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Annual look at the good, the bad and the ugly of airline food.

It's holiday time,- which means travel. So, each year I contact the airlines to request nutrition information for the foods they serve economy-class passengers on domestic flights. There are not too many major changes from last year, but as an overall observation, the good seem to have gotten better. Virgin America and Air Canada (the latter omitted below for space constraints) are tied, as they were two years ago, for having the healthiest food in the air. Virgin America has the only Travel Light menu and on-demand ordering (eat when you want). Air Canada has better individual snacks, and the airline prides itself on the freshness and quality of its ingredients. The airline contracts with the company Food with a Conscience to help create its menu. Alaska Airlines has real meals that are reasonable in terms of health and calories; United and JetBlue seem to be moving in a better direction. American is not terrible, but it's not improving, either.

It is still a huge mystery to me why airlines don't see healthy, tasty foods as a profit center. Clearly, the "better for you'' food market is on fire (think Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and all the new products on the market). The big airlines, such as American, are slow to improve food service, but I believe we will see changes for the better in the next few years. JetBlue has added a few more healthy (and unhealthy) items on select routes between New York and California. JetBlue, please take a cue from Air Canada's food playbook and offer items such as celery and carrots. Delta's snacks are still not very good, but their meals are getting better. Virgin America needs to offer healthier individual snacks to take the lead, and Air Canada needs to add healthier meals --- a merger, perhaps?

The "Shame on You'' award, once again, goes to Allegiant. I wasn't sure it would be possible, but this airline was less helpful this year than last year. Their foods are packaged. All they had to do was send photos of the nutrition facts panels, but they refused. Last year the media department actually told a journalist that they did cooperate --- nonsense!

The average number of calories per food item last year was 388. This year it's 360 --- a drop!

Here are the food-service offerings from several of the more popular airlines, along with Diet Detective's comments, ratings (Health Score: 5 stars = highest rating), calories, exercise equivalents (amount of walking required to burn off the food consumed) and personal favorites.

Virgin America (877-359-8474, www.virginamerica.com)

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Excellent

Health Score: 1/2

Average calories overall (meals, snack boxes and individual snacks) = 458.6

Average meal/snack box calories = 360.75

Average individual snack calories = 270.63

Best Bets: Avoid the individual snacks, since none is very healthy. Even the nuts, which are the best choice, are high in calories if you consume the entire package. For breakfast, Virgin used to have low-calorie oatmeal, which has been replaced by a higher-calorie granola with fruit and yogurt -- not too bad if you were rushing to catch the plane and didn't have any other choice. The best snack box is the Protein Meal with hummus, nuts and tuna;- the others are a bit high in calories that are not really worth it. For kids, skip the Jet Set Kid Pack if you can, and go for the half peanut butter and jam sandwich. It's a better choice.

The best bet is to go for a real meal, even if you save half for later. Nearly all the Travel Light meals are good choices (although the half wrap might not be filling enough). Just reading the menu can make you hungry and excited to fly on Virgin America. The standouts are the roasted pear and arugula salad with almonds and a fig mustard dressing, which has lots of fiber and only 310 calories. Also, the chicken protein platter is a bit higher in calories (you can always skip some of the cheese), but the protein will keep you feeling full and alert. Again, these are meals that will fill you up and help you avoid the junk. The good news is that none of the food goes overboard in terms of calories, -so you really can't go too far wrong.

JetBlue Airways (800-538-2583, www.jetblue.com )

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Very helpful

Health score: 1/2

Average calories overall (meals, snack boxes and individual snacks) = 316.41

Average meal/snack box calories = 450.22

Average individual snack calories = 165.88

Best Bets: Still nothing much in terms of healthy individual snacks, other than the nuts. And, by the way, the animal crackers are not a great choice, as some of you still insist. Keep in mind, the individual snacks are free, so don't take more than one. Also, I'm not sure why, but instead of adding healthier snacks they now have Doritos (which did replace the Fritos, but still ... ). In terms of the meal boxes, Shape Up has healthy ingredients, but should not be eaten as a snack --- it's a meal. Skip the other meal boxes, which are high in calories and fat and offer little in terms of nutrition. If you are on a flight that does offer the Eat Up Cafe, the yogurt parfait and the quinoa salad are the best choices. The others are not wonderful (but if you don't like yogurt or quinoa, the roast beef sandwich will do).

United Airlines (800-864-8331, www.united.com )

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Very helpful

Health score: 1/4

Average calories overall (meals, snack boxes and individual snacks = 458.58

Average meal/snack box calories = 521.38

Average individual snack calories = 322.50

Best Bets: On flights of more than two hours, choose the tapas snack box, which is high in calories but has many healthy foods, including almonds, olives, hummus and bruschetta;- just toss out the cheese spread. The snack box should be shared unless you eat it as a meal. On flights of less than three hours, you don't have much of a choice for a meal, and the tapas will fill you up and provide healthy nutrients. Skip the classic and savory snack boxes --- not much nutritionally going on. The individual snacks on United have improved from a calorie perspective (the range is now 190 to 650, whereas last year it was 330 to 1,020), and from a health perspective, they've scrapped the Chex Mix, croissants, cinnamon rolls and 1,000-calorie nuts. Great work! United has also added the sweet and savory bistro blend trail mix, which is a good choice if you share it with three others (it's 560 calories per bag), the Two Degrees food bars at 190 calories per bar, and the Wild Garden hummus dip with chips at 210 calories. The bars and hummus are both good snack choices. Skip the cheese plate; there are better options.

