Refreshing Alternatives

cinnamon-mints

It’s amazing to me how far the world of natural and organic foods has come over the past few years. I remember heading to Bread & Circus (now Whole Foods) with my parents, and being amazed at all of the weird stuff that was there. My favorite thing to buy was the raspberries and cream granola, from the bulk bins section of the store, and we would never leave without getting a smoothie – a real and rare treat at the time. Now smoothies and granola are normal staples of any mainstream consumer’s diet, and the world of organics has grown to encompass almost any kind of food one can imagine.

No longer weird and obscure, organic foods take every form, from cheesy snack cracker (Annie’s) to chocolate pudding (Horizon, and others). And, although I’m wary of the all-too-common conflation of all things organic with all things healthy, the expanding organic sphere is surely a good thing. More choices on the part of food producers allows for more freedom on the part of consumers, and that is something I truly appreciate.

Leading the way in organics and natural foods are companies such as Newman’s Own Organics, which focus on producing eminently consumable products that don’t sacrifice taste and familiarity for all-natural ingredients. Recently, I was lucky enough to receive an ample box of treats from Newman’s Own Organics, which included everything from cookies to pretzels to balsamic vinegar – all organic, of course.

cinnamon-mints-box

Newman’s Own Organics, though related to Newman’s Own (famous for such things as salad dressings and cartons of lemonade), is actually a completely separate company, with a completely separate product line. Organics focuses on snacks and a few different specialty products. What I happen to like most about the company is their consumer-friendly approach to product development and marketing; their packaging is attractive and clever, and their products appeal to a wide range of consumers, not just those who are proactive organics-seekers.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to test their products. Because of the number of different products they sent to me for testing, I’m planning to spread this review over a few posts. For today’s post, though, I thought I’d highlight one their more unusual products: Newman’s Own Organics mints and candies.

If you’ve ever looked at the ingredient list for most mints and candies, you’ll know why organic versions are an interesting concept. The candy product line includes small mints that come in a tin (very similar to Altoids), mints that come in a roll (like LifeSavers or Breathsavers), and some chocolate candies similar in shape to a Reese’s peanut butter cup, but with various fillings (mint, peanut butter, caramel).

ginger-mints-2

The chocolate candies are, not surprisingly, quite tasty. I’m not a big chocolate candy snacker, generally preferring plain dark chocolate to this type of confection, but I can certainly attest to the deliciousness of this product when baked into a batch of chocolate cookies. And the mints? The minty flavors (peppermint, wintergreen) are very refreshing, with a not-too-sweet flavor. Although they come in a roll, they really are very different than commercial  breath mints, which tend to be very sweet and artificially “cooling.” The Newman’s Own Organics variety is decidedly more natural-tasting. My favorite flavor, however, is the ginger mints, both in roll form and in the tin. They have a strong, sweet ginger flavor that is very distinct from more mainstream candy flavors. I’m currently working my way (rather quickly) through a tin that’s sitting on my desk at work. The cinnamon mints, while pleasant, are a little tame for my liking; I find that they are a bit too sweet, with a cinnamony flavor that is a bit too mild.

It seems silly to wax philosophical on the nutritional value of this product; mints are mints, and chocolate is chocolate. Sure, it’s sugary, but the mints, at least, are small and simple enough that I wouldn’t worry about enjoying them. I’ve seen Newman’s Own Organics candy at checkout in my local Whole Foods, and I’m sure it’s available elsewhere too. If you’re looking for something small, sweet, and refreshing, you can’t go wrong with these.

And stay tuned for my next Newman’s Own Organics review – I still have cookies, dried fruit, and all sorts of other goodies to share.

January 27, 2009 at 10:32 pm Leave a comment

The Granolaphiles

granola

The topic of granola is an interesting one for natural food geeks like me. I wasn’t around during the birth of the healthy/natural/organic food movement, but it seems like granola was one of the first items to signify this shift towards better eating. Even now, granola serves as the hackneyed representative for all things edible, earthy, and crunchy. But we “granola types” are often baffled by the fact that this supposedly healthy food is usually full of fat (often saturated) and sugar (often refined). I can’t complain much about the whole grains that actually define the stuff, but really, when it comes to breakfast or even a quick snack, I’d rather eat something a little less sweet and a little less decadent than your average packaged granola.

