New Year, New Diet, New Airline Menus

As we start the new year many people are thinking about their resolutions and goal of eating healthier. To help travelers stick to their commitments to be healthier, we thought ww’d bring you the results of a recent study on the quality and calorie-count of North American airline food. The idea is with a new year, new diet and new airline menus, we can make better choices.

DietDetective.com and the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center have just released the 2019-20 Airline Food Study, rating foods for eleven  airlines. The study assigned a “Health Score” (5 stars = highest rated, 0 star = lowest rated) based on criteria including healthy nutrients and calorie levels of meals, snack boxes and individual snacks, level of transparency (display of nutrient information, menu online & ingredients), improvement and maintenance of healthy offerings, menu innovation and cooperation in providing nutritional information, overall sodium levels, availability of meals on flights under 3 hours, and our Airline Water Health Score. The study includes health ratings, average calories per airline, comments, best bets, food offerings, costs, and nutrition information (e.g., calories, carbs, fats, protein, sodium and exercise equivalents).

You can see the full study at dietdetective.com.

“This year Alaska and Air Canada share the top spot as the airlines with the ‘healthiest’ food choices in the sky, with Delta and JetBlue tied for second,” says Charles Platkin, Ph.D., JD, MPH, the executive director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and editor of DietDetective.com.

Here are the major airline food headlines:

  • Alaska Airlines and Air Canada pull to the top for a tie this year as the healthiest airlines.
  • Average Calories Same as Last Year: The average number of calories per menu item was 373 calories in 2018 and this year it is almost the same at 375 calories. But keep in mind, calories are not everything; the study also looks at the nutrient content of these foods, as well as innovations moving towards healthier, tastier, less expensive and more sustainable choices.
  • Alaska Airlines is the clear leader in making strides to minimize its environmental impact. It was the first to replace plastic straws with paper ones and continues to look for eco-friendly substitutions. Alaska has also launched a #FillBeforeYouFly campaign to encourage flyers to bring their own water bottles and fill them up at water-filling stations in the airport to reduce the use of plastic cups and water bottles on board.
  • Shame On You Award goes to Hawaiian for not providing ALL their nutritional information for the study, and to the EPA for not providing penalty information on galley water violations when requested.
  • Sodium Matters: Sodium is often used by food providers to boost flavor, especially in the air where senses can be dulled. The average airline meal contains more than 800mg of sodium, which is more than 40 percent of the daily limit of 2000mg set by the World Health Organization. Also, note that in addition to health-related concerns, sodium can make you feel and look bloated because you retain extra water. Watch out for high levels of sodium throughout all airline menus.
  • Mini-Meals: Full meals or “mini-meal” options are better bets than eating individual snacks, which generally have little nutritional value.
  • Short Flights Matter: We urge airlines to provide meals or allow for preorder on shorter flights so that passengers have the option to eat a healthy meal no matter how long they’re in the air. Keep in mind that a 90-minute flight can easily turn into a 5 or 6 hour travel experience when you include getting to the airport, TSA lines, waiting for the flight to take off, deplaning and getting to your final destination.
  • You Need to Know: We believe transparency around food is important for airlines. This means providing an up-to-date version of its menu online with all nutrient information (i.e., calories, fat, carbs, sugar, fiber, protein and sodium), including ingredients.
  • Taste Changes in Air: Research shows that our taste perception changes while in flight. Dr. Charles Spence from the University of Oxford found that the three factors impacting taste at such high altitudes are the lower cabin air pressure, lack of humidity and loud background noise. In-flight, air is recycled every few minutes and humidity is normally about 20 percent (compared to indoor relative humidity of 40 percent). With lower humidity and air pressure, we’re likely to be thirstier, and there’s naturally less moisture in the throat, which slows the transport of odors to the brain’s smell and taste receptors. Drink a lot of water. More salt, sugar and flavor enhancers (i.e. spices and herbs) are necessary to make meals inflight taste the way they do on the ground.
  • Watch Your Carbs: Eating lots of heavy carbs such as pasta with thick, dense sauces, breads, muffins or cakes will leave you feeling lethargic, cranky and not full or satisfied. Your blood sugar levels will spike and then fall, which will negatively impact your mood. The fact that food impacts mood, attitude and behavior has been well documented in scientific literature.
  • Water Watch: This year we published an Airline Water Study highlighting the quality of water provided onboard. Each airline was given a Water Health Score, which has been factored into their overall score in this study. The study revealed that the quality of drinking water varies by airline, and many have provided passengers with unhealthy water. In general, it’s probably best to avoid drinking coffee and tea on board since they are made with galley water.

How Travelers Really Feel

Several things have to happen before the travel industry can get back to normal. First off, travelers have to want to travel again. Fortunately all ...