Thursday, August 3, 2017

Gourmet Select Party Mix (Big Lots)

Ladies and gentlemen, how not to design your packaging: Exhibit A.

Ladies and gentleman, I present to you how not to design your packaging, and exhibit A is the set-up for Gourmet Select's Party Mix, which just looks so cheap and uninviting that my first instinct was to run far away from it. The only thing that calmed me down and assured me things might be okay was the price tag ($1 for a 6 oz. bag, which isn't bad at all), and the knowledge that I'd tried a couple Gourmet Select products in the past, and they were actually pretty good. Besides, how can you really screw up a party mix?

This proves that you really can't, although it tries its damndest: there is just WAY too much salt. Like, an ungodly amount. I understand that a lot of party mixes are loaded with sodium, but when it becomes the only thing you can taste, then there's a big problem. This is a big shame, because all of the individual pieces themselves, from the corn and wheat cereal bits, to the rye chips (my favorites!) taste nearly identical to the national brand. It's just that it's all so overwhelmed by the saltiness that it makes it really hard to enjoy.

The other big drawback: 1 gram of trans fat. I don't think most people would even think to check the label for “the worst of all fats” on a snack mix, because it just doesn't seem like a product that would have any; a national brand of snack mix also has the one gram of trans fat, which I happened to notice a while ago, so that's the only reason I tend to check when I pick up a bag. I thought the rye chips were the culprit, but there are also other brands of snack mix that still have rye chips, but no trans fats (like Clancy's Party Mix, available at Aldi stores), so it must just be a matter of how the different brands are processed.

Getting this package for a dollar is pretty solid deal...or is it? I'll admit that I didn't research things, as I sometimes do, before purchasing because I was pretty sure that I had found a good value. But it's not quite the cat I thought I had in the bag. This package is 6 oz. for one dollar. Clancy's Party Mix, which tastes much better and closer to the national brand, in my opinion, retails for around $2.89 per 15 oz. package. Add it up, and yes, technically Big Lots is delivering you an extra 3 oz. of snack mix for just $3. Are those savings really worth it considering that Aldi's is much better? To me, not at all.

In the end, this is a snack mix that just doesn't deliver. Will I finish off the whole bag? Absolutely. I really enjoy having salty snacks once in a while, and while this contains way too much of it, the upside is that it will force me to stop before I've had too much. But now for the real question: Once this bag is gone, will I ever get another one? Unless I happen to have an incredibly strong craving for snack mix while shopping at a Big Lots store, that answer is a resounding no.

Overall: 4.5/10. I want to give it a higher score, because it's not THAT bad on its own, but when everything comes together, it's pretty below-average. To get the positives out of the way, all the individual pieces (cereal bits, rye bread, “breadstick” thingies) all taste nearly identical to every other brand, and are made up of the same pieces that you've come to know and love. Unfortunately, there's so much seasoning in each bag that salt becomes the main flavor in every handful; I like salty snacks, and realize all snack mixes are loaded with it, but this just takes that idea way too far. There's also not much in the way of value: at first glance, $1 for a 6 oz. bag might seem like a winner, but considering Aldi's is $2.89 for a 15 oz. bag, yet tastes infinitely better, getting an extra 3 oz. for roughly the same price doesn't seem like such a big win, after all. I wouldn't be against getting it again—that is to say, if I ever found myself in a situation where I had to have snack mix and this was the only one available—but I would never intentionally seek it out. It's edible, but nothing of note in any regard.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Nature's Nectar 100% Juice Fruit Punch (Aldi)

Tastes very similar to the national brand, but won't break the bank.
I have one question to ask that's been on my mind for a while. The answer is probably pretty obvious, and it's to no one in particular, but I think about it every time I pick up a product that claims it is “100% juice”: How can it be 100% juice when there are other ingredients added? I understand cases where the juice is the only ingredient listed, but this, for example, has four juices from concentrate, plus natural flavors, plus citric acid and vitamin C. Is there so little of the other stuff that it adds up to less than 1%?

While you're contemplating the answer to that question, I've already Googled it, and as everything else in the U.S., it's an answer that's more complicated than it should be. If I understand correctly, the FDA has a method for calculating juice percentages for juices from concentrate. In the concentration process, water is removed from the fruit, usually via heat, and then can be “brought back” by adding an amount of water equal to the amount taken out. The reason for removing the liquid in the first place has nothing to do with health benefits, and everything to do with profits: since fruits are mostly water, companies can save money by removing the water from the fruit or vegetable before shipping. Then, when the fruits hit their intended destination, they can be “brought back” by adding the same amount of water that was removed from them in the first place. In the case of an apple, which is made up of 84% water, there only needs to be 16% of actual apple juice in a “from concentrate” product, for it to be considered 100% juice. I probably bungled that explanation, so if anyone has any knowledge of this field and would like to clarify, then please feel free to correct me, and add your two cents into the comments.