On flights of more than three hours, United has eliminated the grilled chicken spinach salad at 360 calories --- too bad. The good news is that they've added the Mediterranean-style salad, which is a good low-calorie choice that includes grilled zucchini, squash, bell pepper, olives, hummus and pita. Another reasonable choice is the turkey and Swiss cranberry baguette;- maybe skip the cheese. Skip the Cobb salad wrap; it is high in calories (do not be fooled by the word "salad''). For breakfast, your best bet is the Morning Energy Selection with fruit, egg and yogurt. The other breakfasts are not very healthy.

American Airlines (817-963-1234, www.aa.com)

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Excellent

Health score:

Average calories overall (meals, snack boxes and individual snacks) = 456

Average meal/snack box calories = 447.57

Average individual snack calories = 470.75

Best Bets: For individual snacks, the hummus and chips is your best choice at 203 calories (plus healthy hummus). You can pass on the other snacks, especially the fruit and nut mix, unless you have a large family to share it with. I'm not disciplined enough to order that --- I would eat the entire 640 calories. Too bad American dropped the insalata caprese salad. Now there are no real meals available for that two-hour-plus flight time. If you're on a longer flight (three hours or more), the fresh chicken Caesar salad bowl minus the chips is the way to go (give the chips away or refuse them). Avoid the brisket sandwich; even without the chips it's more than 600 calories. For breakfast on flights of two hours or more, there's not much to eat. You can share the fruit and nut mix with three or more people and be OK until you land (provided you skipped breakfast). On flights of three hours or more, the breakfast sandwich is the better choice (without the cookies; give them away or refuse them). There is not much cheese on the fruit and cheese plate,- so skip it.

US Airways (480-693-0800, www.usairways.com )

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Very helpful

Health score:

Average calories overall (meals, snack boxes and individual snacks) = 442.46

Average meal/snack box calories = 532

Average individual snack calories = 367.50

Best Bets: The only individual snacks that work are the nuts (split with three people or more), the Clif chocolate chip protein bar and the chips and salsa; the rest lack nutritional value (and have too many calories). However, none of these is a really healthy choice. Among the snack boxes, the Cafe Plus is much better this year, with mostly healthy items, including roasted garlic hummus, olives, honey glazed almond mix and a fig bar. The Cafe Snack box can also work if you share it, or it can serve as a meal for one. As for meals, for lunch or dinner the egg and turkey bacon sandwich (until Dec. 6) has actually increased in calories since last year (it was already high), but still, it's a real meal, and if you give away the yogurt or take off the jack cheese and the top part of the flatbread it can be a good choice. It's better than the fruit and cheese plate, which is lower in calories but won't fill you up. For breakfast, opt for the yogurt parfait at 260 calories (it's the granola that adds all the calories). For lunch or dinner, the crispy chicken salad is probably a miss, since it has fried chicken as the protein source. After Dec. 6, the lunch options are all more than 600 calories. Choose the turkey and cheese croissant sandwich, but take off the cheese. You can also choose the chicken cheddar wrap and give away the chips, or go for the penne and remove the meat to save calories.

Delta Air Lines (800-221-1212, www.delta.com)

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: More helpful than last year

Health score: 3/4

Average calories overall (meals, snack boxes and individual snacks) = 447.57

Average meal/snack box calories = 516.91

Average individual snack calories = 294

Best Bets: For the free snacks (on flights of 1.5 hours-plus) the peanuts are the best choice. None of the "for sale'' individual snacks is a good choice. If you do get the nut mix, make sure to share it with at least two others. Gosh, the snack boxes are getting worse (higher in calories). Both boxes are poor choices. However, if you choose the Eats Tapas, eat the hummus, bruschetta, olives, almonds, apricots and dark chocolate;- skip the rest, and make this a meal, not a snack. Of the breakfast options, your best bet is the Kickstart Combo (yogurt, banana and Kind bar) at 340 calories. If you share the fruit and cheese plate at 560 calories, skip the crackers, and don't eat all the cheese, it can be a good choice because of the fruit and almonds (and some of the cheese). The turkey slider combo is a good choice if you skip the chips. On westbound flights of more than three hours, for lunch/dinner you can have the corned beef sandwich (if no other option suits you), but take off the Swiss cheese and skip the mayo. On eastbound flights of more than three hours, the roasted chicken breast sandwich is pretty good if you take off the cheddar cheese and skip the aioli. On flights between Atlanta and Hawaii, Delta has two healthy salads:- Greek and Caesar. I wish they offered these on all flights.

Frontier Airlines (800-432-1359, www.flyfrontier.com)

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Very helpful

Health score: 3/4

Average calories overall (snack boxes and individual snacks) = 380.09

Average snack box calories = 613.67 (No meals available; only snacks)

Best Bets: For individual snacks, the Larabar is a very good choice (made from whole foods). The Mediterranean snack box with hummus, bruschetta, dried fruit and olives is really high in calories but not bad if shared or eaten as a meal, not a snack; just skip the cookies. As for the kids' snack boxes, the Flip's Surf Shop & Snack Shack is not the best choice.

Southwest Airlines (214-792-4223, www.southwest.com )

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Excellent

Health score:

Average calories = 108 (individual snacks only; no meals or snack boxes)

Best Bet: Go for the nuts and skip the pretzels and other items.

Allegiant Air (702-505-8888, www.allegiantair.com)

Cooperation in providing nutritional information: Not very helpful

Health score: 1/2

Average calories overall (meals, snack boxes and individual snacks) = 408.25

Average meal/snack box calories = 500.40

Average individual snack calories = 366.36

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 without cheese is a good choice for the West Coast. On the East Coast, go with the hummus, but you'll probably want to make sure you bring a sandwich for yourself.

Charles Platkin, Ph.D., is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com.
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Title Annotation:Weeklies
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Nov 29, 2013
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