Unhealthiest and Healthiest Free Airline Snacks

The Daily Meal unwraps the nutritional value of free airline snacks

While most airlines now offer buy-on-board snack boxes and sandwiches, there’s something almost irresistible about free food, even if it’s just a palm-size snack pack.

It’s harder and harder to find free in-flight amenities like hot meals, snacks, and pillows and blankets, but a handful of U.S. airlines still offer free in-flight snacks.

Click here to see the Unhealthiest and Healthiest Free Airline Snacks (Slideshow)

From the once-ubiquitous salted peanuts and pretzels still served complimentary on AirTran Airways, Delta Air Lines, and Southwest Airlines to Pau Hana Snack Mix and Hawaiian Sweet Maui Onion Potato Chips on Hawaiian Airlines, frequent fliers don’t always have to fly the hungry skies. But which of these snacks is the healthiest and which is the unhealthiest? The results may just surprise you.

The Daily Meal contacted all the major U.S. air carriers and requested the nutrition information for each airline’s snacks that are served free of charge to all passengers on domestic routes. Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Spirit Airlines, US Airways, United Airlines, and Virgin America no longer serve free snacks; their buy on-board options were not examined for this story.

Gone are the days when nearly every U.S. airline served hot meals or sandwiches. And in the last decade, legroom and complimentary pillows, blankets, and snacks started disappearing, too.

American Airlines stopped serving complimentary snacks in 2009, according to Nina Green, a public relations representative for the airline. In March 2011, Continental Airlines, which merged with United Airlines, stopped serving pretzels and Biscoff cookies. This decision was estimated to save the airline $2.5 million annually. Continental Airlines was also the last airline to do away with free hot meals; the last supper was served Oct. 12, 2010, according to NBC News.

Despite the cuisine cutbacks, it’s comforting to know that a handful of air carriers still serve free pre-packaged snacks to each passenger, regardless of seat number or membership status with the airline. 

AirTran Airways (which is owned by Southwest Airlines), Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, and Southwest Airlines all serve free in-flight snacks.

After The Daily Meal collected the nutritional information of each airline’s snacks, we consulted registered dietician Marissa Lippert, founder of Nourish NYC, a Manhattan nutrition counseling firm, and owner of NOURISH Kitchen + Table, a West Village takeaway food shop and café.

Lippert examined the nutrition information for each snack, evaluating, by airline, "how to get the biggest bang for the nutritional buck." Then, she shared the unhealthiest and healthiest options with us.

"Even though it may be free, it may not be the best option," said Lippert of the free snacks.

While most airlines now offer buy-on-board snack boxes and sandwiches, there’s something almost irresistible about free food, even if it’s just a palm-size snack pack.

While Dr. Charles Platkin, of DietDetective.com, Hunter College, and City University of New York School of Public Health, recently released his annual Airline Snacking and Onboard Food Service Survey, which evaluated 12 major airlines’ snack and on-board food offerings, the survey only examined snacks and meals for purchase. The Daily Meal's list is solely devoted to free snacks and we’ve provided the nutrition label information for each healthiest and unhealthiest choice.

While some flight attendants, like those on JetBlue, are more than happy to dole out extra free snacks, keep this in mind: passengers who opt for chips and cookies are more likely to want an additional snack to satisfy their hunger, while those who consume a more nutritiously dense snack, like peanuts, are not likely to experience food cravings after snacking, said Lippert.


Before you put down your tray table, see the Unhealthiest and Healthiest Free Airline Snacks slideshow.