March 5, 2021

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Which airline’s food is healthiest?


The strategy has paid off. Those Virgin-inspired food items helped Alaska earn the title of being the healthiest airline of 2018, according to an annual ranking of North American airline food.

“The airline worked hard to inherit the food footprint of Virgin America, and surpassed VX by offering better individual snacks and healthier meals,” according to Dr. Charles Platkin, the executive director of the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center and author of the yearly ranking.

Platkin highlighted Alaska’s calorie-friendly and nutrient-rich “west coast inspired” items like the Fall Harvest Salad, and the Fresh Start Protein Platter as being some of the more sensible options off the buy-on-board menu. Frequent Virgin America fliers will tell you the protein platter (including turkey or chicken, hummus, cheese, sliced vegetables and grapes) was one of the more popular items, and were excited when Alaska kept it around.

Keep in mind that this is a ranking of of the healthiest food, not the “best” which is a relative term based on individual palates.

Over the summer, we took part in a tasting panel at Alaska Air’s catering kitchens in Seattle that helped decide on some of those items that are now available on most Alaska flights.

During the panel, Alaska execs wanted to know if dishes exemplified west coast cuisine — with many items incorporating fresh ingredients from California, Oregon and Washington like asparagus, avocado, apples, cheeses and stone fruit. See the slideshow above for some of the dishes that were considered.

Delta Air Lines came in second in the ranking. Platkin was particularly impressed with the airline’s partnership with Luvo, the Vancouver, Canada-based health-centric frozen food company. Some buy-on-board items off the Delta menu, like the whole grain wraps with fresh fruit, are Luvo branded. Regrettably, Delta jettisoned Luvo snack boxes from its California corridor flights earlier this year, which included gluten free crackers, edamame hummus, carrots and celery.

JetBlue Airways ranked third, followed by Air Canada. American Airlines received a satisfactory-level rating. American recently partnered with Plano, Texas based Zoe’s Kitchen for inflight food items, but the ranking notes “the food is cleaner, but higher in calories.”

United Airlines’s food offerings came in below average on the ranking, weighed down by the addition of a cheesy, bready (but tasty!) Chicken Parmesan Sandwich and Banana Bread Pudding added to the inflight menu. Its popular Cheeseburgers and Stroopwafels likely did not help when it comes to healthy food, but passengers sure like them… the carrier serves about 10,000 burgers a week. More about that here.

United's original cheeseburger served on a pretzel roll with unusually delicious and crunchy Calbee chips Photo: Chris McGinnis
Photo: Chris McGinnis United’s original cheeseburger served on a pretzel roll with unusually delicious and crunchy Calbee chips

“It’s a full-on dessert and not something you want to eat on the plane,” Platkin said of the pudding, which is available for sale for breakfast.

He recommends United’s Tapas snack box, but only if you share items with a friend or seat mate if you’re noshing on it as a snack.

“[It] is high in calories but has many healthy foods, including almonds, olives, hummus and bruschetta; just toss out the cheese spread,” Platkin recommends.

Hawaiian Airlines, Allegiant Air, Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines rounded out the bottom of the list. It’s unclear why the study included Southwest, since nearly all of its flights only serve packages of pretzels.

Frontier Airlines was ranked dead last by Platkin, mostly because it took too long for the carrier to respond to his requests for nutritional information. From our experience, Frontier’s inflight food is mostly salty snacks, cookies and candy. The study warns passengers flying any airline to avoid drinking coffee and tea served onboard.

“There are a couple of reliable researchers who believe there may be harmful bacteria in airline water,” the study notes. “This is probably because the water tanks are not emptied very often (you would think they’d be emptied and cleaned at least once a day, but this is not so).”

Platkin notes the Environmental Protection Agency’s Aircraft Drinking Water Rule has been in effect since 2009. It requires airlines provide safe and reliable water for passengers and crew in response to a 2004 EPA investigation that found coliform in the water aboard commercial planes.

Despite frequent testing by the regulators and quarterly water tank cleanings by the airline, Platkin is still weary about drinking anything brewed using airplane water and recommends bringing bottled water purchased or filled at the airport instead.

When flying are you more interested in how good the food tastes, or how healthy it is? Do you drink inflight coffee? I don’t– but that’s mostly because I think it tastes bad. Please leave your thoughts in the comments. 

Chris McGinnis is the founder of You can reach Chris at or on Twitter @cjmcginnis.

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