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Veggie Choices Available at Airports PDF Print E-mail
Written by Barbara Ferguson Kennedy   
Tuesday, 21 December 2004 20:45

Barbara Ferguson Kennedy

Do you get the "There's nothing here I can eat!" vegetarian blues when you travel?

Well, cheer up, a little professional nudging has airport restaurants looking more closely at their menus, and offering healthy alternative foods for those who want to eat well when they travel.

According to a study recently published by the Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, twelve of the nation's busiest airports were scrutinized by PCRM nutritionists for the availability of healthy entrees. They determined that three-quarters of the airports improved their scores from last year, and nearly 85 percent offered a healthy option (defined as a low-fat vegetarian entree) in at least half of their restaurants.

New Airport FoodsThe report comes during a transition period for airport dining. As a growing number of airlines eliminate in-flight meals, passengers are turning to restaurants in terminals for carry-on entrees. Airport food has also become more important to travelers who must wait out layovers and flight delays behind security checkpoints. In this evolving environment, which airports are best meeting the need for nutritious options?

Miami Takes First Place; Minneapolis Wins "Most Improved" Award; Las Vegas Ranks Lowest Second Year in a Row

Miami topped the list with 85 percent of its restaurants offering healthy choices, a marked improvement from last year's fifth place, according to PCRM's survey. Detroit came in a close second with a score of 83 percent, thanks to its innovative "Heart Smart" nutrition plan. Dallas and New York made significant strides with both airports increasing their scores by 16 points. Minneapolis wins this year's "most improved airport" award by gaining 20 points and jumping from last place in 2003 to ninth this year. Phoenix and Las Vegas received the two lowest scores by not offering even one healthy entree in half of their eateries.

PCRM nutritionists evaluated the restaurants in all 12 airports, giving each restaurant a point if its menu included at least one low-fat, high-fiber vegetarian entree. The final percentage score was derived by dividing the airport's number of healthy restaurants by the total number of restaurants.

As noted in PCRM's report, more travelers are turning to restaurants in airport terminals during layovers or in response to airlines cutting back on in-flight meals. Also, many of the airlines have switched to a "buy-on-board" option, which usually features a high-fat sandwich with equally fatty chips and a cookie. Almost 10 percent more of the surveyed airports offer a healthful option compared to last year.

"Travelers should look for non-dairy vegetarian options, which will be naturally lower in fat and higher in fiber," said PCRM's Trulie Ankerberg-Nobis, M.S., R.D. "Two good bets, available at many airports, are a veggie burger and a bean burrito found at most fast-food style restaurants."

This year's findings reveal that healthful offerings have become more widely available, though some airports continue to lag behind. On the positive side, seven percent more airport eateries provide at least one healthful entree. But 36 percent of restaurants in these airports do not offer even one entree that is low in fat, high in fiber, and cholesterol-free.


The review was conducted from July to October of 2004. PCRM nutrition experts surveyed 12 of the busiest U.S. airports for the availability of healthful entrees. The final percentage score for each airport was derived by dividing the facility's number of healthful restaurants by the total number of restaurants.

A restaurant was rated as healthful if it served at least one entree meeting PCRM's requirements. PCRM defined a healthful entree as a breakfast, lunch, or dinner item that was low in fat, high in fiber, and cholesterol-free. This rating system puts a premium on vendors serving low-fat and vegetarian choices, healthful salads, and international cuisine.

PCRM surveyed only restaurants serving breakfast, lunch, or dinner entrees, so vendors not offering entrees, such as most yogurt and coffee shops, were not evaluated.

The eat-right-to-live-right organization also identified some airports that health-conscious travelers should try to avoid a layover at, if possible. Nutritious entrees are few and far between in Phoenix, which scored 44 percent, and in Las Vegas, which scored 33 percent.

What about In-Flight Food Choices?

PCRM also rated airlines on their healthy choice options less than a year ago. Here are their results:

The Rankings

Superb Service: Song.
This airline, which is operated by Delta, offers healthy vegetarian and vegan meals as part of the buy-on-board menu on all flights.

Plan Ahead: Alaska, American, United.
These airlines offer vegetarian and/or vegan options, but travelers must usually special-order such healthy meals before their flight.

Falling Behind: American Eagle, Continental, Delta, Midwest, Northwest, US Airways.
These airlines make only a rudimentary effort at providing vegetarian and vegan meals Ñ or they offer none at all.


Research was conducted in October of 2003. Only domestic flights were considered. Meals served in first class were not considered. Some major airlines, such as Southwest, AirTran, and America West, were not reviewed because they do not offer any meal service for economy class. Many airlines now offer a buy-on-board option for travelers wishing to purchase a meal for their flight; others still provide standard meals on some flights. PCRM dietitians reviewed both types of meal service by locating menu information on airlines' websites when it was available and contacting the airlines for additional menus and information.


Six reviewed airlines now offer buy-on-board meals. Four of these exclusively serve buy-on-board, and two (Delta and Northwest) offer buy-on-board on some flights and standard meals on others. Of these six airlines, only two offered vegetarian lunch or dinner options. Breakfast choices were a little better for vegetarians, although only the same two airlines offered a vegan breakfast item.

Buy-on-board programs do not offer the option of special meals (including vegetarian or vegan, kosher, low cholesterol, low sugar). Also, many available options, such as ham or roast beef sandwiches, are high in fat and cholesterol.

Flying overseas? In this case airlines do offer broader choices, and it is almost always possible to get (if you reserve 24 hours in advance) a vegetarian or vegan entree.

PCRM's 2004 Airport Food Ratings:

Availability of Healthy Vegetarian Choices
12 of the Busiest Airports in the U.S. from Best to Worst with their score.

1. Miami International Airport 85%
2. Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport 83%
3. Denver International Airport 78%
4. Chicago O'Hare International Airport 75%
5. John F. Kennedy International Airport 73%
6. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport 64%
7. Newark Liberty International Airport 63%
8. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport 59%
9. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport 54%
10. Los Angeles International Airport 53%
11. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport 44%
12. Las Vegas McCarran International Airport 33%

What the Airlines Offer

Airline Vegetarian meals? Vegan meals?
Alaska Airlines Special order No
American Airlines Special order Special Order
American Eagle Airlines Breakfast only No
Continental Airlines Breakfast only No
Delta Air Lines: Buy-on-board Yes Breakfast only
Delta Air Lines: Standard meals No No
Midwest Airlines Breakfast only No
Northwest Airlines: Buy-on-board Breakfast only No
Northwest Airlines: Standard meals Special order No
Song Yes Yes
United Airlines Special order Special order
US Airways Breakfast only No

©Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved. Health Science is the publication of the National Health Association. This article reprinted from the Winter 2004 issue.


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