The problem is, of course, that granola is really, really tasty. And the basic granola canvas – whole oats, some sweetener, and something to bind it all together – is a great vehicle for all sorts of intriguing flavors. Ginger, almond, fig, vanilla, raspberry, maple, macadamia….the list goes on and on. I’m convinced, and I think rightly so, that granola doesn’t have to be a big old bowl of greasy, sweet deliciousness. It can also be filled with unrefined, not-too-sweet, whole-grainy and fiber-y goodness. You just have to be wary when it comes to choosing your brands.

To be honest, I almost never purchase packaged granola. I make a batch from scratch every once in a while, and use just a bit of sweetener and fat. You’d be amazed at some of the “healthy” recipes I’ve found for granola: entire sticks of butter, cups of white sugar, white chocolate chips…if I’m using those kinds of ingredients I’d much rather bake a cake and call it a day. And when it comes to the store-bought stuff, I’m always afraid that if I buy a whole package I’ll end up eating the whole thing, and not over the course of two weeks in half-cup increments. Unfortunately, granola is one of those calorically-dense things that I’ll eat way too much of if left to my own snacking devices. However, if I’m going to buy some (as I did today), it has to have relatively little sugar, nothing refined or artificial, and preferably, a very small amount of (plant-based) fat.

Thus begins what I anticipate will be a multi-post suite of granola files, for granolaphiles. In a market that seems completely saturated with granola products, I’m amazed at how often I come across new varieties and brands. And of course, the myriad brands that are standard Whole Foods contenders are so varied in terms of flavors and styles, that it seems like a significant task to cut through all the garbage and really find out what the good stuff is. But, with some highly discriminating granola criteria, I think it can be done.

First up is Galaxy Granola, which is a brand I’d heard of but never seen until today, at the Ferry Building farmers market in San Francisco. After snooping through all the fruit and vegetable stalls, I happened upon a little stand offering samples and bags of this all-natural, low-fat granola. Galaxy’s angle on granola is using fruit purees instead of oils to serve as binders. This means no added fat, and a significantly less caloric granola treat. The sample of the day was vanilla almond, which, while tasty, was a bit too almond extract-y for my tastes. What really intrigued me was the “Not Sweet Vanilla.” In addition to being low in fat, this flavor is supposed to be low in sugar, clocking in at 7 grams per half cup.

For granola, that’s not so bad. Bear Naked Fruit & Nut, for example, has 10 grams per half cup, and 180 calories. Cafe Franny granola (ultra-gourmet) has 11 grams of sugar and 300 calories.  Galaxy Not Sweet Vanilla has a mere 155 calories. And for the record, Galaxy Not Sweet is sweetened only with fruit, and not with honey, maple syrup, or cane syrup. Personally, I don’t particularly care about this; fruit concentrates are almost as sugary as syrups, so all that really matters to me is the amount of sugar in the end product (relatively low in this case, but not compared to something like a bowl of plain oatmeal or Cheerios).

So how does it taste? I rather like the Galaxy granola. It is definitely not as cloying as some granolas tend to be, and the grain mixture includes some crisped brown rice, which lightens the mix. The granola itself comes without any add-ins like nuts or dried fruits, so you can either add your own for a trail-mix spin, or enjoy it as is. The texture is crunchy, and tends to form little clusters, which make it a nice topping for yogurt (or, ahem, ice cream).

Galaxy Granola is the closest product I’ve found to my own homemade granola, and I’ll even admit that their texture (crispy, and light) is a bit more pleasant than that of my own recipe. If I was in the mood for a crunchy granola snack, I would definitely buy this granola again. It’s not cheap, at about $5 per bag, but it’s easier than making my own (which I don’t always have time to do). The only problem, of course, is that Galaxy Granola isn’t sold anywhere near me, which is rather unfortunate. Boston may not be the biggest city, but perhaps San Francisco-based Galaxy will make it to my neck of the universe sometime in the near future. Until then, perhaps it will be my on-vacation-only breakfast treat.

January 5, 2009 at 1:56 pm 2 comments

Eating Sensible-y

sensible-foods-variety

Coming up with the title for this post made me realize something: I eat sensibly. I think about what I eat, I stay away from highly processed junk, and I make sure to eat my vegetables. No, it’s certainly not a surprise that my eating habits could be described as “sensible,” even though that’s not the word I would necessarily choose to describe them. Why not? Well, frankly, because eating “sensibly” is incredibly boring. I’d rather eat joyfully, adventurously, intelligently, and passionately than “sensibly.” And can you blame me?

What I’m getting at here is that eating natural, healthy, and delicious foods is so much more than being sensible about what we eat. Eating sensibly might describe eating some steamed vegetables and brown rice. I would rather eat a spinach and chickpea curry served over Indian-spiced brown rice and minty yogurt. Wouldn’t you?

