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Many U.S. airlines fail to offer healthy foods, survey finds

Story highlights

  • Virgin America airlines ranked highest, Frontier lowest, in an independent nutrition survey
  • In general, airline meals and snacks are behind the trend in nutritious, low-calorie options
  • Taste buds change at high altitudes and you need more salt for the foods to have flavor

(CNN)There's so much to dislike about air travel. There are the long lines and the delays, and of course, there is the bad airplane food. A recent survey found that airlines have a long way to go in making their meals and snacks nutritious and low in calories.

"I don't think airlines are keeping up with the trends across the United States, the 'better for you' food trend, the organic trend," said Charles Platkin, nutrition professor at Hunter College and City University of New York. Most airlines are also failing to provide nutritional information about their menu items that would allow passengers to make the healthiest choices, he added.
    Platkin surveyed 12 major U.S. air carriers and ranked them according to 10 criteria, including whether they include low-calorie, nutritious items on their menus and are willing to share that information. He focused on meals and snacks available for economy-class passengers on domestic flights. The results of his survey were posted in November on dietdetective.com, a website that Platkin runs.
    In the time since Platkin began conducting his surveys in 2000, airlines have gone from providing free meals, to selling snacks in supersized portions, to now selling meals and smaller portions of snacks. Although this may not sound like a good thing, it has resulted in fewer calories being placed on your tray table, Platkin said -- even if the airlines probably made these changes with their bottom line, not your waistline, in mind, he added.
    Even with smaller snack portions, too many of the options are still high in calories, according to Platkin's survey. The meal choices seem better than the snacks; at least some of them are low-calorie for some airlines.
    Of course, healthy food is not just about keeping the calorie count in check. Platkin and his colleagues also took into account protein, fat and sugar, using nutritional information from the airline if it was provided, or estimating in cases where they got only recipes from the airline.
    One thing that is clear even without looking at the nutritional information is that airplane food in general contains high levels of sodium. It could be the price you pay to get any enjoyment out of your airplane food. "Your taste buds change at high altitudes and you need more salt for the foods to have flavor," Platkin said.
    The improvements that airlines have made so far, mostly in providing healthier meals, will probably continue as customers become more interested in what they are eating and put pressure on airlines to tell them, Platkin said. As large chain restaurants start to post calorie information on their menus, which the Affordable Care Act will require them to do by the end of 2016, people will start to expect the same on airlines, Platkin said.
    The following sums up how each airline fared in this year's survey, as well as some of Platkin's picks for the healthiest food choices. He encourages travelers to consult his survey, as well as their airline's website, before their trip. Make a plan before you head to the airport, he said.
    If you are about to fly an airline that doesn't have any healthy snack or meal options for you, try to eat a substantial meal before you leave and pack nutritious snacks, such as nuts, fruit and energy bars, Platkin recommended. You can also usually find a list of airport restaurants online and pick up food to carry on at one of them. The important thing, when it comes to eating in the air, is that you never want to "wing it," Platkin said.

    Virgin America

    Virgin America, which launched in 2007, tops the list in Platkin's survey. "When they came on the scene, they really started paying attention to their food (and) they were the first to offer calorie and nutrition information," Platkin said. Virgin provides this information for its food on board, and although some of this information is missing online, a company spokesperson said the airline is working to add it.
    None of Virgin America's meals is high in calories. The average number is 408 calories, down by more than 70 since last year's survey. In addition to being low in calories, the Ginger Chicken Soba Noodles and Provencal Tuna Sandwich are high in protein.
    But like the other airlines surveyed, Virgin America is lacking in the healthy snacks department, Platkin concluded. A few options are at least low in calories, including the 120-calorie Krave turkey jerky and the 479° popcorn, which has 100 calories.

    Delta Air Lines

    Delta used to have some of the worst airplane food, but it turned things around and came in second this year. Platkin attributed Delta's progress to the fact that some of its meals are now made by Luvo, a health-focused frozen food company.
    Delta does provide calorie information, at least for its Luvo products, such as the 460-calorie Grilled Chicken Wrap and the 520-calorie Fresh Breakfast Medley. The airline does not provide this information to passengers for other items, such as the 430-calorie Roast Beef Sliders, but a spokesperson for Delta said it plans to start listing the ingredients in all menu items, if not the nutritional information, in 2016.
    Delta's for-purchase snacks and snack boxes pack in the calories. Mrs. May's Cran-Blueberry Nut Mix is a whopping 860 calories. As for the complimentary snacks, your best bet is the 45-calorie bag of pretzels. The Biscoff cookies have 120 calories.

    JetBlue Airways

    JetBlue is tied with Delta for second place in this year's survey. It scored points for providing calorie and nutritional information for its meals and some of its snack boxes on its website. Among the lower-calorie choices are the Grilled Chicken & Brie Sandwich at 680 calories and the Chobani Yogurt & Granola, which has 210 calories.
    The survey noted that the snack boxes have increased by an average of 30 calories since last year. The Pump Box, which contains hummus, crackers and a snack bar, has 500 calories and is the best bet in terms of nutrition. All of the complimentary snacks are low in nutritional value, but the Doritos tortilla chips and Snyder's pretzels are also low in calories, at 80 and 100 calories, respectively.

