In the name of healthy eating, think of what we’ve bought because we couldn’t know what it tasted like beforehand.
Baked chips? Styrofoam with salt. Fat-free Half & Half? Whatever is in each half tastes like kerosene.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What areas of the food world do these awards cover?
Scott Mowbray: Well, we decided to divide it into two categories. With the explosion of seasonal foods, we obviously are trying to support the small producers, everywhere from Brookyln all the way to Seattle, and Alaska all the way to Louisiana. So we’re regularly tasting those foods, but we also recognize the fact that the vast majority of people do their shopping at the supermarket. We really wanted to take a look at that environment to find the best products that can fit into a healthy diet. Of course, the challenge there is that you have 30,000 to 50,000 products in a supermarket.
LRK: I was thinking of a handful of things that we would ordinarily grab as snacks, or as a quick lunch or dinner, or even as ingredients. So let’s hit the supermarket, because as you said, that’s where most of us end up going to shop. How about bean burritos?
SM: Now that’s an interesting category. We’re cooks at heart, so we don’t buy a huge amount of completely formulated dishes. But the fact of the matter is that busy moms and dads need formulated products sometimes for the sake of convenience. So we thought we would go out and look at the bean burrito category.
We quickly narrowed in on the vegetarian ones because they simply had less saturated fat. When you take the meat out, even though there is some cheese in these burritos, they definitely are down more in the 300- to 400-calorie zone. We looked at salt, because salt is the big problem with a lot of processed food. A fair number were eliminated based on simply not getting low enough in the salt. We didn’t want to go for about 500 mg, which is about a third to a fifth of your daily allowance of salt.
We found that the big Achilles' heel of these microwavable products is the tortillas. They can turn to mush in a microwave. We followed their instructions; they were for microwaving. Some of them sort of turned out mushy and turned into what seemed to be like bean dip. A few of them came out pretty well; the CedarLane and EVOL brands did very well. They're both vegetarian. There was another one from Target that actually was pretty good but just over our sodium guideline. Amy’s didn’t do as well, either.
If you are a consumer looking for products like this, look at the ingredient list and see if there are other whole foods in there that are adding flavor, like red peppers, chile peppers, roasted corn, or spices such as cumin. We found that the ones that tended to have more of those kinds of ingredients had a better flavor profile.
LRK: How about potato chips?
SM: Funny that we would do snack food, but that’s an area of the American diet where there is an awful lot of activity in the low-fat area. But it's also a minefield. You pay a lot of good money, but you don’t necessarily get that much good taste in the end.
We were really curious, so we pitted baked potato chips against a newer category called reduced-fat fried potato chips. The simplest way to describe what they’re doing with the reduced-fat versions is that it's sort of like applying a paper towel shortly after frying, to get that excess oil off before it soaks in. They get a lot of the fat out and they do have more fat than the baked chips.
But the question was, from a taste point of view, which would we prefer? I should emphasize that with all of these tastings, we do them blind. There are six or eight people sitting around the table. They don’t know what they’re eating and they don’t know the brand. They know the basic category, but in this case, they didn’t even know which were baked or which were fried. And universally, the reduced-fat fried chips did better than the baked chips.
We ended up really liking the Ruffles, a major brand. Cape Cod as well, and the reduced-fat Kettle chips we liked a lot. We just weren't fond of the baked variety. It is a matter of taste. Some people are addicted to the baked ones but we preferred authentic flavors.
LRK: OK. Last choice: cocoas.
SM:. There are two basic categories. There is what’s called natural, which is basically ground cocoa nibs. And then there is the Dutch process, in which an alkaloid reduces some of the acidity.
It’s pretty much universally understood that the Dutch process does give you a more vivid flavor. It sounds a little scary, but it's actually an 18th- or 19th-century technology and it’s really just reducing a bit of the acid in it.
In the natural category, Nestle came out pretty well. Doing less well was a brand called Rapunzel, which I wasn't that familiar with, and one called NOW Healthy Foods. For those using the Dutch process, the Droste and the Valrhona -- big prestigious national brands -- did pretty well for us.
LRK: But there is a big price difference between Droste, which you can find in a supermarket, and Valrhona, which is very classy but very, very pricey.
SM: Exactly. And that’s one of the reasons why testing blind is important. Some real skeptics in our kitchen have found that, in one case, a Walmart product did really well. Target fairly often does well, especially with basic ingredients like that.
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Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.