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2012 DietDetective.com and CUNY SPH @ Hunter College Airline Food Survey

November 20, 2012 | News

Survey Provides Travelers with the
Best In-flight Food including Health Ratings
Making Healthier Choices 35,000 Feet in the Air

Virgin America Receives Top Rating,
Air Canada and Alaska Close Behind
United and US Air Below Par,
Frontier and Allegiant at the Bottom, Least Cooperative

NEW YORK, NY (NOVEMBER 20, 2012) According to Airline Transport Association, there will be nearly 24 million passengers traveling over this Thanksgiving season. Knowing what are the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ choices is a valuable tool for any traveler, so DietDetective.com once again rated the best ‘Calorie Bargains’ and “Calorie Rip-offs” at 35,000 feet.

DietDetective.com issued the 2012 Airline Food Survey rating foods for twelve (12) airlines. The survey assigned a “Health Score” (5 stars = highest rate, 0 star = lowest) based on seven criteria: health of meals, health of snacks, food variety, calories, improvement from last year’s survey, menu innovation and cooperation in providing nutritional information. The survey includes health ratings, cost, comments, food offerings, calories, and exercise equivalents.

“This year Virgin America wins the top spot with the “healthiest” food choices in the sky, with Air Canada a close second and Alaska Air not too far behind. Frontier and Allegiant received the lowest scores, were the least cooperative and received low health rating,” says Charles Platkin, PhD, MPH, public health advocate, editor of DietDetective.com and Distinguished Lecturer  at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College.

Below are the surveyed airlines’ “Health Scores” (Health Score: 5 stars = highest rating, 0 stars = lowest). For full survey results including full listings of the snack/on-board food, comments, ratings, cost, calories, exercise equivalents, and tips.

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The average number of calories per food item this year is 388. This is the first year we have calculated this; however, we will continue to keep track from now on.

Virgin America
(877-359-8474, www.virginamerica.com)
Comments: This airline is off the charts when it comes to focusing on food.
Health Score: (**** 1/4)
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. Most of the snacks including the two new additions, the big cookie and the Pringles are certainly not the healthiest choices. The oatmeal is a good breakfast choice at 310 calories a nice whole grain to get you started in the morning. Virgin’s Protein Meal Box with hummus, nuts and tuna are great. They’ll fill you up and will be a real meal. However, I don’t love the Jet Set Kid Pack. Don’t underestimate kids they will eat healthy foods if packaged well. On certain flights Virgin offers peanut butter and jam sandwiches; that’s a better choice.

The meals have become even better than last year. The Holiday Turkey Sandwich at 410 calories is packed with protein. I also love the Roasted Pear and Arugula Salad with almonds and a fig mustard dressing, which has 6 grams of fiber and is only 360 calories. The Protein Plate with hummus, whole-wheat pita and sliced turkey with 8 grams of fiber and 420 calories is another great choice. Again, these are all meals that will fill you up and help you avoid the junk.

Air Canada (514-393-3333, www.aircanada.com)
Health Score: (****)
Comments: Once again, Air Canada delivers high-quality health-conscious cuisine.
Best Bets: They can do slightly better on their individual snack offerings. Pick the Nissin Chicken Ramen Noodle Soup. It will fill you up, and it’s more like a meal than a snack. The cashews need to be shared. They’ve added apples with caramel dip great for kids, but you should probably limit the caramel. I love the idea of the Celery & Carrots with Ranch Dip so long as you limit the dip to no more than half. Most of the full meals offered are relatively low in calories. The Roasted Chicken Wrap with Salsa is only 350 calories. The Vegetarian Panini with Red Pepper Hummus sounds tasty, and its only 390 calories for the meal. A new addition to the menu is the Pasta Salad with Sundried Tomato Dressing and Chicken Strips, which is a great choice at only 330 calories and will really fill you up. For breakfast, go for the Greek yogurt, which is only 150 calories, or the fruit plate (which sounds delicious) for only 186 calories two more great new offerings. You definitely want to skip the calorie-laden muffin don’t be fooled by the mention of carrots and raisins but the healthy oatmeal is also a great offering.

