Health and wellness

The best North American airlines for healthy food and snacks, and why you’re better off bringing your own and eating before flying

Meals for the top four US and Canadian airlines serving Hong Kong – Delta, Air Canada, United and American Airlines – scored on calories, nutrition, menu innovation and transparency in annual survey, and their ‘best bets’ revealed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 December, 2017, 10:46am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 December, 2017, 5:07pm

Food served on airlines tend to be more of a punchline than a pleasure. And yet, at 10,670 metres, even a forlorn-looking tray can serve as both entertainment and sustenance for a captive audience.

With that in mind, Charles Platkin, PhD, director of the New York City Food Policy Centre at Hunter College, sought to uncover just how healthy or unhealthy aeroplane food is, and the results are published in the Annual Airline Food Investigation, a survey he has conducted since 2000 (it became annual in 2009).

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For the survey, Platkin reached out to representatives with 12 major airlines to inquire about their meal and snack options. He ranks them based, in part, on calories, nutrition, menu innovation and transparency (some airlines are more candid than others about what’s in their food).

“They call me an airline food bully,” says Platkin, who is also founder of the site “I’m aggressive about it. People have choices about what airline they fly, but they don’t have choices about what they eat on that flight.”

Each airline is given a “health score” on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest. This year, Delta and Virgin America tied for the lead, with each scoring four points, and Air Canada tied for second with JetBlue (3.75 points). United Airlines scored 2.75 while American scored 2.5.

It’s telling that no airline scored the highest rating of five. “The airlines still have a tremendous amount of room for improvement,” says Platkin.

“No airline blows me away, like, ‘Oh my gosh, they got it’.” To that end, he was more inclined to use phrases such as “not awful” when describing a meal or snack, rather than showering it with praise. While a handful of those surveyed serve complimentary meals on select flights (Delta, American and Hawaiian), Platkin is more inclined to encourage health-conscious passengers to eat a full meal before they fly and to carry their own snacks (nuts, fruit, vegetables, hummus) on board.

Here’s how the top four international airlines serving Hong Kong scored, along with some of the “best bets” to munch on from each.

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1. Delta

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: excellent

Health score: four stars

Average calories overall (meals, snack boxes and individual snacks): 480

Delta was notable for its willingness to share nutritional information, its variety of offerings and the fact that the average calories in the snack boxes, meals and individual snacks decreased from 2016’s 527 to 480, and meal calories decreasing from 628 calories to 559. Delta has also begun offering complimentary meals in economy class on select flights.

Best bets: for a snack, opt for the almonds (124 calories); the vegan, GMO-free Delta Flight Fuel Tapas Snack Box (it should be eaten as a meal, not a snack, because of the higher calories, says Platkin), which has Super Seed Crackers, Snapea Crisps, almonds, hummus, quinoa with pepper dip and other items (665 calories); the fruit-and-yogurt continental breakfast (345 calories if you save the Kind bar for later); the sesame noodle salad (345 calories); or the Greek mezze plate (330 calories).

2. Air Canada

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: very helpful

Health score: 3.75

Average calories overall: 320

Best bets: Skotidakis fat-free vanilla Greek yogurt (90 calories); Avocado Smash Box with fresh guacamole, aged cheddar cheese, hard-boiled egg, green apple slices, multigrain muesli bread, chilli flakes (590 calories).

3. United

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: somewhat helpful

Health score: 2.75

Average calories overall: 416

Best bet: for a snack, go for the hummus (160 calories) or the Tapas Snack Box, which comes with a variety of items including flatbread, crackers, bruschetta, hummus, almonds, mints and more (avoid the cheese spread, says Platkin). The Mezze Sampler (501 calories), is another good option.

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4. American Airlines

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: below average

Health score: 2.5

Average calories overall: 446

Best bets: go for the hummus box as a snack (220 calories) or the chicken arugula wrap (when available) for lunch and go easy on the dressing (401 calories).

Platkin writes in his report: “In the end, it would be 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.”