An annual airline food study has named Alaska Airlines the healthiest airline in the sky. Conducted by Charles Platkin, a public health advocate who serves as the director for the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, the survey evaluates the food programs of North American airlines based on 11 criteria, including health and calorie levels, menu innovation, transparency of ingredients and nutrition, and food and water safety.
Alaska Airlines’ first-place ranking in DietDetective.com’s Annual Airline Food Investigation has been partially attributed to the influence Virgin America has had on the Seattle-based airline since its acquisition. Since 2012, Virgin America has held the top spot, tying for first with Air Canada in 2013 and Delta Air Lines last year.
“When we merged with Virgin America, we promised their loyal guests that we would work to take the best from both airlines,” said David Rodriguez, product manager, Food & Beverage at Alaska Airlines. Over the past year, the airline has worked closely with LSG Group to research ingredients and host tastings with customers and flight attendants. Some of Virgin’s culinary cues are easy to spot on Alaska’s latest seasonal menu, including the popular Fresh Start Protein Platter. Virgin-inspired breakfast smoothie shots have also been offered in first class since March.
“One of the areas where Virgin America excelled was being transparent about nutritional information,” said Rodriguez. In addition to making nutritional information available on its website, details are available in its mobile app, which has offered a Pre-Select mobile food ordering option since 2014. “Finding ways to provide the most information possible around ingredients, allergens and nutritional information is something we have worked hard to do,” he explained.
Finishing just under a full star behind Alaska was Delta Air Lines, followed by JetBlue and Air Canada. American Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines were noted for being the most improved. On December 1st, American Airlines launched domestic service of an economy-class menu designed in collaboration with Zoës Kitchen, a popular Mediterranean-style chain based in Plano, Texas. “Our customers have asked for lighter tasty food choices,” said Janelle Anderson, American’s vice-president of Global Marketing, on the partnership.
The study also found that menu choices averaged 373 calories this year, marking a 32 percent decrease from last year’s 405 caloric average, and a drop from 392 in 2016. Of course, calories are not the only measure of healthy food, and many airlines have adjusted menus to reflect a recent dietary shift that prioritizes locally sourced, unrefined and minimally processed ingredients over carb or calorie counting.
Alaska Airlines cites the importance of providing fresh and local ingredients as one of its key takeaways from customer surveys. “Guests today are mindful of what they eat when they are traveling, especially on the West Coast,” said Rodriguez.
But quality ingredients are now touted on superlative-rich airline menus around the world, from Singapore Airlines’ organic 2016 M. Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage Les Meysonniers Rhone Valley shiraz to Ryanair’s GMO- and gluten-free smoked Californian almonds. Alaska Airlines’ Virgin-inspired Protein Platter features Beecher’s Flagship Cheese, a cage-free hard-boiled egg, and non-GMO turkey. Food detail is in. Unidentified flying ingredients are out.
Diet Detective’s Overall 2018 Health Ratings
1. Alaska Airlines 4.25 Stars
Average calories overall: 404
Best bet: The vegan, kosher, and gluten-free Mediterranean Tapas picnic pack
2. Delta Air Lines 3.75 Stars
Average calories overall: 499
Best bet: Roasted salted peanuts
3. JetBlue Airways 3.55 Stars
Average calories overall: 323
Best bet: EatUp or PickMeUp box
4. Air Canada 3.45 Stars
Average calories overall: 346
Best bet: Greek yogurt or the Avocado Smash Box
5. American Airlines 3 Stars
Average calories overall: Between 496 and 626
Best bet: The Continental Breakfast
6. United Airlines 2.75 Stars
Average calories overall: 360
Best bet: Tapas snack box
7. Hawaiian Airlines 2.65 Stars
Average calories overall: 419
Best bet: Hummus & Pita Chips or Kitchen & Love
8. Allegiant Air 2.15 Stars
Average calories overall: 335
Best bet: Nuts or the hummus snack pack
9. Southwest Airlines 1.6 Stars
Average calories overall: 138
Best bet: Pretzels
10. Spirit Airlines 1.1 Stars
Average calories overall: 378
Best bet: Quinoa with Artichoke & Roasted Peppers
11.Frontier Airlines .85 Stars
Average calories overall: 372
Best bet: Trail mix
* The 5-star “Health Score” is based on 11 criteria, with five stars being the highest score. Average calories overall represents meals, snack boxes and individual snacks.
The full results of the 2018 Airline Food Investigation can be found on Dietdetective.com.