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Cruise Line Food Review

A Report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
January 2003

When travelers decide to go on a cruise, they think of sun, fun, and food—and lots of it. With three meals and endless snacks and desserts offered each day, it’s important that cruise passengers be careful about their food choices. Because cruise-goers are so often bombarded with high-fat “luxury” foods, PCRM dietitians wanted to find out if healthy options were also available. PCRM learned that while it is possible to eat healthfully on all of the cruise lines evaluated, the level of effort required from the traveler varies greatly.

PCRM dietitians contacted the ten cruise lines most requested by travelers (based on information from Orbitz Travel) between July and August 2002. PCRM dietitians called each cruise line to obtain a copy of its menu and additionally called each cruise line anonymously to ensure that potential customers were given the same options when they called. Menus and cruise line food reviews were also obtained online.

Cruise Line Rating System

The cruise lines were rated on a four-star scale. Each cruise line received one star for serving at least one low-fat, high-fiber entrée for breakfast; one star for having a vegetarian entrée at lunch and dinner; a bonus star if it also offered vegan (nondairy vegetarian) entrées for both lunch and dinner; and one star if it offered fruit for dessert and snacks.

Four out of ten cruise lines received the maximum rating of four stars. Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Windstar all had healthy options easily available. Holland America, Princess, Celebrity, and Crystal failed to provide a nondairy vegetarian option at lunch and dinner. They met all other PCRM criteria by having a low-fat, high-fiber entrée for each breakfast (usually oatmeal), by having a vegetarian option at lunch and dinner, and by having a choice of fruit for desserts and snacks. The cruise lines that received two stars, our lowest ranking, were Disney and Delta Queen. These cruise lines only offer vegetarian options if you request them in advance of the cruise. Most travelers will not be aware of this option (unless they ask because they are already vegetarian) and will miss out on the opportunity to eat a healthy meal while on board.

Risk of Foodborne Illness

Not only does requesting and choosing a vegetarian option ensure that passengers will enjoy a meal lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in fiber, vegetables, and antioxidants, it also means they are at lower risk for contracting foodborne illnesses. According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1.4 foodborne illness outbreaks occur per 1,000 cruises or 2.3 outbreaks per 10 million passenger-days.1 Although these statistics are not always of epidemic proportions, no vacationer wants to risk being sick at sea.

The most common means of contracting foodborne illness are through eggs, undercooked seafood, and undercooked meats. To eliminate the risk of becoming ill, passengers should focus on plant foods and base cruise meals around beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

The following is a list of our cruise line ratings, with added commentary below, from best to worst.

Cruise Line Food Ratings

Cruise Line

Low-fat, high-fiber entrée for breakfast

Vegetarian item at lunch and dinner (bonus star if it’s vegan for both meals)

Fruit for desserts and snacks

Total stars

Carnival Cruise Lines

*
**
*
****

Norwegian Cruise Line

*
**
*
****

Royal Caribbean International

*
**
*
****

Windstar Cruises

*
**
*
****

Holland America Line

*
*
*
***

Princess Cruises

*
*
*
***

Celebrity Cruises

*
*
*
***

Crystal Cruises

*
*
*
***

Disney Cruise Line

*
 
*
*

Delta Queen Steamboat Co.

*
 
*
**

Each star is earned through the following criteria:

  1. Offering of a low-fat, high-fiber entrée for each breakfast
  2. Offering of a vegetarian item at lunch and dinner (bonus star if the items are dairy-free)
  3. Offering of fruit for desserts and snacks

Carnival Cruise Lines
4 stars

Carnival Cruise Lines received four stars for making it easy to eat healthy food while on board its ships. A bowl of hot oatmeal and whole-wheat toast with preserves ensures a healthy start each day. Lunch offerings include Jamaican Red Bean Soup with oven-fresh foccacia. For dinner, the Mixed Garden and Field Greens Salad and Grilled Brochettes of Fresh Garden Vegetables provide travelers a healthy dose of delicious fat-free and cholesterol-free fare. With meals like this, cruise-goers need not worry about packing on the pounds.

