30 JAN 2017: In a distant past dining on airlines was a joy. I still remember the luxury of Wardair’s "Steak & Champagne" flights where food service was a white table cloth affair on Wardair branded Royal Doulton china. With airlines struggling today to bring some semblance of decent food at least to business and first class, economy still is underserved. A number of companies have studied the situation and what follows are their recommendations on what a passenger should order.

Dr. Charles Platkin, the director of the NYC Food Policy Center at Hunter College and editor of DietDetective.com conducted a survey of 12 major airlines' snack and on-board food. In his most recent 2016-2017 Airline Food Study, Virgin America wins the top spot (again) with the "healthiest" choices in the sky, with Delta and Air Canada tied for second.   The "Shame on You" award goes to Frontier and Spirit.

To find the best 'Calorie Bargains' and "Calorie Rip-offs" at 35,000 feet, the study assigned a "Health Score" (5 stars = highest rate, 0 star = lowest) based on ten criteria including health and calorie levels of meals, snack boxes and individual snacks, improvement and maintenance of healthy offerings, menu innovation and cooperation in providing nutritional information.

Click here for the full survey

The average number of calories per food item was 360 in 2012; in 2013 it was 388; in 2014 it was 397, 2015 it was 400, and in 2016 it was 392, an 8 calorie decrease over the previous year. Just a slight improvement from the direction things were taking. The survey also looked at the nutrients in the foods when they are provided, as well as innovations moving towards healthy, tasty, inexpensive, sustainable foods.

Here’s the summary of health ratings (5 stars = highest rating): Virgin America 4.25 stars, Delta 4 stars, Air Canada 4 stars, Alaska Air 3.75 stars, JetBlue 3.5 stars, United Airlines 3.25 stars, American 3 stars, Southwest Airlines 2 stars, Allegiant Air 1.75 stars, Hawaii 1.75 stars, Spirit Airlines 1 star, Frontier Air 1 star.

For Air Canada, here’s what Dr. Platkin found. “Best Bets: For breakfast, the Greek yogurt is still a good option- and will probably fill you up. And while the egg sandwich has bacon, it's low in calories and has slightly more protein than the yogurt.

The Chicken Soup is a low calorie choice for a snack that will fill you up, but be wary of the 950mg of sodium if you have high blood pressure. The Celery & Carrots with Ranch Dip (if you use no more than half the dip) is still an OK choice. While the hummus and the new guacamole options sound healthy, the pretzels and Tostitos offer little nutritional value, and you'd be better off having a meal if meals are available.

If meals are available, the newly added LUVO Orange Mango Chicken is a good low-calorie choice. The California Roll is another a light offering that's low in fat and calories. It would also make a great snack! The Roasted Vegetable Sandwich is also a healthy, low calorie option.”

Here's what he had to say about low ranking Spirit Airlines. “Best Bet: The cup of noodle soup at 290 calories is still the only choice that will feel like a real meal, but it is very high in sodium, so it is not the best bet for someone who is sodium-sensitive or has high blood pressure. All the muffins are at least 400 calories not the best choices unless you split one (if you're the type of person who can do that). Bringing your own food is actually the best option. The chips and salsa are the lowest calorie choice of all the snacks but probably won't fill you up. Skip the snack box.”

In the United Kingdom, Cheapflights conducted research among ten of the UK’s biggest airlines, working with independent nutritionist, Karen Alexander of Nutritious Roots posing as a customer seeking information about the nutritional content of inflight food. All ten airlines declined to respond to the request.

Andrew Shelton, Managing Director of Cheapflights, commented: “Whilst we can understand consumer frustration as BA joins no frills carriers such as Ryanair and EasyJet in charging for inflight meals on its short-haul routes, in reality the move could be a blessing in disguise for passengers.  Our recommendation has always been to ‘buy before you fly’ due to the high salt and sugar used to flavour inflight food. Health-conscious holidaymakers could use the news as a further incentive to keep up their good eating habits mid-air as well as on the ground.”

Alexander commented, “It’s common knowledge that to compensate for the fact that food tastes blander at 35,000 feet, airlines add more flavouring, such as sugar, to enhance the taste for their passengers. However, their refusal to share what those quantities are should be a cause of concern. It’s also worrying to see that passengers themselves happily accept being kept in the dark – when demanding nutritional information on our foodstuffs in other areas of our life, such as the goods we buy at the supermarket, is now commonplace.”

There are plenty of reasons why travellers should want to be better informed, says Alexander: “Aside from the longer term health issues associated with elevated sugar or salt consumption, sugary snacks cause a rise and sudden fall in blood sugar, making you feel even more depleted by the time you disembark.”

Alexander explained, “Whilst the diabetic or gluten-free option may seem the healthiest choice offered by airlines, planning ahead and taking your own healthy snacks on board - and opting for foods with higher protein to keep blood sugar levels balanced - is the best way to ensure you arrive with energy levels intact.”

The experts say EasyJet now has some better menu options, such as The Food Doctor Couscous and Lentil Wholesome Hotpot. But if you’re flying with Ryanair you should definitely eat before you board or take your own food as their offering is extremely unhealthy.

Cheapflights ended its report by suggesting that travellers can eat well in-flight by pre-preparing simple dishes such as salads and ramen, simply asking cabin crew for hot water. http://www.cheapflights.co.uk/news/in-flight-food-hacks

And for those who want to eat at the airport before boarding, Cheapflights.ca offers their menu of the Top 10 Airport Eateries for Getting a Taste of Local Flavour.

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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