I seem to have gone off on a bit of a tangent, but don’t worry – I do have a product review for you today. And the name of said product? Sensible Foods. Thrilling! Exciting! Ground-breaking! Sensible! This is my overly-sarcastic (and perhaps unnecessarily critical) way of saying that I wished these folks had thought of a better name for their product. Since starting this blog, I’ve become interested in the ways in which natural and organic food companies market their products, if only because without proper marketing and brand management, natural foods will never win over consumers who are used to eating the same old hyper-processed stuff.

back-story

But I’ll give the branding rant a rest in the interest of really reviewing Sensible Foods snacks, which are a line of “crunch-dried,” fruit bits (also corn and soybeans) sold in single-serving packages. Each package contains about 60-80 calories worth of a blend of freeze-dried fruit (many varieties are organic), including apples, peaches, pineapple, mango, cherries, berries, and others. The only ingredients are fruit and, in the soybean and sweet corn varieties, sea salt. No added sugars or preservatives, which is one thing I can’t complain about.

Although I haven’t seen Sensible Foods sold in many places, the exorbitantly priced smoothie/snack stand near my gym sells it, and it’s clearly marketed towards health-conscious, on-the-go, gymophiles. But how does it taste? Well, it tastes exactly like one might expect: fruity, crunchy, dry, and sweet.

sensible-corn

I actually like Sensible Foods snacks, and I think that plenty of people would benefit from mindlessly munching on it instead of other sweet things like candy bars or the like. My main problem with it is that I can’t see it being anything other than something to mindlessly munch on. It certainly isn’t caloric enough to be a real snack, and, although it’s only ingredient is fruit, part of the goodness in real fruit is in its water content, which helps satisfy hunger and plays partner with all of that healthy fiber. I, for one, would like to eliminate mindless munching from my diet, and if everyone felt this way, I’m not sure Sensible Foods would have much of a market.

Let’s be honest, though. As much as I’d like to stop unnecessarily snacking, it’s probably not going to happen any time soon. And a sweet, fruity pick-me-up come 4pm wouldn’t sound so bad to me on most workdays. I’ve tried every variety of Sensible Foods except for the soybeans; these might have a shot at offering some real nutrition, whereas the fruity versions are mostly just about the crunchy, bite-sized sweetness. The sweet corn variety is actually quite tasty, and is indeed sweet (although not as sweet as the fruit).

Ironically enough, if I was being 100% sensible about my eating, I’d never eat Sensible Foods. Instead, I’d eat balanced meals with some hearty snacks – and real fruit – thrown in to power me through the afternoon until dinner. But like I said before, eating isn’t always about being “sensible,” so why not eat Sensible (Foods)? I think you get the idea.

orchard-blend-2

Have any of you tried this product? What are your thoughts?

December 3, 2008 at 9:00 pm 1 comment

Long Time No Cake

baked-cake

Well, I’m embarrassed to admit how long it’s been since I last posted a product review, especially given the wealth of awesome (OK, and not so awesome) food products that I’ve been testing lately. I’ve been fortunate enough to get a bunch of product samples, and I’m looking forward to blogging about them.

First on my list is, of all things, a cake mix. Yes, you heard me. Cake, from a mix. Not surprisingly, I’m really not into cake mix. When I hear “cake mix,” I think “cake-like fluffy stuff filled with chemicals and preservatives used to make consumers think they’re eating cake.” As you may know, cake-mix cake is nothing like actual cake. Actual cake, usually made with butter, is much denser and richer than the light-as-air stuff you get from a box. And it’s better.

cake-mix-box-1

However, I came across Naturally Nora cake mixes while doing some online scoping, and I was intrigued. Naturally Nora is a new company that makes all-natural cake and frosting mixes. In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that these cakes are not “healthy.” They are not low-sugar, low-fat, or low-anything else that you can think of. However, they really are natural, and have ingredients that (gasp!) you’d actually use if you were making a cake from scratch.

Along with my cake mix samples, Naturally Nora sent me some ingredient lists from some large, commercial brands’ mixes. Those lists are long, and are filled with mystery ingredients. The Naturally Nora list has just a handful of familiar, pronounceable, and real ingredients. I had no trouble hopping aboard the Naturally Nora bandwagon for this reason alone, even though I’d generally prefer to bake my cakes from scratch.

directions-box

But now the real test: how did they taste? I felt a bit unprepared to do the taste test myself, given that it’s been years since I’ve eaten a cake-mix cake. So, using the vanilla chocolate-cookie cake mix, I whipped up a batch of mini-cupcakes (shockingly easy and quick, I might add) and brought them into my office, where I allowed my co-workers to do the honors and report back on taste, texture, and whether they would buy the mix themselves.