Anyway, the specific 100% juice product we are looking at is actually called “100% Juice”, available under the Nature's Nectar beverage line from Aldi. Tying in to the question and answer session above, it's comprised of four juices from concentrate: apple, pear, grape, and tangerine, all combined to form the “fruit punch” flavor that is contained within the bottle. The juice itself is a dark red, and looks almost like a diluted cherry juice.

The taste is fantastic, tasting very similarly to the name brand that it is attempting to knock off (a hint if you're stumped: the juice is generally marketed toward children, and the color scheme of the bottle is almost the same). I've always thought that “Fruit Punch” was a very misleading name for it, because it doesn't taste like any fruit punch product I've had before, but I'm sure there are no specific definitions for a “fruit punch” drink, and so any combination of fruits can probably be considered “punch”. The apple and grape juices are the most recognizable, but all of them combine to form a delicious, very sweet juice that is one of my favorite beverages at Aldi, and my go-to when I'm not in the mood for any kind of specific fruit juice in particular.

To me, there's something about it that's very drinkable and addicting; it's the perfect kind to chug when I'm thirsty and need something quick and convenient. Of course, the process used for “concentrating” juice also removes a lot of the natural vitamins and minerals, so while you won't get all of that back, each 8 oz. serving does have 120% vitamin C (in the form of ascorbic acid); each serving also counts as a full serving of fruits, which can help promote healthiness in growing boys and girls, or 33-year-old adults like myself!

Overall: 8.5/10. I love this drink; it has become my fallback option when I'm not craving a certain kind of fruit juice. The fruit combination (four juices, all from concentrate) works deliciously well, with apple and grape stepping out as the main flavors, with pear and tangerine finishing it off. It's very sweet, and there's a lot of sugar, but none of it is added and there's no high fructose corn syrup. There are also high amounts of vitamin C (120% per 8 ounces), and each serving counts as a serving of fruit. It's instantly drinkable, to the point that I find myself chugging this when nothing else sounds good. One of my favorite juices from Aldi, and one that, I imagine, would appeal to just as many grown-ups as it does to children.

Nature's Nectar Calcium & Vitamin D No Pulp 100% Orange Juice (Aldi)

Tastes a little weak to me, but pretty darn good for the price.
Orange juice is tasty and healthy, so I like having it on hand more often than not. I used to get the kind in the cheap plastic carton, which I believe was “from concentrate” (meaning water is added to it), because it was quite a bit cheaper. Well now the prices have gotten so close that it seems pointless to pay for what amounts to “diluted” orange juice—now I just buy the OJ in the carafes. It’s “never from concentrate”, meaning that it is just straight up orange juice, with zero added ingredients; I’m not so health-conscience that I’m above “from concentrate” juices, but if the uncut stuff is just ten cents more, it seems like a no-brainer to me.

As you can infer just from reading the label, this does have the added ingredients of tricalcium phosphate, calcium lactate, and Vitamin D3. I’m not sure what any of them do specifically (besides add Vitamin D and Calcium, of course), but more vitamins seem like a good thing. The only reason I get this kind, and not regular, is because, as far as I can tell, Aldi only offers the carafed orange juice in two varieties: this one, and high-pulp. That strikes me as odd that they wouldn't have a "regular" pulp-free version, but it's not really that big of a deal, so I settle for this one.

I can’t seem to shake the feeling that the flavor here is watered down a just doesn’t taste like straight up orange juice to me. I’m not sure if the acidity level is somehow cut down with the addition of the vitamins, or if their mere inclusion alters the flavor, but something just doesn’t taste 100% right here. It starts orange-y, but then the taste kind of fades away quick…it’s like if you poured orange juice into a glass of ice, put it out in the hot sun for an hour, and then started drinking it.

That being said, it must not bother me all that much because I still get this one fairly frequently (probably once every month or two). Despite my complaints, it does still taste like orange juice (as in the orange is front and center, at least for a couple seconds), and the now $1.89 price tag is more than a dollar less what you would expect to pay for the name brand. The watered-down taste also kind of helps to make it more drinkable and refreshing...some OJ's I've had (especially cheaper ones) taste and feel so acidic that you almost have to sip them—in fact, I've gotten acid reflux symptoms a few times from drinking particularly “strong” orange juices. At the very least, you can chug this on a hot summer day for some quick refreshment; the "watered-down" consistency also can help make this a good mixer for all you alcoholics out there.

