Airplane food tends to be more of a punchline than a pleasure. And yet, at 35,000 feet, even a forlorn-looking tray can serve as both entertainment and sustenance for a captive audience.
With that in mind, Charles Platkin, director of the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College, sought to uncover just how healthful or unhealthful airplane food is, and the results are published in the Annual Airline Food Investigation, a survey he’s conducted since 2000.
For the survey, Platkin ranked the airlines 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 DietDetective.com. “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 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. This year, Delta and Virgin America tied for the lead, with each scoring 4 points. Hawaiian Airlines came in last.
It’s telling that no airline scored the highest rating of 5. “The airlines still have a tremendous amount of room for improvement,” says Platkin. While a handful of those surveyed serve complimentary meals on select flights (Delta, American and Hawaiian), Platkin encourages health-conscious passengers to eat a full meal before they fly and to carry their own snacks (nuts, fruit, vegetables, hummus) on board.
Here are how the four major airlines serving Blue Grass Airport scored, along with some of the “best bets” to munch on from each. For the full survey, go to Dietdetective.com/annual-airline-food-investigation-2017-18.
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Very helpful
Health Score: 1.75
Average calories overall: 402
Best bets: The Nut Medley (680 calories) if shared with another person or portioned out; hummus and pita chips (150 calories). Platkin warns people away from the Wingz Kids Snack Pack (Oreos, baked Goldfish and Welch’s fruit snacks, 240 calories) and the Deli Snack Pack (Wheat Thins, cheese spread, almonds, Biscoff cookies, Slim Jim, 530 calories).
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).
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Excellent
Health score: 4 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).
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.