12/06/2011 08:16 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2013

Healthy Travel: The Diet Detective Rates Airline Food

For many travelers, the prospect of dining while flying can be a daunting one. Will there be any healthy options? Is the in-flight meal going to be edible? To help tackle these conundrums is the Annual Airline Snacking and On-board Food Survey conducted by The Diet Detective, released last week.

Charles Platkin, aka The Diet Detective, is an assistant professor at CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College and has been conducting the survey annually for the past six years. The results are based on nutrition information for the foods served in economy-class on domestic flights.

Air Canada and Virgin America topped this year's survey for healthy options, ranking four out of five stars.

On Air Canada, choices like the chicken or roast beef wrap, a vegetarian sandwich or carrots and celery with ranch are good bets. Flying Virgin America? Go for the edamame and portobello mushroom wrap, egg and vegetable salad wrap or a protein snack box.

On the other hand, Southwest and Spirit landed on the bottom of the lot -- the latter partly because of unwillingness to provide nutritional data. Platkin suggests bringing your own snack if flying Spirit.

To learn more about the survey and healthy eating in the air, we chatted with Platkin:

What prompted you to do this snacking and on-board food survey? How does it work?

I originally started in 2000. It was when airlines were actually serving food for free. I thought this is a really interesting concept that you're sitting on a plane -- you're a captive -- and here they're serving you food. It's just being put in front of you. I wondered how calorie heavy it is, so I started analyzing the food. I went through all the foods that were served for free in the economy class and analyzed them with dietitians. I picked it up again around 2005/2006 and started it as an annual survey.

We analyze all the food offerings using six characteristics: compliance of the airline in offering nutritional data, calorie levels of the foods offered, variety of food offerings, number of healthy offerings, innovation of the airline and health improvement over the year before.

It's of public health importance and people have a right to know. The new healthcare act that went into effect last year actually provides, I think in 2012, that all restaurants with more than 20 units will be required to have nutrition information at each location. Airlines should not be exempt from that.

What do you think were the biggest takeaways this year?

I think that most of the airlines are still not getting that people want and need healthy choices on flights. The airlines need to look at it as a profit center and not something they are going to lose money on. And, also, see that they have an obligation -- because it’s a confined environment -- to offer some healthy choices that are also tasty.

How have things changed over the six years you have done the survey?

There's ebb and flow, and this year's a little bit of an ebb. But, overall I see a general trend towards airlines recognizing that food is a profit center (not a burden) and recognizing that by offering innovative food choices -- that are healthy and low in calories -- they will be picked by passengers.

What changes would you like to see the airlines make in terms of health?

I think they can all stand an improvement in terms of healthy offerings. Not all the offerings have to be healthy, because I know not everyone wants to eat healthy. But, certainly have two or three choices. If you have 10 choices, 30 to 45 percent should lean toward the healthy side, and maybe 25 percent should be low calorie and healthy. The two don’t always necessarily go together -- you can have healthy foods that are still high in calories.

Do you have any tips for sticking to a healthy eating plan while traveling?

Try to have a meal. I think the mistake people make is they think that because they're traveling they're owed something. Travel is often very stressful, so you sort of tend to think "Oh, I deserve something rich," and go and grab fast food. But you aren't satisfied; you didn't get any nutrients and are going to be hungry very soon thereafter.

A lot of people underestimate the time they are in the air, as well. They think it's a three-hour trip from New York to Florida, but a two- to three-hour trip really turns into a five- to seven-hour trip from the time you leave your house to the time you reach your destination. People don’t plan and eat accordingly.

See the slideshow below for Platkin's suggestions on what to eat while in transit.



What To Eat While Traveling