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Holiday Season = Airline Food = Not Too Many Good Choices

Lots of suggested articles are sent to me from various industry sources and companies seeking to push a particular product or position.  Generally I read them with interest, but don’t find them something my readers would find interesting or useful or, frankly, they are just are too biased.

However, today I received one today and thought:  I was going to write about how I have become so disenchanted with the poor quality and lack of healthy choices on my airline flights that it is something I should write about, but now I don’t have to.  Here you go:

2011 DietDetective.com Airline Food Investigation

Survey Provides Travelers with the
Best In-flight Food including Health Ratings
Making Healthier Choices 35,000 Feet in the Air
Virgin America and Air Canada Receive Top Rating, United Falls from Grace (again),
Spirit at the Bottom, Spirit and Delta Least Cooperative

NEW YORK, NY (NOVEMBER 22, 2011) According to Airline Transportation Association, there will between roughly 23 million passengers traveling over this Thanksgiving season. Knowing what are the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ choices is a valuable tool for any traveler, so DietDetective.com once again rated the best ‘Calorie Bargains’ and “Calorie Rip-offs” at 35,000 feet.
DietDetective.com issued the 2011 Airline Food Survey rating foods for eight airlines. The survey assigned a “Health Score” (5 stars = highest rate, 0 star = lowest) based on snack/on-board food service offerings, number of healthy offerings, airline cooperation, fruit and vegetable offerings, and improvements. The survey includes health ratings, cost, comments, food offerings, calories, and exercise equivalents.

“This year Virgin America and Air Canada provided the ‘healthiest” choices in the sky, while United had a fall from grace, Spirit received the lowest rating, and Spirit and Delta were the least cooperative (and also received a low health rating),” says Charles Platkin, PhD, MPH, public health advocate, editor of DietDetective.com and assistant professor at CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College.