Alaska Airlines
(800-252-7522, www.alaskaair.com)
Health Score: (*** 3/4)
Comments: They take pride in the food they serve. In fact, they sent me an email after last years survey inviting me to take a peek at the foods offered.
Best Bets: Among the snack boxes, the Mediterranean Tapas box looks great. It has olives, humus, almonds and even a dark chocolate bar nice (it’s also vegan and gluten-free). If you share the box (especially the chips) you will have a healthy snack in your belly. For flights of more than two hours the Fruit and Cheese Platter at 476 calories is more of a meal, but if you split it with someone (at least the cheese and cracker part) you will be in good shape. As far as breakfast choices go, the Pancakes & Scrambled Egg Skillet and the Ozery Bakery Breakfast Sandwich, with more than 600 calories each, are very high in calories (and lacking in nutrients). However, the Fruit and Cheese plate is available all day. The other hot foods available are the Chicken Cacciatore Skillet, which is a very good deal calorically at 292, the Angus Burger (if you’re a meat eater), which is 420 calories for the burger with a bun (if you remove the cheese, which tacks on another 113 calories) and a filling meal, and the low-cal /low-carb beef jerky at 240 calories.

United Airlines
(800-864-8331, www.united.com)
Comments: Wow, have they slipped from a few years ago, when they were No. 1.
Health Score: (*** 1/2)
Best Bets: On flights of more two hours, go for the Tapas, which has some great foods, including almonds, olives, hummus and bruschetta just toss out the cheese spread. Skip the Classic and Savory snack boxes not too much nutritionally going on. All of the individual snacks are pretty high in calories (330 to 1,020), and they’ve made it worse by adding Chex Mix and croissants. You should avoid the cinnamon rolls. Also, while the nuts are a best bet, that’s only if you can resist eating the who thing or split them with six people it’s a 6-ounce can at 1,020 calories. The Express AM (389 calories) and PM (434 calories) are not very healthy choices; they’re expensive calorie-wise and light on nutrition. 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, and there is really not much fruit to speak of that isn’t dried.

For flights of more than three hours, United has several healthy choices, but I really like the Grilled Chicken Spinach Salad at 360 calories including the dressing. The Asian Noodle Salad (360 calories) is also a good low-calorie choice. The other choices the Thai Chicken Wrap (570 calories) and the Turkey Sandwich (if you avoid the mustard-mayo sauce at 100 calories) are OK choices compared to those of other airlines, and in term of calories, they are fine for lunch or dinner. For breakfast, your best bet is the Yogurt Parfait or, if you’re interested in meat, 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.

JetBlue Airways
(800-538-2583, www.jetblue.com)
Health Score: (***1/4)
Comments: Finally, JetBlue has started offering their snack boxes on flights of more than two hours!!
Best Bets: Still nothing much in terms of healthy individual snacks, other than the nuts, which are back on the menu thank you. And, by the way, the animal crackers are not a great choice, as some of you still insist. Also, watch out, the individual snacks are still free, so don’t take more than one. They also started selling two items. One the beef jerky at 100 calories is OK if you’re a low-carb, low-calorie fan (just make sure you don’t have high blood pressure because its high in sodium). The meal boxes have been modified (and offered on more flights), but the Shape Up is still the winner if you’re thinking of this as a meal. It has fiber, and between the hummus and the nuts it should fill you up (496 calories).

American Airlines
(817-963-1234, www.aa.com)
Comments: AA finally got rid of most of their super-high-calorie meals.
Health Score:
(***)
Best Bets: The Boxer Chips hand-cooked gourmet potato crisps at 188 calories. At 370 calories the Sabra Roasted Red Pepper Hummus with Pretzels is high for a snack, but if you can share it with at least two other people, it might be a good choice because of the hummus. They’ve added several new individual snack choices, but none of them is healthy. If you are on a flight of more than two hours you could probably go for the Cheese & Cracker Tray. It has nuts, raisins and cheese, and if you split it with someone it would be 170 calories each. If you’re on a longer flight (three hours or more), the best choice is the Turkey and Chutney Sandwich, which has lots of protein and even apple slices on the sandwich for flavor. Its only 323 calories without the chips (give them away or refuse them). And kudos to American for lowering the chips calories by 80. On flights of two hours or more, the Insalata Caprese salad (283 calories) would be satisfying without the roll (158 calories). Another good choice is the Boston Market Chicken Caesar Salad with chips (which you can give away) and dressing for 543 calories. I like the fact that the dressing is on the side (use it sparingly). At the very least, the salad has walnuts and grapes, and the cheese portions are small. However, try skipping the Swiss cheese and save 80 calories. The big negative is that its only available on transcontinental and Hawaiian flights. The Breakfast Sandwich at 384 calories is also OK if you skip the cookies, which would add 73 more. Skip the Breakfast Cookie; it will not fill you up and is really just a cookie. The Spiced Nuts are high in calories for one person. The bag, which has 640 calories, should feed at least four.

