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These airlines have the healthiest food options

A stock image of an airline passenger dining
Gabriela Medina | Blend Images | Getty Images

The 2019/2020 Airline Food Study is out and just in time for a record 31.6 million American passengers to take flight this Thanksgiving holiday.

In a report released Monday, Charles Platkin, the executive director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and editor of DietDetective.com, analyzed nutritional information on foods served and sold by the top 11 U.S. airlines.

When it comes to the airlines with the "healthiest options," Alaska Airlines and Air Canada are tied for the top spot.

"Air Canada showed the most improvement this year, while Delta has gone down, falling on this year's list," Charles Platkin tells CNBC Make It.

But Platkin adds that overall, airlines are making "glacier type-movements" when it comes to providing healthier food options for travelers. He has been conducting airline food and water studies for a decade, starting in 2009.

"I'm not sure why all the airlines are not offering and serving healthier foods," he says, as the move could potentially "increase customer experience and brand loyalty."

The scoring was from zero to five, five being the best. To determine the health of the options, Platkin considered criteria including nutrients and calories of all meals, snack boxes and individual snacks (except where meals were not available, as noted below), as well as transparency (whether nutrient information was displayed on the packaging), menu innovation and environmental initiatives (such as replacing plastic straws, stirrers with sustainable options). Additionally, airlines were rated on their cooperation level in providing nutritional information for the study.

Here are how the 11 airlines scored in DietDetective.com's 2019/2020 Airline Food Study.

Air Canada

Health score: 4
Average calories per item: 347
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: very helpful

Pros: In 2019 Air Canada added several new healthy items like the Grilled Chicken Summer Salad and the Wild Rice Superfood Salad to its menu. The airline also has one of the largest selection of healthy food options of the 11 airlines studied, according to Platkin.

Cons: The average sodium content of Air Canada's offerings is 544 mg, almost 10% higher than the average among all airlines (490 mg). However, the average sodium content for just its meals, 620 mg, is lower than the overall average for all airlines (823 mg).

A representative for Air Canada tells CNBC Make It that its North American food options feature both "fresh products with a range of healthy options available in addition to traditional comfort items that customers have told us they like to have. We are also conscious of high-sodium content concerns in foods and we strive to reduce that as much as possible in our food offerings."

Alaska Airlines

Health score: 4
Average calories per item: 359
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: very helpful

Pros: Alaska has been a clear leader for the past several years in healthy food options, transparency and environmental initiatives. In 2018, it was the first major airline to ditch plastic straws and encourage flyers to bring their own bottles to use at water-filling stations.

Cons: There are fewer healthier lunch and dinner choices this year than last year.

Delta Airlines

Health score: 2.9
Average calories per item: 424
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: very helpful

Pros: Delta's overall calorie average fell from 500 calories from last year

Cons: The food's average sodium content is 780 mg, one of the highest of any airline studied.

JetBlue Airways

Health score: 2.9
Average calories per item: 295
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: very helpful

Pros: JetBlue posts all of its nutritional information on its website and its average number of calories per item has decreased from 323 last year.

Cons: Not all of the nutritional information on its website is up-to-date, according to Platkin. And its free snacks (like chocolate chip cookies) are among its most unhealthy choices.

United Airlines

Health score: 2.7
Average calories per item: 320
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: somewhat helpful

Pros: The airline's average calories per item dropped to 431 this year, and its average sodium content, 464 mg, is lower than the average across airlines.

Cons: No nutritional information is posted on United's website. United is also still using plastic straws and cups.

American Airlines

Health score: 2.7
Average calories per item: 481
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: mostly helpful

Pros: American added a vegan snack box this year and is continuing its 2018 partnership with Zoe's Kitchen, a clean food company, basing its main cabin menus on a Mediterranean diet.

Cons: No nutritional information is posted on American's website and its average calories per item increased from 417 last year.

Frontier Airlines

Health score: 2
Average calories per item (based only individual snacks and snack boxes, not meals): 289
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: very helpful

Pros: The average number of calories in its snack boxes decreased to 257 from last year.

Cons: The average calories in its individual snack options (not including boxes) is 298, which is 15% higher than the average across airlines.

Allegiant Air

Health score: 1.9
Average calories per item (based only individual snacks and snack boxes, not meals): 325
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: very helpful

Pros: Allegiant has lowered its per item calorie average from 336 last year.

Cons: Its menu still lacks nutritious options that include fruit and salads.

Spirit Airlines

Health score: 1.9
Average calories per item (based only individual snacks and snack boxes, not meals): 360
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: very helpful

Pros: The airline was very cooperative in providing nutritional information.

Cons: The average sodium content of its snacks is 403 mg, which is well above the average across all airlines.

Hawaiian Airlines

Health score: 1.9
Average calories per item: 556
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: not so helpful

Pros: Hawaiian has some healthy snacks options in its gluten-free box such as hummus, chickpea snacks and turkey sticks.

Cons: It is the only airline that did not provide Platkin with complete nutrition information, so its meal nutrient content was estimated by a registered dietitian for the report.

Southwest Airlines

Health score: 1.7
Average calories per individual snack (not snack boxes or meals): 106
Cooperation in providing nutritional information: somewhat helpful

Pros: The airline's average calories per snack decreased from 138 last year.

Cons: The airline's snacks did not offer much variety or nutritional value.

Other than Air Canada, the airlines did not immediately respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment. 

Platkin says there are things travelers can do to help stay healthy while traveling. 

For example, find your own source of water. An analysis Platkin released in September found that airplane tap water (used in bathrooms and often to make coffee and tea on board) varies in its level of safety. So Platkin suggests bringing your own reusable water bottle to fill at an airport water fountain (past the security checkpoint), or buy bottled water after you go through security. While in the air, always ask for bottled water.

Platkin also suggests bringing fruit as a snack (apples and oranges hold up well during travel, he says). Or even certain healthier energy bars (such as Larabars, he says) are at least more nutritious than candy or cookies, so you can keep those on hand. And nuts — portioned into 1-ounce bags (about 160 calories each) — are a good source of protein and help fend off hunger.

As for meals, Platkin suggests pre-cutting sandwiches into portion-controlled sections and eat them throughout the flight. Chicken or turkey and cheese on 100% whole-wheat bread are good options, he says.

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