The overwhelming response was that the cupcakes were tasty, but denser than what most people were used to. Several people described them as being “muffin-like” in texture, likely due to the fact that the cupcakes were made with oil, not butter, and were prepared similarly to a quick-bread batter (mixing the wet ingredients into the dry, without creaming any butter). It’s certainly true that Naturally Nora cakes are denser and a bit spongier than commercial cake mixes (which are also usually made with oil), but this is a direct result of their being natural.

cake-ingredients

In terms of taste and sweetness though, people did enjoy the cupcakes. Many even said that they would pay a small price premium to have a product free of icky/weird ingredients. A few, however, said that they preferred traditional cake mixes, and wouldn’t bother paying extra for something that isn’t exactly healthy regardless of whether it is natural or not.

Fair enough. I, of course, would be more than happy to pay a dollar more for a product that looks and tastes like real food. The real question for me, though, is why companies like Naturally Nora can’t expand their offerings to include not only natural, but other, healthier options. Naturally Nora is a great substitute for commercial cake mixes, but I feel like I outgrew cake-mix tastes a long time ago. It seems that there is an opportunity to make a product that is also less sweet, perhaps whole-grain, and generally more sophisticated in flavor than normal cake mixes, and it would be great to see companies like Naturally Nora take advantage of it.

unbaked-cupcakes

But that’s just me. All of my testers were downright excited about the prospect of free cupcakes, and these ones didn’t disappoint. And really, when the ingredients of most products available to the typical consumer have such atrocious ingredients, I am more than happy to see companies offering a natural alternative. Especially in the case of products that are geared towards kids and families, it’s refreshing to see that some companies see the value in promoting the idea of real food, even if it is a bit indulgent.

Are there any other products like Naturally Nora that you have tried or would recommend? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Oh, and if Naturally Nora cake mixes aren’t available in your area, be sure to check out their website for more information: Naturally Nora.

December 1, 2008 at 11:50 am 2 comments

Who’s Your Nana?

box-and-bars

I’m a snacker. It’s true. And I don’t care what people say about not snacking between meals, not snacking before bed, or not snacking at other times of day, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s always a good time for a snack. Especially if you’re hungry.

For the devoted snacker, though, navigating the world of packaged food can be rather difficult. I try to stick to minimally- or un-processed snacks, like fresh fruit or yogurt, but sometimes you need something more substantial. I find that late-afternoon stretch, right before leaving work or perhaps heading off to a yoga class before going home, to be especially brutal. I need a snack, and an apple won’t cut it.

Although I’m not the type to punish myself with protein or meal-replacement bars, some of the new “bar food” on the market is pretty good snacking material. I’m happy to eat food in bar form (OK, at 5pm I’m happy to eat basically anything) as long as it isn’t loaded with weird, artificial, or otherwise disagreeable ingredients.

Which brings us to Nana. Nana’s Omega-Fiber Cookie Bars, that is. I spotted these “cookie bars” at Whole Foods, and thought that they might be a good, slightly sweet afternoon snack to keep me going on my walk home from work. Although I don’t usually preference foods with added Omega-3s or other nutrients (you can get that stuff in more natural forms), I do like my fiber, and the nutritional stats on this product didn’t seem too shabby. Probably more sugar than I would like, but nothing too outrageous.

dscn4200

These bars seem to marketed as “cookies” in order to make them appear relatively healthier (than other cookies), and also in order to attract kids and parents. Healthy cookies? Sign me up. Unfortunately, there should be some “just kidding about the cookie thing!” fine print on the back of the Nana’s box. Sorry to say it, but these bars are not cookies. And frankly, they don’t taste very good at all, even for a bar. I’ve had plenty of other bars that taste far better than Nana’s, with a much more pleasant flavor and texture.

I tried the vanilla toasted almond variety of Nana’s bars, and found the flavor to be influenced most noticeably by the non-almond and non-vanilla ingredients. There was a thin, almost artificial-tasting almond overtone, but all in all, it was mostly just generally sweet. The texture, also, was neither pleasantly chewy nor particularly crunchy. Just kind of…fibery. For 10 grams of fiber this bar might be worth it, but for 5 (the amount in one cookie bar)? I’d rather just eat 130 calories worth of whole wheat bread and call it an afternoon snack.