    Air Canada

    Technically Air Canada, which earned third place, is not a U.S. carrier, but Platkin included it because it has many flights into and out of the U.S. Although Air Canada does not provide calorie information as the top three airlines do, the staff is very forthcoming with the information. Platkin recommended the Chicken Club Wrap, which has 360 calories, and the 450-calorie sushi. Among the snack selections, your best bets are the Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup at 200 calories, because it will feel more like a meal, and the 130-calorie Celery & Carrots with Ranch Dip.

    United Airlines

    United Airlines is tied with Air Canada for third place, but that is a step down from previous years. It was tops in the 2008 survey after it came up with the idea of snack boxes and introduced several healthy options, Platkin said. But since then, the airline has swapped out all but one of the snack boxes with higher-calorie, less nutritious choices. Platkin recommended the 616-calorie tapas box, which contains nuts and hummus, and skipping the cheese spread to reduce the calories.
    United has also lost points for selling higher-calorie individual snacks than in years past. Many have more than 350 calories, such as the Pringles chips, at 375 calories, and the 550-calorie Buddha Bowl popcorn.
    The good news is that United has brought down the calorie count of its meals. The 601-calorie Wrap and Salad Combo, which contains grilled chicken and vegetables, is your best bet, Platkin said.

    American Airlines

    One of the major problems with American Airlines, which ranks in fourth place, is that it has cut way back on its food options, Platkin said. The Chicken Cobb Salad and Asian Chicken Wrap, containing 310 and 620 calories respectively, are the only two choices for lunch and dinner. The pickings are also slim for breakfast, with three items that are all pretty high in calories.
    On the bright side, the snack offerings have come down in calorie count. The clear winner in this department is the hummus and chips, which has 147 calories.

    Alaska Airlines

    Alaska Airlines, which ranked fifth, is one of the few airlines that changed the calorie content of its meals and snacks for the worse. The number of calories in an average meal jumped from 456 to 606. The one lunch offering (for flights in the continental U.S.) is Tom Douglas' Turkey Sandwich, and it has 693 calories. For dinner, Tom Douglas' Roast Turkey With Veggie Hash has 532 calories.
    Another troubling change is that Alaska Airlines added a category called "Healthy Snacks" to its menu. As Platkin noted, these items are not healthy, even if they have certain healthy aspects, such as not containing trans fat. "That was a real disservice and taking advantage of a susceptible audience," Platkin said. If you have to have a snack, your best bet is the Mediterranean Tapas snack box, which contains hummus, almonds and dried fruit, although it is also has a pretty steep 497-calorie count.

    Southwest Airlines

    Your choice on Southwest, which ranked in sixth place, may be pretty simple: Do you want pretzels or peanuts? Platkin recommended the 70-calorie peanuts over the 50-calorie pretzels because they are a good source of protein. Although the airline has a greater selection of free snacks on longer flights, it never offers meals. Southwest selects the healthiest possible options for its snacks, such as multigrain, and the calorie and nutritional information are printed on the packages, according to a spokesperson.

    Allegiant Air

    Tied with Southwest for sixth place, Allegiant fares poorly because of some pretty unhealthy snack choices. The individual for-sale snacks are all about 400 calories or more, with the exception of the 200-calorie Gardetto's chips. Among the snack packs, there is one shining star, the 210-calorie Hummus Snack Pack. Platkin warned, "don't let your kids near the Wingz Kids Snack Pack," a 310-calorie load of cookies and candy.
    Things used to be better on Allegiant. Passengers used to be able to order a fruit and cheese plate or chips and salsa, but those were dropped from the menu. "Our onboard food offerings are simply a reflection of passenger demand. In the past, we have experimented with healthier options (and) those items most frequently purchased by our passengers have remained on our menu," according to an Allegiant spokesperson.

    Spirit Airlines

    In seventh place, Spirit lost points because of its unwillingness to provide Platkin with nutritional information. (It also did not respond to CNN's request for comment.) What Platkin uncovered about the menu was pretty dismal. Many of the snacks for sale are more than 400 calories, and the Jumbo-Size Combo is 840 calories per bag. You're better off going with the 290-calorie Nissin Cup Noodles or sharing one of the 400-calorie muffins. Or even better, Platkin recommended, bring your own food.

    Hawaiian Airlines

    Hawaiian, which tied with Spirit for seventh, offers a cornucopia of snack choices. But they are all so high in calories that Platkin could not come up with a single recommendation. The worst offender is the Island Princess Mele Macs, which are candied macadamia nuts that contain a staggering 1,120 calories.
    Hawaiian is a throwback in being one of the few carriers that serve free food on domestic flights. And just as with the other airlines before it, Hawaiian's meals are heavy in calories. Its penne Bolognese had 956 calories, and the teriyaki turkey meatball meal had 925 calories.

    Frontier Airlines

    Coming in dead last, Frontier Airlines was "shamefully" unwilling to give Platkin nutritional information about its food options. (It also did not respond to CNN's request for comment.) However, it is pretty clear that its snacks available for purchase are low in nutritional value, including potato chips, Twizzlers and Almond M&Ms. If you need to eat while in the air and can't bring your own food, Platkin suggested the beef jerky, which has 120 calories, but he noted that it is high in sodium.