It's a good orange juice, and the inclusion of vitamins is kind of nice, I guess, but I do kinda wish they would offer this in a no-pulp version without the added supplements. 

Overall: 7/10. It's a good, cheap orange juice that, perhaps best of all, is “not from concentrate” (meaning it's not cut with water...what's inside is 100% orange juice) but still somehow has a very watered-down flavor. It starts off tasting like you would expect it to, with the taste of fresh orange front-and-center, but then just like that, the orange flavor just kind of disappears. On the one hand that's kind of nice, because it makes it seem less acidic, and therefore more guzzlable than most orange juices, but on the other hand, it's kind of baffling for an orange juice without added water to taste like water has been added. I still get it more than I should, though, because the only other option in these carafes is a “high-pulp” version, and I do not like pulp in my orange juice at all. Hopefully one day Aldi will add a no-pulp variety without the added vitamins, which seems like something they should clearly already be doing, but I guess their marketing data tells them otherwise. And regardless of my bitching, the point still remains: This is a good orange juice, especially for its paltry $1.89 price tag.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Malt o' Meal Originals Blueberry Muffin Tops Cereal (Various)

A hugely underrated cereal that admittedly requires one to have a pretty high tolerance for cloying sweetness.
Earlier I reviewed Millville’s Blueberry Crunch Squares, a cereal that is available occasionally as a special buy through Aldi stores. I mentioned in that review that there doesn’t seem to be a “national brand”, making it one of the few cereals that seem to have been created by private labels.

Well now, I will be reviewing the same offering through another popular private label, Malt o’ Meal, which was one of the first companies (if not THEE first), to put cereal inside large bags, thus omitting the box altogether. I don’t think I’ve hidden the fact that, as good as Aldi’s Millville cereal line is, I prefer Malt o’ Meal overall, as they seem to get even closer to national brand taste, while being just as inexpensive, or in some cases, even cheaper than, Millville cereals. In fact, I think Malt o’ Meal is the best private label cereal brand, period, so I always get excited when I see one of their cereals being offered at ridiculously low prices because I never hesitate to pick them up.

On my latest trip to Big Lots, I saw massive 2 lb. bags of Malt o’ Meals Blueberry Crunch Cereal being offered for a measly TWO DOLLARS. That’s right, two bucks for enough cereal to last me a week, and that’s actually saying something; I go through cereal at an alarming rate, so if it’s going to last me a week, it’ll last the normal person, or maybe even an average family, twice that length.

As you may recall, I scored Millville’s version of this cereal a 9 out of 10, and I pretty much have to give MoM’s version the same score, as they are both very similar in terms of appearance, and taste. If memory serves me right, I feel like Malt o’ Meal’s cereal has even more sugary goodness on top, but I might be mistaken (a quick search on the internet of both labels reveal both have 10g of sugar per serving, so I think I am mistaken), but it also crams in loads of relatively realistic blueberry flavor (thanks, in part, due to having actual blueberries in it, though the ingredient list spans a country mile).

Obviously, this kind of cereal isn't going to appeal to everyone, and you probably already know right away whether or not this is going to be a cereal for you. Anyone over the age of 10, for example, will probably find it to be too sweet, while others will no doubt be turned off at the thought of a blueberry-streusel cereal to begin with. I definitely agree that it is very sweet—hence the reason I don't get it very often—but for a change of pace, it's a solid bet, and once again it's Malt o' Meal delivering an excellent product at a price that's more than reasonable.

Overall: 9/10. Just as good as Millville's (Aldi) version, but also with enough slight differences to justify trying both versions. Though it's been a while since I've tried Millville's, I seem to remember this has more sugary coating on top, which is a delicious thing, but is also balanced out by a strong, and relatively authentic, blueberry flavor. This probably isn't going to be the kind of thing that appeals to many people older than 10, but in my opinion, it's a vastly underrated cereal, and one that I go for when I'm craving something sweet. Keep an eye out at Big Lots, where large bags of this (and other Malt o' Meal cereals) can be had for under $3 from time-to-time.

Fit & Active Vitality Cereal with "Red Berries" (Strawberries) (Aldi)

Um...why are the strawberries referred to as "red berries" on the packaging?
One thing you should probably know about me by now: I love cereal. All kinds of them. Whether they're mainly marketed toward children, adults, or even women, I couldn't care less: I will give them a try. In fact, I'd tried the name brand version of this already, and really liked the combination of sweet flakes and strawberries, so when I saw that Aldi carried a knockoff, I was excited to give it a shot.

