expect very high-calorie, unhealthy free meals on flights. Suggestions for passengers:
• Go light on snacks, and don't be fooled by choices like the Gluten Free Box, where many of the individual items are OK, healthwise (such as the hummus and roasted chickpea snacks), but eating everything in the box is still high in calories and out-of-touch with current food trends.
• Try to go light on the breads, treats and dressings.
• It is best to eat before you board the plane; otherwise you might wind up feeling lethargic and cranky after one of these calorie-heavy meals.
• Just say no, and bring your own food.
Click here for a breakdown of the findings by airline.