Every year, I contact the media departments (press relations) of the various airlines to request nutrition information for the foods they serve economy-class passengers on domestic flights.
I'm now known not only as the Diet Detective but also as the Airline Food Bully by several airline press relations departments but it's well worth it to find out the healthiest foods being served, and the costs, calorie-wise, for some of your favorite airline foods.
I'm not sure why the airlines don't pay more attention to offering healthier snacks. Overall, the snack boxes are getting stronger, and the meals are moving in the right direction. They just need to offer them on shorter flights — even two hours is a long time in the air (especially when it's more like 3.5 hours from start to finish). One thing I've noticed is that most airlines have eliminated or are eliminating those crazy high-calorie snacks (i.e., more than 850 calories).
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.
Here are the snack and onboard food-service offerings from several of the more popular airlines, along with Diet Detective's comments, ratings (Health Score: 5 stars equals highest rating, 0 stars equals lowest), calories, exercise equivalents (amount of walking required to burn off the food consumed) and personal favorites.
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Helpful.
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 whole 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.
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.
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Very helpful.
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. It's 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 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 it's 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
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: More helpful than last year.
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. You're 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).
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Not very helpful.
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 Link's Beef Jerky. Overall, the turkey sandwich, which is 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.
Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com.