My interest was piqued when my wife, who is not at all a cereal lover, tried and it shot instantly up her list of favorite cereals. I had to have a bowl after that, and was impressed with what I tasted, even though trying the name brand beforehand pretty much prepared me directly for the experience, which is as follows:

The flakes are what I would consider “lightly sweetened” and are nice and crunchy right out of the box. There's kind of an odd taste to them—it's really hard to explain, but it's like the flavor of the flake slightly clashes with the taste of the sugar, so they don't exactly work in unison—but I still like them. The spotlight, however, is on the strawberries: Of course, they're dried, but this cereal is loaded with them. And we're not just talking little teeny-tiny bits of chopped up strawberries, I'm talking some impressively-large pieces that barely leave any space left for anything else. Granted, each piece is cut fairly thin, so you won't get a whole or half strawberry in there, but they're still generous in size.

And while saying they taste “fresh” would be an incredible overstatement—after all, how can you capture the juicy deliciousness of the actual fruit in what amounts, texturally, to a shriveled piece of styrofoam—it's not at all overstated to say that they taste “accurate”. All of the tartness of a ripe berry is in there, and when combined with the sweetness of the flakes, it becomes a formidable combination.

Curiously (I feel like I've been using this word a lot lately, but I suddenly love it), it's one of the more “expensive” cereals that Aldi offers, although in this case, “expensive” means $2.19 (recently taking a dime price cut). Of course, it's still way cheaper than buying the national brand, at least when it's not on sale; I'm assuming the price has something to do with the actual strawberries inside, which make up all of the strawberry flavor (there are no “natural flavors” listed in the ingredients). We don't purchase it very often, as there are other cereals that are both cheaper, and tastier, but this is a great “healthy” cereal for a good price.

Overall: 7.5/10. This is a great knock-off of the national brand cereal, so if you like that, you're going to like this. The price is on the high side for a Millville cereal ($2.19, recently down from $2.29), but with wheat instead of corn, and actual strawberries inside, that no doubt helps to explain the extra cost. There's something about the bran flakes that prevents this from being a great cereal (I like their taste, but it kind of tastes like the sweetness is trying to offset the bran flavor, which leads to a slight clash), but the flakes go well with the tart strawberries. The strawberry chunks are large, and very generously spread throughout...if you don't want to, you don't have to have a bite without some of the fruit. A solid cereal for the price, though there are ones that I think hit the mark of “taste meets value” a little closer.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Elevation by Millville White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Energy Bars (Aldi)

Both the flavor and value are "pretty good" on this one.

For some reason, Clif bars are all the rage where I work. I find them to be pretty expensive, but then again, I'm probably one of the poorer associates at my job; if you have the money, why not spend it on energy bars? (And, for the record, they are one of the few large “free-standing” companies left—they have turned down multi-million dollar buyouts from bigger corporations, and take incredibly-good care of their associates; they even give workers stock options in the company, thus making them “part owners” of their own business.) Still, I'm on a budget, which is pretty obvious from the name of this thing, and so I can't be spending $1 or more on such small bars, no matter how healthy or tasty they may be. 

And, as usual, that's where Aldi has stepped in, via their “Elevation by Millville” line, which offer more upscale bars that all seem to be a takeoff on the same offerings made by Clif. Now, it's been years since I've had the name brand bar, and I don't remember if I had the White Chocolate and Macadamia Nut flavor specifically, so this won't be a comparison between the two so much as a review on its own terms. 

The bar is fairly small and square, weighing in at 2.4 oz (the same as the national brand). It looks like it's made with rolled-up oatmeal, then it's finished off with a drizzle of white chocolate. Before I go any further, I have to say that the packaging for this is also similar to the brand it's knocking off, and equally snazzy—it really does feel like you're getting a more “special” product than just your basic granola bar. Anyway, the taste is about what it hints at: there's the strong flavor of oats, along with some nuts, which is then combined with the white chocolate drizzle from the top. The overall effect makes it slightly sweet, while the bar itself is very soft, becoming grainy once it starts being chewed. I'm not sure I can really compare the flavor of these specifically to anything—you can definitely taste the white chocolate, but it's in such a small quantity that it's not an overwhelming flavor, and there are clearly macadamia nuts inside, but they, too, seem to get lost in an endless sea of oats. I actually like the flavor, but it certainly won't be to everyone's's one of those products that you can tell is pretty good for you, simply because of how it hits the taste buds. 