As I mentioned before, I’ve tried other bars that I think make much better snacks. Perhaps a few of them will pop up on this site before too long. In the meantime, do any of you have go-to food bars? Any suggestions for which bars I should try next? I’d love to hear what you think.

dscn4202

November 18, 2008 at 2:54 pm 5 comments

Still Stirring

barney-butter-1

Some of you may remember my last almond butter post. You know, the one where I ranted about how I just love to stir my almond butter? In an effort to placate those who claim that stirring involves more exercise than their willing to devote to all-natural almondy goodness, I reviewed Mara Natha’s no-stir almond butter. My conclusion, of course, was that its anemic flavor and rather strange sweetness asked me to sacrifice too much to make the switch from my beloved all-natural.

The funny thing is that once I finished posting, and started pondering alternate uses for the nearly-full jar of Mara Natha in my refrigerator, I was contacted by Jennifer Barney, the founder of Barney Butter. Barney Butters are all-natural, peanut-free, no-stir almond butters, and I was promptly sent two jars of the stuff (crunchy and smooth) in the mail. Testing them out seemed like a good idea – I’d get to try a different rendition of no-stir that’s not available in my local grocery store.

I tried the Barney Butter expecting it to taste exactly like the Mara Natha. The ingredient lists are identical, after all. However, the Barney Butter was decidedly less sweet (a good thing), with a much stronger, nuttier flavor. Whereas the Mara Natha had far too little nutty flavor for my tastes, the Barney Butter was particularly toasty tasting.

cracker-closeup-21

After a few tastes, I decided that the Barney Butter was unique in the sense that it seems to be positioned as a substitute for peanut butter, not for all-natural almond butter. The strong nutty flavor was reminiscent of the strong flavor of peanut butter, and didn’t have the subtle floral quality that regular almond butter has. In fact, it wasn’t particularly almondy at all. This makes sense, given that Barney Butter is explicitly “peanut-free,” and was probably designed with the peanut-intolerant in mind.

In terms of texture, the Barney Butter was slightly more spreadable than the Mara Natha, but definitely stiffer than all-natural almond butter. It served me well as a snack spread on some crackers, though. Once again, I must say that I strongly prefer all-natural almond butter to this particular no-stir variety. It was, however, more palatable than the Mara Natha, and I would recommend it to those that simply cannot tolerate two minutes of stirring.

So now I have three jars of no-stir in my fridge, when all I really want is the regular stuff. Anybody want an almond butter and jelly sandwich?

barney-butter-2

November 11, 2008 at 5:25 pm Leave a comment

A Twist on Tomatoes

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A few weeks ago, I was tasked (happily, of course) with hosting a small dinner gathering. It wasn’t anything fancy, and I wanted to make something autumn-appropriate, simple, and comforting. And as is the case on many chilly nights, I decided on a big pot of stew. I had some  Japanese yams and chicken sausage to use, along with the usual suspects – beans, carrots, onions, corn, and just the right mix of spices to make something close to a hearty chili.

Although they aren’t the sexiest of food products, canned tomatoes serve as the base for many meals that I make. This chili, of course, all came together with the gentle acidity and sweetness of canned tomatoes, but many cuisines I tackle in the kitchen – Italian, Indian, Moroccan – also include this pantry staple. In the winter, especially, canned tomatoes are essential, and I almost always have a can or two of San Marzanos at the ready.

For my stew, I wanted something a little bit different – fire-roasted tomatoes, made by Muir Glen. They serve the same purpose as regular canned tomatoes, but have a slightly smoky, richer taste that goes perfectly with chili spices and beans. I’ve gotten Muir Glen’s fire-roasted tomatoes before, but this time I spotted something new. In addition to the regular fire-roasted tomatoes, there were also some fire-roasted tomatoes canned with mild and medium green chilies. I had planned on adding some chilies in addition to my tomatoes, but thought that I might as well eliminate the chopping. Sure, fresh chilies are tasty, but I have no problem using canned, especially when they are organic and free from any additives.

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Like I said, canned tomatoes aren’t the most exciting of foods. But Muir Glen’s tomatoes with chilies are a great product that makes a hearty bean stew (in my mind, a perfect fall or winter weeknight meal) that much quicker and easier. What’s not to love about that? In terms of the flavor, the chilies are rather understated, but definitely present. If you like lots of heat in your chili, you’ll have to augment the heat with some chili powder or some additional canned or fresh chilies. For me though, that soft heat is just right. I’ll definitely be buying these tomatoes again soon.

Have any of you tried Muir Glen’s fire-roasted tomatoes? Fire-roasted with chilies? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

November 4, 2008 at 12:35 pm 1 comment

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