Delta Air Lines (404-773-0305, www.delta.com)
Health Score: (**3/4)
Comments: Delta’s individual snack choices are not very good.
Best Bets: For the free snacks (on flights 1.5 hours-plus) the peanuts are the best choice. None of the for sale individual snacks are good choices. Youre much better off getting an entire snack box. Among the snack boxes, the Travel Treats without the Twizzlers and Oreo Cookies will work. The Flight Delights snack box has a few good items, such as the hummus, salsa and nuts and seeds. It’s the graham sticks (120 calories), Nutella spread (97 calories) and jelly beans that you need to give away or dump (fast); otherwise, you’re looking at more than 650 calories. Of the breakfast options, your best bet is the yogurt parfait at 290 calories. I would probably skip the Fruit & Cheese Plate at 560 calories. There’s also a turkey breakfast sandwich on a croissant, which, if you take off the Swiss cheese, can be an acceptable item. For lunch/dinner options, there are not too many healthy offerings, but the Smoked Turkey Provolone, which is a real meal, is 550 calories without the mayo. Try to avoid the Signature Sandwich Combo with chips and cookies at 700 calories (it also has fried onions).

US Airways
(480-693-0800, www.usairways.com)
Comments: They’ve replaced several high-calorie individual snacks with lower-calorie versions.
Health Score: (**3/4)
Best Bets: The only individual snacks that work are the nuts and the chips and salsa; the rest lack nutrient value (and have too many calories). The snack boxes are not the best choices either, but if you have to choose, the CafePlus has canned BBQ chicken, which will provide protein. Keep the almonds and give away the cookies and jelly beans and you’ll be OK. As for meals, for breakfast the Egg and Turkey Bacon Sandwich is a bit high in calories (470 calories), but its a better choice than the fruit and cheese plate, which won’t fill you up. Also for breakfast, you can opt for the Yogurt Parfait at 350 calories (it’s the granola that adds all the calories). For lunch or dinner the Barbeque Chicken Salad is a great protein-packed, low-calorie choice at 190 calories, also in December try the Chef Salad. The Smoked Turkey and Brie Sandwich at 560 calories is not bad either, and if you pass on the cookies and the chips I can really recommend it.

Spirit Airlines
(800-772-7117, www.spirit.com)
Comments: This year Spirit was helpful in providing information. Nice work. They’ve added a few snacks, but nothing that’s very healthy. It would be great if they added at least two healthy offerings. Also, how about a few healthy meals in addition to the snacks many of your flights are longer than 2.5 hours it’s a profit center!
Health Score: (* 3/4)
Best Bet: The cup of noodle soup at 300 calories is the only choice that will feel like a real meal. Watch out for the Nuggets & Nuts at 600 calories, and all the muffins are at least 400 calories. Not the best choices unless you split one (if youre the type who can do that). Bringing your own food is also a good option.

Southwest Airlines
(214-792-4223, www.southwest.com)
Health Score: (*3/4)
Comments: Not much variety, and not much in terms of nutritional value. They need to add a few healthy items. How about an apple?
Best Bet: Go for the nuts and skip the pretzels and other items.
Cost: Free.