The other side of the equation, though, is the price. How do these compare to the main brand? Millville's version is also quite expensive, coming in at $4.79 for 6 bars, and are therefore not something I could get all the time. I've not visited brick-and-mortar stores simply to compare prices, but the cheapest price I've found online was $5.69 for a six-pack, which is about a dollar more than Aldi's brand. Again, I can't do an apples-to-apples comparison on taste, but this is a pretty tasty little bar that I eat in the mornings to tide me over until lunchtime, and it does an admirable job of that, with small amounts of many vitamins and minerals. I still prefer cereal, but you can't really take that on the go, so this is a great, and slightly more affordable way, to gain some portable nutrients! 

Overall: 7/10. I can't compare these exactly to the national brand, because I never buy them, but Elevation by Millville has served up a pretty tasty bar in its own right. These are made primarily of rolled oats, with macadamia nuts added, and finished off with a drizzle of white chocolate. You can tell just from the taste that they're “healthy”, because the taste is rather straightforward and maybe even a little bland, but the chocolate does give it a little bit of added sweetness. I still think the price is pretty high at Aldi, which offer six 2.4 oz. bars for $4.79 (almost a dollar cheaper than I could find similar packages of the name brand bar going for) and so I won't be getting these all the time, but these work for me as a good little snack that holds me over until lunchtime, while giving me some essential vitamins and minerals. If you're addicted to the name brand, give these a shot and let me know how they compare!

Millville Elevation Chocolate Mint High Protein Bars (Aldi)

Wow...these are some of the best chocolate-mint anythings I've ever had.
You have thirty seconds to name for me a better combination than mint and chocolate. Exactly, you couldn’t do it, because it can’t be done. Chocolate and peanut butter probably comes the closest, but for my money, I love the delicious taste of chocolate blended with the cooling flavor (and the matching sensation) of a light mint. And that is how Elevation by Millville’s Chocolate Mint Protein Bar captured my attention: I have no urgent need for higher protein, but if I can get a few vitamins and minerals with some mint and chocolate, why not go for it? It’s almost a win-win!

As I was expecting—or rather, hoping—this bar is phenomenal. A lot of “energy bars” or whatever these things tend to be called, are either bland, or have an off-putting grainy texture that I don’t like. This does have a slight graininess to it, but since it’s more or less a granola bar (at least in the bottom half), that’s completely acceptable to me, since that’s the typical texture of such a product. But the chocolate is actually smooth and rich, while the mint flavor peeks through at the exact level I like…it’s definitely strong enough that you’ll notice it, but not enough to overthrow the chocolaty goodness. Hell, this bar is better than a lot of chocolate-mint desserts I’ve had, and I’ve actually been known to eat them as such.

The only thing preventing me from screaming about this bar from high on the rooftops is the price: $5.99 for 6 bars. In doing research on the national brand bars (I knew it was based on Clif, as I believe everything in the Elevation by Millville line is, but wasn’t sure of the actual name of the line), the best price I found was $15.98 for 12 bars, still making this a much better deal. So sure, they’re better in price than the national brand bars, but they’re still a little pricier than I’d like to pay, especially since I have no outright need for them, thus relegating these to an occasional treat rather than a “must-have” buy.

Aside from that, though, these are damn near flawless. And it seems as though they have started carrying these as part of their permanent inventory, which is another reason to get excited. If you can afford it, or are looking to splurge on something that doubles as protein shot and dessert, then these are well worth every single penny.

Overall: 9/10. An utterly fantastic bar that is one of my favorite combinations of mint and chocolate that I've ever had. The mint is strong without being overpowering, while the chocolate is rich, delicious, and there in abundance; it tastes just like a candy bar, with a fantastic texture, and none of the typical “protein taste” that can accompany such bars. The only drawback is the price: While I'm aware $5.99 for six bars is cheaper than the national brand, it's still a high enough price that makes it more of a splurge, as opposed to something I can afford to get all the time. Still, I make sure it's in the budget more than I probably should, because these things are that good.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Chef's Cupboard Chunky Grilled Chicken and Gumbo Canned Soup (Aldi)

As far as canned soups go, this one is actually pretty good.
Well, we all saw how disappointed I was with the terrible cheddar-broccoli-potato-chicken soup that I reviewed above, so now it’s time to be disappointed by the Grilled Chicken & Sausage Gumbo, a soup I used to infrequently get for something different when I was single. Things got off to an appropriately shitty start right from the outset--pouring this into a bowl sounds, and even looks, like a bad case of diarrhea. So much so that even my wife, who was in the living room when I poured it, commented on how disgusting it sounded, without me even mentioning anything. That’s usually not a good sign when your food takes on any singular characteristic of poop.

