When nutrition advocate Charles Stuart Platkin conceived of his airline food rankings 10 years ago, the average coach dinner had 1,054 calories, about as much as a McDonald's Big Mac and large fries.
Today those elusive, rarely free airline meals are of much better quality, many with calorie totals half or less of that previous zenith, but some still may force you to loosen your safety belt, said Platkin, who has released his new health rankings.
"I'm not advocating that airlines only serve celery sticks," said Platkin, the New York-based founder of dietdetective.com. "But they basically have you held captive. They should give travelers better options."
In-flight meals have followed market trends toward health-conscious eating, said Kevin Miller, executive chef with Gate Gourmet, a Zurich-based company that provides food for 250 airlines. In addition to more organic and nutritious options, some nighttime meals are made to soothe, and some daytime meals have energy-boosting ingredients, Miller said.
But airlines also must cater to the passengers who want comfort food, Miller said. Another challenge: People lose 30 percent of their sense of taste while in the air, he explained, so flavors have to be in overdrive.
Platkin's rankings give U.S. airlines a "health score" on a scale of 1 to 5 stars (5 being the best), considering meal variety, nutritional density and availability of nutritional information.
Continental took the top spot thanks to its free, low-calorie, high-impact and varied meals. American Airlines was the "most improved" of the bunch for swapping its breakfast muffin for oatmeal and ditching the oversize 3 Musketeers bar.
Health tip: Eat nuts, not pretzels, Platkin said.
Continental (4 1/2 stars)
American Airlines (3 3/4 stars)
United (3 1/2 stars)
JetBlue (3 1/2 stars)
Delta/Northwest (3 1/2 stars)
US Airways (2 1/2 stars)
Southwest (2 stars)