Norwegian Cruise Line
4 Stars

The Norwegian Cruise Line makes it easy for its passengers to choose healthy options by clearly marking all vegetarian selections. The company offers delectable healthy entrées such as the Thai Pasta Salad and the zesty Caribbean Tofu Stir-Fry. It also has a tantalizing Indian vegetarian buffet for lunch each day with entrées like curried vegetables over rice.

Royal Caribbean International
4 Stars

The chefs on Royal Caribbean know that a menu item doesn’t have to be bland to be healthy. The menu offerings include items such as the Tangine Vegetable Stew, Risotto Primavera, and a California wrap with layers of hummus and roasted vegetables. For a special sweet treat, the low-fat Mango Strudel is a great choice.

Windstar Cruises
4 Stars

Windstar Cruises are known for fresh, light, healthy cuisine. The kitchen provides one to two vegetarian entrée choices at each meal. This ensures that both vegetarian and health-conscious passengers have a variety of meal options to choose from. It also offers a range of fresh fruits and vegetables for all meals and snacks.

Holland America Line
3 Stars

On the Holland America Line, fresh fruit is available for dessert and snacks, but lunch and dinner entrée choices are routinely high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Holland America Line does accept special meal requests, so passengers are advised to ask for vegan meals, which are cholesterol-free, before they embark on this cruise.

Princess Cruises
3 Stars

Princess Cruises does not have a standard nondairy, vegetarian entrée for each meal, but one is available if requested prior to cruise date. Stay away from the misnamed “Healthy Choice Menu” which offers things like Meatballs with Parmesan or Steak and Potato Salad. While hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and bacon burgers are always available on the lunch menu, low-fat, cholesterol-free choices are not. Travelers should call the cruise line ahead of time to request all vegetarian and cholesterol-free meals; otherwise, they will be left with such high-fat, high-cholesterol options such as Halibut in Mayonnaise, Lobster Tail with Butter, Royal Pheasant in Pan Juices, or the Beef Wellington.

Celebrity Cruises
3 Stars

Celebrity Cruises received only three stars because travelers looking to eat healthfully cannot rely on the set menu. The health-conscious or vegetarian cruise-goer will be faced with the choices of Halibut with Beurre Blanc (a hot butter sauce), Crispy Duck, Milk-Fed Veal, or Prime Rib. All of these choices are high in fat and cholesterol and devoid of fiber. The vegetarian menu, however, has a number of healthy options. The appetizers include Korean Vegetable Pancakes or Roasted Yellow Peppers with Capers, Parsley, and Balsamic Vinegar. The main courses consist of healthy low-fat options such as Vegetable and Mushroom Pie topped with a cornbread crust, Thai Noodle Salad with vegetables and Tofu with Hummus, Tabouli, and Tomato.

Crystal Cruises
3 Stars

Crystal Cruises received a rating of only three stars because nondairy vegetarian meals are not available at every meal. However, vegan meals can be arranged by pre-cruise request. The menu does include a vegetarian selection for each meal, with lunch offerings like Potato Herb Mushroom Roll on Sautéed Leaf Spinach or Sweet and Sour Vegetables. Try the Grilled Asparagus and Parsnips or the Pressed Tomato and Basil Terrine on a Nicoise Salad for a healthy and low-fat dinner.

Disney Cruise Line
2 Stars

The Disney Cruise Line will provide vegetarian options if the request is made prior to the cruise date. Accommodations will be provided by the headwaiter at the dining service hall. If the traveler doesn’t call ahead for a special meal request (it’s recommended that you call at least two weeks prior to your departure date), he or she may not be able to find many healthy choices on the menu. Luckily, quite often the pasta of the day is vegetarian or vegan.

Delta Queen Steamboat Co.
2 Stars

The Delta Queen cruise line cannot guarantee vegetarian entrées at lunch and dinner, but it does offer vegetarian side orders. If requested prior to cruise date, accommodations may be available. If travelers have their heart set on having an old fashioned “steamboatin’” vacation cruising along the Mississippi river, they are advised to call ahead and make specific requests as to what healthy choices they would like to see offered.

Reference
1. JAMA 1996;275(7):545-7

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