However, I must say that the remainder of my experience went uphill from there, to the extent that I was greatly impressed with this stuff. Well, “greatly” when put in direct comparison to the other disappointing Chef’s Cupboard soups that I've had. While there’s clearly an abundance of sodium (I don’t even need to look at the label to verify this…you can easily TASTE it) at least there’s also quite a bit of decent flavor. I’ve never had gumbo from a restaurant (What do you expect from me? I live in Ohio) so I can’t compare (though how could canned compare to fresh stuff anyway?), but here we have lots of soggy rice, blended with celery, and quite a bit of sausage.

Like I said, everything’s just kind of heaped in with a salty taste, but the sausage does manage to poke through with a meaty finish that’s actually pretty good. I generally don’t like rice (unless it’s with Chinese food), but the wet, soggy rice gives the soup a unique texture that’s unlike most soups…with the added benefit of not really adding any flavor, so I can’t complain. The broth is also pretty good. I can’t say that I will get this very often, simply because canned soups have fallen off my radar, but I may pick one up just to have in the pantry for a light dinner, or a quick snack at some point down the road. Easily the best of the Chef’s Cupboard soups that I’ve been reacquainted with.

Overall: 7/10. For a canned soup, this is pretty good, and by far the best of the Chef’s Cupboard ones I’ve tried. It’s overly salty, a la just about all canned soups, but this one at least provides some flavor, courtesy of a tasty broth and some large chunks of sausage that are actually pretty flavorful. The soggy rice adds a texture that’s a little different from similar products, and is a welcome change, without adding much in the way of flavor. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of it, because the sodium level is really high (so high you can literally taste it), but I’ll get this from time to time just to have on hand as a snack, or light dinner.

Chef's Cupboard Chunky Chicken Broccoli Cheese and Potato Soup

For people who ever thought "The only way the simple perfection of cheddar-broccoli soup would be better, is with another vegetable and the forced addition of meat." So in other words, no one.
Cheddar-broccoli soup is hands-down my favorite kind of soup in existence. Period. It always has been ever since I was a little kid who would get it from the old chain G.D. Ritzy’s every time I went…it was cheesy, it was creamy, and it was ridiculously good. Even the canned stuff is delicious, and it’s generally my go-to soup when I am sick, because, well, let’s be honest here: chicken-noodle is pretty gross.

But now Chef’s Cupboard dares to ask, “What would happen if we took the delicious base of broccoli-cheddar soup, and then added some extra shit that’s not even remotely necessary?” Well then, the end result would be this here soup, which adds not just potato, but potato AND chicken into the mix. Unsurprisingly, it pretty much fails miserably.

For starters, the broccoli and cheese base isn’t even that good to begin with. It’s very liquidy, which is a good start, because having a broccoli-cheddar paste just sounds very unappetizing. But there’s not a whole lot of cheddar flavor in there, nor a lot of broccoli flavor, with the small pieces that float around here and there the only reminder broccoli's even in it at all. The entire concoction also has a smell that reminds me of feet, which was already off-putting before I even shoved a reluctant spoonful into my mouth.

On top of having a less-than-adequate base flavor, the chicken just comes off as completely unnecessary. I can kind of see the addition of the potato--why not add another vegetable into the mix, especially one that doesn’t taste like much on its own--but the chicken is pointless. It’s pointless because its main contribution is making the whole concoction smell uninviting, and because there’s not even that much in it to begin with. If there’s not a lot in it, then it must not add much to the flavor, and if something doesn’t add much to the flavor, then what’s the point of adding it in the first place? It also got less appetizing as I got lower in the bowl, because the soup started “separating”, making it look like it was spoiling, right in front of my eyes. Gross.

This just feels like a food experiment that was accidentally approved, canned, labeled, and erroneously put on store shelves. Also, why would you make something like this available all the time, when you rarely (if ever) even offer a plain cheddar-broccoli soup, for those that like their soups more straightforward, and without forced meat additions? I’m starting to see why I gave up canned soups a long time ago, and why lifting that ban was completely foolish.

