Eating healthy at 35,000 feet: It IS possible

Study evaluates food offerings of North American airlines

A new study shows it is possible to eat healthy as you wing your way to your vacation destination. But if you plan to eat the meals and snacks offered on-board as opposed to bringing your own, a lot will depend on which airline you’ve chosen to fly.

The 2016-17 Airline Food Study, conducted by the NYC Food Policy Center at Hunter College, rated the foods served by 12 North American airlines and found that, overall, Virgin America (NASDAQ:VA) provided the healthiest food choices.

That finding did not surprise the airline representative contacted by TheTravelPro.

Poached egg breakfast on Virgin America
Photo provided by the airline

"All of Virgin America's menus are updated quarterly using an assortment of sustainable and fresh ingredients, including local fruits and vegetables, premium meats and artisan breads," spokesperson Sean Harris said in an email.

He also noted that the carrier's in-flight dining has been recognized by other organizations, incluidng Travel + Leisure magainze and SAVEUR Culinary Travel Awards.

Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) and Air Canada tied for second place for their healthy food offerings, though the word “healthy” should perhaps be in quotes, according to Dr. Charles Platkin, the policy center’s executive director and editor of

“This has been a slow year in general for innovation in terms of healthy foods, transparency, and food consciousness (no GMOs, organic, lighter and sustainable foods),” Platkin said in the report.

“Airlines other than Delta and Virgin America seem very slow to catch on to the food awareness that is going on around the country and around the world," he continued. "I’d think it would be good business for them to provide better, healthier and more conscientious food.”

According to the report, the average number of calories per food item has been on the rise for some time. It was 360 in 2012; in 2013 it was 388; in 2014 it was 397, 2015 it was 400, and this year it's 392, an eight-calorie decrease over last year.

However, calories are not everything. The survey also looked at the nutrients in the foods when they are provided, as well as each carrier’s moves toward serving healthy, tasty, inexpensive, sustainable foods. It then assigned a score ranging from a high of five stars to a low of zero based on ten criteria including health and calorie levels of meals, snack boxes and individual snacks; improvement and maintenance of healthy offerings; menu innovation; and cooperation in providing nutritional information.

Summary of health ratings
  • No. 1 - Virgin America, 4.25 stars
  • No. 2 - Delta Air Lines and Air Canada, 4.0 stars
  • No. 4 - Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK), 3.75 stars
  • No. 5 - jetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU), 3.5 stars
  • No. 6 - United Airlines (NYSE:UAL), 3.25 stars
  • No. 7 - American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL), 3.0 stars
  • No. 8 – Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV), 2.0 stars
  • No. 9 – Allegiant Air (NASDAQ:ALGT), 1.75 stars
  • No. 10 – Spirit Airlines (NASDAQ:SAVE) and Frontier Airlines (NASDAQ:FRNT), 1.0 star
Getting into the weeds

The study provides a significant amount of detail around each airline’s food offerings, including average calories overall, average meal calories and average individual snack calories as well as item-by-item figures for the items on offer, including the usual list of calories, fat, carbs, protein and sugar.

Alaska Airlines onboard offering
Photo provided by the airline

Importantly, it puts those figures in real-world context: The report reveals how many minutes of walking it will take to burn off the calories consumed. For example, it notes that the average person will have to walk for an hour and 21 minutes to burn off the 375 calories a can of Pringles served on Delta.

It also makes specific recommendations by airline. For breakfast on Virgin America, it recommends, “Udi’s Granola with Yogurt and Fruit, which is a bit high in sugar but overall low in calories at 330. The best snack box is the Protein Meal with hummus, nuts and tuna; the others are a bit high in calories and are not really worth it.”

The report’s authors don’t hold back when they believe criticism is warranted. Hawaiian Airlines, it noted, is one of the few airlines that still serves free food on domestic flights, but the report had some cautionary notes.

“Their food is high in calories and the menu doesn’t offer much choice in terms of health, or in the way of food system consciousness,” the report stated. “This could be a real disappointment if you are on a long flight and have not planned in advance. Plus, when free food is put down in front of you, you have a tendency to eat it. All of it.”

The report’s advice to Hawaiian’s passengers to “Just say no, and bring your own food” was also the take-away for passengers on Spirit and Frontier, which were tied for last place in the report’s rankings.

The full report is available here, is easy to navigate and has some great information.

Safe, happy and healthy travels!

Visit my main page at for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photo by Carl Dombek
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