Below are the surveyed airlines’ “Health Scores” (Health Score: 5 stars = highest rating, 0 stars = lowest). For full survey results including full listings of the snack/on-board food, comments, ratings, cost, calories, exercise equivalents, and tips go to www.DietDetective.com or email Mary Cummings (mary@nutritionpr.com), 212 -367-6199 ext 2
Air Canada (514-393-3333, www.aircanada.com)
Health Score: (****)
Best Bets: This airline cares about its passengers’ health–that’s for sure. The airline calls their food Air Canada NutriCuisine and prides itself on the freshness and optimum quality of ingredients. They contract with a company called Food with a Conscience nutritional program ( www.foodwithaconscience.com) to help create their menu.
They can do slightly better on the individual snack offerings though. Pick the Nissin – Chicken Ramen Noodle Soup. It will fill you up and it’s more like a meal. The cashews need to be shared. They will fill you up but have too many calories for one person.  I love the idea of the Celery & Carrots with Ranch Dip — nice touch. I just wish the dip were hummus or something healthier than ranch.  As far as the meals go, they are all relatively low in calories. Go for the chicken or roast beef wrap or the vegetarian sandwich (nice!).  The healthy oatmeal is also a great offering.
Virgin America (877-359-8474, www.virginamerica.com)
Health Score: (****)
Best Bets: In terms of individual snacks, the PopChips are a low-calorie choice; however, the best choice is the nuts. They are packed with important nutrients and will help keep you full longer than other snack choices. But you still need to split them with someone. The oatmeal is a good breakfast choice at 310 calories — a nice whole grain to get you started in the morning. Virgin’s snack boxes, such as the protein meal with hummus, nuts and tuna, are great. They’ll fill you up and will be a real meal. To be honest, the Jet Set Kid’s Pack could set a better example. I wish it had some healthier choices, but at least it’s relatively low in calories (compared to other airline snack boxes). In terms of meals, the Edamame and Portobello Mushroom Wrap is filled with great stuff and has 9g of fiber and 20g of protein. Wow! The only negative is the high sodium content (1300mg). Another good choice is the Egg and Vegetable Salad Wrap, which is filled with high quality protein and has only 370 calories. 
United Airlines (800-864-8331, www.united.com) / Continental Airlines (800.523.3273, www.continental.com)
Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information:
Health Score: (*** 1/4)
Best Bets: On flights longer than two hours, go for the Tapas; it has some great foods, including almonds, olives, hummus and bruschetta – just toss out the cheese spread.  All the individual snacks are pretty high in calories. I realize they’re meant to be shared, but even so, there is no one standout among them. If you have a family of five or six (not very likely) and wanted to split the almonds, they are really the only snack choice that has real nutritional value. You should avoid the chips and cinnamon rolls. That doesn’t leave too many individual snack options. All the snack packs are very high in calories. There are elements in each that are ok; however, if I had to choose, the Savory is probably the best — just watch that fruit-and-nut mix. In terms of meals, the yogurt is not too bad for breakfast. Skip the cheese and fruit plate — it gives the illusion of being healthy, but it’s not at all, and there is really not much fruit to speak of other than the dried fruit. 
For flights longer than three hours, United has several healthy choices, but I really like the Grilled Chicken Spinach Salad at 360 calories including the dressing. The other choices, including the Asian Noodle Salad, Thai Chicken Wrap and Turkey Sandwich are ok choices compared to those of other airlines, and in term of calories they are decent for lunch or dinner.  For breakfast, your best bet is the Yogurt Parfait – or, if you’re interested in meat ,you can order 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.
US Airways (480-693-0800, www.usairways.com)
Health Score: (** 3/4)
Best Bets: The CafePlus is not bad because, at the very least, you get the protein from the tuna, and it’s low in calories. Maybe you can get rid of the cookies (give them to the flight attendant as a gift). I also like the Cobb Salad, and the good news is that the dressing is typically on the side. In terms of snacks, the only one that looks good is the chips and salsa at 130 calories. The nuts would be great; however, you need to split them with 8 to 10 people. Avoid the new Bacon/Egg Salad Croissant Box at more than 700 calories.
JetBlue Airways (800-538-2583, www.jetblue.com)
Health Score: (**3/4)
Best Bets:  Not much in the snack area to eat other than the Quaker Multigrain Fiber Crisps. They are made with whole grain oats– nice touch. Try to stick with no more than one snack. Just because they are free and they let you take more than one doesn’t mean you have to take them, especially if you’re not hungry. In terms of the meal boxes, the Shape Up is the clear winner if you’re thinking of this as a meal. It has 8 grams of fiber and only 2g of unhealthy saturated fat. While the Cheer Up is low in calories, I’m not sure it will do the trick as a meal. However, if you’re just looking for a snack and you share it with someone, you’re only at 130 calories. Last year JetBlue started to offer more than just snacks, but only on longer flights. The problem is that they still need to add some healthier real meals and snack options. The individually packaged snacks are portion-controlled; however, most are lacking in any real nutritional value. And the worst part is that they no longer sell nuts — which were the most nutrient-dense offering they had.
American Airlines (817-963-1234, www.aa.com)
Health Score: (**1/2) Their snacks are still high in calories with few healthy offerings.