Overall: 2/10. Terrible soup. They start with a bad cheddar-broccoli base, add potatoes (understandable), then inexplicably throw in some meat, as if everyone’s chief complaint is that the only way broccoli-cheddar soup could be better, is if there was some chicken thrown in. Worse yet, the chicken makes the whole mixture smell like feet, which acts as a warning for those about to put some in their mouths. Why would Aldi offer this junk year ‘round, especially when they rarely (if ever) offer a plain cheddar-broccoli canned soup? I won’t ever get this junk again.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Baker's Treat Cinnamon Streusel Snack Cakes (Aldi)

Technically "good", but very small and still overpriced.
I like those cheap factory-made bakery desserts (think Hostess), but I don’t buy them very often for two reasons: 1.) they are terrible for you, and 2.) they are overpriced to all hell. I mean, upwards of $4 for a package that amounts to nothing more than sugar and fat? No thank you. But that doesn't mean that I can't indulge every so often, and on my last shopping trip, I noticed these. Has Aldi always carried streusel cakes? It's possible that I've just trained myself to skim passed them, but I don't recall ever seeing them there before.

First of all, I have to admit that the packaging on Baker’s Corner treats is very spiffy. I don’t comment on the appearance of many Aldi products, but the new template has a clean, inviting design that really appealed to me. That’s what initially caught my eye. Then my eyes wandered to the word “streusel”, and that was it: it was in my cart. It had been a while since I had a factory-made bakery treat, and I felt like I was rather overdue for a caloric splurging.

I don’t think I’ve had the national brand of this product, so the first thing that I noticed was how small these are: they are pretty teeny, to the point that I could see most people eat two, or maybe even more, as a single serving. And I couldn’t blame’s barely enough to fulfill my craving for something sweet, but have no way to eat any more because one is all my wife packs me for my lunch at work.

It’s what you would expect: the streusel topping is sweet and cinnamon-y, with a good amount on each pastry. The bottom half, consisting of the “cake” portion, is pretty good and, perhaps more importantly, nice and moist: there’s nothing worse than dry cake! It won't remind you of the savory streusel cakes your grandma baked for you when you were younger, but I didn't have that problem, because my grandma never made me any.

My biggest complaint is the price: they’re upwards of $2.49, if memory serves me correctly. Yeah, that includes 8 cakes, but they're so small that many people will need to eat more than one to fill their cinnamon craving. Hell, you can buy cinnamon streusel bread mix at Aldi for around half that price, and make an entire loaf, with the benefit of the included icing. These are no doubt way more convenient, but they feel like something that should retail in the $1.99 price range, especially since they offer no real health benefits.

They're good, but are being sold at a price that hints at something that should be spectacular.

Overall: 5.5/10. If you're like me and love cinnamon streusel, these will fulfill your cravings...but it will probably take more than one, because they're so tiny. The cinnamon topping tastes exactly like you would expect it to, and the cake is moist, however $2.49 seems a bit excessive given the fact there are only eight (which will amount to four servings for the average person) in a package, and there is nothing about them that is anything even remotely above your average streusel taste. It's a lot for me to pay for a product that's strictly junk food, and it will be a long time before I ever grab them again.

Baker's Treat Chocolate Cup Cakes with Creamy Filling (Aldi)

"Good", but small and still overpriced.
I’m going to start this off with an uncomfortably personal anecdote: One of the few memories I have of my father back from when I was a child, was walking to the gas station down the street, a Clark store if I remember correctly, and getting the national brand cupcakes for the walk home. I don't know how that image stayed in my head after all these years, but I remember it pretty clearly (we haven't talked in about fourteen years for reasons that I will obviously not get into on this blog.)

Ever since those days, I've pretty much avoided those cupcakes—not at all because of the memories, but because now that I'm paying for things myself, I'm not going to pay the inflated prices they want for cheap cupcakes. That's money that can be better spent on other things. Yet on a recent trip to Aldi, I noticed that they carried these. Have they had them all this time, and I just haven't noticed them? Or have I just always subconsciously passed on them? Either way, it had some pretty snazzy packaging, which is what first caught my eye, and after a little internal argument with myself about whether or not I wanted to waste money on these, I came up with the answer of “yes”. Good call, too, because they ended up being a tasty little addition to my lunches at work.

The chocolate kicks things off and it’s pretty close to how I remember the national brand being all those years ago. In paying attention to it, though, I can taste the fake artificiality in it…it might just be this brand, but it reminds me of those really cheap boxed brownies with the multi-colored chocolate candies on top. Don’t get me wrong, I really like those things, but let’s be real here: the chocolate taste really isn’t all that accurate. The texture and appearance are largely spot-on, right on down to the white icing swirls, so I appreciate the aesthetics.