Frontier Airlines
(800-432-1359, www.flyfrontier.com)
Comments: The airline did not respond at all to my calls or emails nothing. Not even an acknowledgment.
Health Score: (* 3/4)
Best Bets: For individual snacks, it would be best to go with the chips and salsa or the oatmeal. In case you didn’t know, skip the fudge (or share it with 10 friends), but dont expect to be filled up. The Mediterranean Snack Box with hummus, bruschetta, dried fruit and olives is not bad if shared; just skip the cookies. As for the kids snack boxes, the Flips Surf Shop & Snack Shack would be OK if you have two kids, but its high in calories (480). In terms of meals, the veggies with hummus dip are a great choice. The Roasted Turkey Sandwich is not bad either, if you skip the mayo (100 calories). The fruit and cheese has too many cheeses and not enough fruit. As for breakfast, the Evol burrito is better than the Continental Breakfast (which includes an unhealthy muffin).

Allegiant Air
(702-505-8888, www.allegiantair.com)
Health Score: (* 1/2)
Comments: The media representative was annoyed that I’d even contacted the airline. They did not provide nutritional information for most of the food. Also, they made it clear that their foods were not healthy. It shows.
Best Bets: The snack boxes are not great in terms of health (not just calorie-wise). Among the individual snacks, nuts are the healthiest choice. Low-carb fans might consider Jack Links Beef Jerky. Overall, the turkey sandwich low in calories with protein and fat to fend off hunger is your best choice. I’m a big believer in eating a mini-meal instead of mindlessly consuming high-calorie snacks.

Bring Your Own Snacks
Even if you ate before you left home, you are still going to get hungry. We often underestimate the amount of time a trip can take. A two-hour flight could mean four or five hours of travel. Keep in mind that you can take most foods through security, but you need to check with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for the latest rules about carrying on food and water: www.tsa.gov/311/index.shtm
Here are some ideas for snacks you can bring or buy in the airport:

- Water: Buy it after the security checkpoint to take onboard. Dehydration can cause or exacerbate hunger, jet lag and fatigue.

- Cereal: Kashi, Shredded Wheat or other low calorie cereals. Look for portable, low-calorie choices, under 120 calories per cup. You can also look for cereal in a cup. It’s portion controlled in 1.5-ounce packs that are easy to store and easy to use.

- Fruit and salads: Stick with fruits like apples and oranges that can withstand some rough treatment. You can even bring a banana if you put it in a container such as a banana saver (www.bananasaver.com). Grapes or almost any other fruit can be carried in a plastic container. Also, they often sell cut up fruit or salads in the airport. They’re a bit more expensive than bringing your own, but at least they’re healthy alternatives to what is served onboard.

- Energy bars: Although they tend to be high in calories and fat, they are generally better than a slice of pizza or a candy bar at the airport. Choose Larabars; they have nothing but healthy ingredients.

- Nonfat yogurt: Yogurt is a great portable snack. You can purchase it after you go through security.

- Sandwiches: Pre-cut them into portion-controlled sections so you can pull them out at different times during the trip without making a mess. Chicken, turkey, cold cuts and cheese (on 100 percent whole-wheat bread) are all great options for sandwiches on the go.

- Soy chips and PopChips: Yet another portable, low-cal, high-fiber snack. (www.glennys.com, www.popchips.com)

- Peel-and-eat tuna and salmon cups: Chicken of the Sea makes these easy-to-open cups that give you a quick protein source. With no draining required, this wild-caught tuna or salmon is perfect for on-the-go lunches and snacks.

- Nuts: They’re a good source of protein and they help fend off hunger. Portion them into 1-ounce bags (about 160 calories each).

- Dried or freeze-dried fruit and vegetable snacks: Eat dried fruit in moderation; it’s high in calories. (e.g., www.sensiblefoods.com, www.brothersallnatural.com, www.funkymonkeysnacks.com)

- All Natural Fruit Roll-Ups (no sugar added): Check out Stretch Island Fruit Company’s Original Fruit Strips, FruitaBü and Smoooshed Fruit Rolls (www.stretchislandfruit.com)

- Whole-Wheat Crackers: Make sure to get 100 percent whole-wheat crackers such as Ak Mak (www.akmakbakeries.com), Dr. Kracker (www.drkracker.com) or Mr. Krispers (mrkrispers.elsstore.com).

- Beef jerky: Especially if you’re a low-carb fan, but not if you’re watching your sodium.