Best Bets: Your best bet is the Sabra Roasted Red Pepper Hummus with Pretzels; at least the hummus has a few health benefits.  The Fruit and Nut Blend is a decent nutrition choice, but make sure to split it with at least two other people. Nuts are very high in calories but will help fill you up. If you’re on a longer flight, the best choice is a new item — Marcus Samuelsson’s New American Table Turkey and Chutney Sandwich, which is packed with protein and even has apple slices on the sandwich for flavor. It’s only 323 calories without the chips (give them away or refuse them). Another good choice is the Boston Market Chicken Caesar Salad with chips (which you can give away) and dressing for 660 calories. I like the fact that the dressing is on the side (use it sparingly). Again, you need to make sure you differentiate a snack from a meal. A 600-calorie snack is very high; however, a 600-calorie meal, especially for dinner, can be reasonable. Watch out for the Boston Market Deli Chicken Pesto and the Boston Market Turkey Carver — they have way too many calories for one person. For breakfast, the fruit and cheese plate is an ok choice. I like it because at least it has walnuts and grapes, and the cheese portions are small. The Breakfast Café Croissant Sandwich is low in calories at 320, and the ham might fill you up nicely. The other breakfast choices are high in calories, low in nutrients, or both.
Delta Air Lines (404-773-0305, www.delta.com)
Health Score: (** 1/4)
Best Bets: In terms of individual snacks, there are no good options; however, sharing a  Flight Delights snack box is a pretty good idea (or have it as a meal and eat the whole thing). It has a variety of nutrient-dense foods that are low in calories for what you get. Of the breakfast options (on flights of 3 ½ hours or longer) your best bet is the Breakfast Snack, which has light yogurt and a fresh banana. Delta also offers a fruit and cheese plate that’s available for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The cheese is very high in calories, but it’s still a nice option if you skip the crackers; at least you’re getting some nutritional benefit from what you’re eating.  For lunch/dinner options, there are not too many offerings. You have the Chicken and Turkey Cuban at 552.5 calories or the Turkey Peppercorn Ranch Ciabatta at 576 calories. The chicken and turkey is the lower-calorie choice and is probably healthier based on the ingredients — try to have only half the bread.
Southwest Airlines (214-792-4223, www.southwest.com)
Health Score: (*3/4) Not much variety and not much in terms of nutritional value.
Best Bet: Go for the nuts and skip the pretzels and other items.
Spirit Airlines (800-772-7117, www.spirit.com)
Health Score: ( *)
Best Bet: Bring your own food!!!  However, I guess the soup, at only 300 calories, could work as a meal. Keep in mind that all the calorie information below was estimated by our staff from the Spirit Airline menu descriptions and food manufacturers’ websites.
Bring Your Own Snacks
Even if you ate before you left home, you are still going to get hungry. We often underestimate the amount of time a trip can take. A two-hour flight could mean four or five hours of travel. Keep in mind that you can take most foods through security, but you need to check with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for the latest rules about carrying on food and water:  www.tsa.gov/311/index.shtm
Here are some ideas for snacks you can bring or buy in the airport:
       Water: Buy it after the security checkpoint to take onboard. Dehydration can cause or exacerbate hunger, jet lag and fatigue.
       Cereal: Kashi, Shredded Wheat or other low calorie cereals. Look for portable, low-calorie choices, under 120 calories per cup. You can also look for cereal in a cup. It’s portion controlled in 1.5-ounce packs that are easy to store and easy to use.
       Fruit and salads: Stick with fruits like apples and oranges that can withstand some rough treatment. You can even bring a banana if you put it in a container such as a banana saver (www.bananasaver.com). Grapes or almost any other fruit can be carried in a plastic container. Also, they often sell cut up fruit or salads in the airport. They’re a bit more expensive than bringing your own, but at least they’re healthy alternatives to what is served onboard.
       Energy bars: Although they tend to be high in calories and fat, they are generally better than a slice of pizza or a candy bar at the airport. Choose Larabars; they have nothing but healthy ingredients.
       Nonfat yogurt: Yogurt is a great portable snack. You can purchase it after you go through security.
       Sandwiches: Pre-cut them into portion-controlled sections so you can pull them out at different times during the trip without making a mess. Chicken, turkey, cold cuts and cheese (on 100 percent whole-wheat bread) are all great options for sandwiches on the go.
       Soy chips and PopChips: Yet another portable, low-cal, high-fiber snack. (www.glennys.com, www.popchips.com)
       Peel-and-eat tuna and salmon cups: Chicken of the Sea makes these easy-to-open cups that give you a quick protein source. With no draining required, this wild-caught tuna or salmon is perfect for on-the-go lunches and snacks.
       Nuts: They’re a good source of protein and they help fend off hunger. Portion them into 1-ounce bags (about 160 calories each).
       Dried or freeze-dried fruit and vegetable snacks: Eat dried fruit in moderation; it’s high in calories. (e.g., www.sensiblefoods.com, www.brothersallnatural.com, www.funkymonkeysnacks.com)
       All Natural Fruit Roll-Ups (no sugar added): Check out Stretch Island Fruit Company’s Original Fruit Strips, FruitaBü and Smoooshed Fruit Rolls (www.stretchislandfruit.com)
       Whole-Wheat Crackers: Make sure to get 100 percent whole-wheat crackers such as Ak Mak (www.akmakbakeries.com), Dr. Kracker (www.drkracker.com) or Mr. Krispers (mrkrispers.elsstore.com).
       Beef jerky: Especially if you’re a low-carb fan, but not if you’re watching your sodium.
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