The “cake” portion is appropriately moist and inviting, with a taste that once again tastes off, when compared to normal chocolate cake, but I have a feeling it's spot-on when compared to the product this is attempting to replicate. Rounding everything out is the cream-filling, which, in terms of mass-produced confections, is a thing of absolute beauty. It's soft, fluffy, and ultra-sweet, which is exactly the kind of characteristics you're looking for in a dessert like this, and it tastes better than the cream-fillings I've had from award-winning local doughnut shops. It really rounds this out and makes it a tasty little treat.

I do have a couple of knocks, and they're the same ones that pertain to the streusel cakes that I review below: These are very small. Again, that can always be construed into a good thing, because it helps to limit caloric intake, but I remember the size of them when I was a kid, and these are probably around half of that. Which leads me to the same knock as before: price. These are, again, $2.49 for a package of eight, which just doesn't feel like the right price to pay for something like these. It also makes it pretty clear which of the mass-produced dessert companies is making these for Aldi, because these aren't a whole lot cheaper than their own overinflated products. This is around the low-end price-point for Specially Selected products, which at least give off the appearance of being “gourmet” in nature, so it seems kind of pointless, at least for me, to spend this much on some crappy cupcakes. Maybe once we have a kid and lunches start becoming a thing, this might make a little more sense, but as long as it's just my wife and I, I don't see a reason to get these often, if ever again. There are much better sweets and treats under an Aldi roof for around the same price; in some cases, even cheaper.

Overall: 5.5/10. Same pros and same cons apply to the streusel cakes reviewed below. They taste pretty accurate to the national brand, which is definitely a plus, even down to the cheapy, low-quality chocolate flavor. The icing is fluffy and super-sweet, but oh so delicious, and the trademark icing swirl on the top completes the replica. However, each cupcake is much smaller than I remember them being as a child, and there are only eight in a pack for a whopping $2.49. That may be cheaper than the national brand, but this is Aldi—you can get much better desserts and treats for around the same price. If you're a huge fan of the original, then this is a good way to get your fix for a little cheaper; otherwise, you're better off spending the money on something else.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Savoritz White Cheddar Cheese Baked Snack Crackers (Aldi)

I’m usually pretty privy to the items that Aldi carries on a weekly basis. I always read the weekly ad (the only company I do that for), and I generally take time to peruse the lists of what’s new in their stores, and once in a while, their new low prices. So it’s not often that I’m caught off guard by a particular offering.

But I’ll be damned if I wasn’t completely blindsided by Savoritz White Cheddar Cheese Crackers. I’ve championed the regular cheddar ones in a previous review, which they have carried for years, but have never seen the white cheddar kind being offered at any of their stores. Since it’s my wife’s favorite kind of the national brand, and one I haven’t tried for years, we picked up a box to see what it was all about.

My last memory of eating the name brand white cheddar cheese crackers was about twenty-years ago. I was a fourth grader (if memory serves me correctly), and I was trying out for a pee-wee football team. I hated every minute of it--to this day, that experience has completely burned me out on organized sports, where the line between entertainment (which is what I wanted to get out of it), and completely serious job (which is how everyone else took it) is constantly blurred. Anyway, I would get dropped off to practice early, usually with a snack while I waited for everyone else to arrive, and I remember it would sometimes be the white cheddar crackers. Just a random bit of info for you.

Back to the present day, where I spend my free time reviewing off brand products. Now it’s time to dive into this box. All I can say is, wow. These things are incredible. They’re so accurate, they take me back to that Godforsaken football field from twenty years ago, only I mean that in a good way. The cracker itself tastes rich and buttery, perhaps even moreso than the regular cheddar cheese kind. The blending of white cheddar, and “regular” cheddar cheese powders provides a flavor that’s both familiar, yet unique, all at the same time. It’s more tart and bold than the regular kind, but every bit as addicting--I had to force myself to put the box down after only a few, because I could have easily put away the whole box if I didn’t. My wife, who as I said loves the national brand white cheddar cheese snack cracker, felt the exact same way I did; namely, that these are on par with the name brand, if not even better.

Currently at $1.79 for a 12.4 oz. box, picking these up should be a no-brainer to anyone who either loves the name brand, or is looking to give them a shot for the first time. You really can’t go wrong.

Overall: 10/10. I desperately want to deduct points, because I see perfect scores as a personal fault, but I honestly can’t; just like Savoritz’s original cheddar cheese crackers, the white cheddar version is pretty much spot-on to the national brand. It’s every bit as addicting, with a tart white cheddar cheese blend that hits the taste buds, and then makes them beg for more. I usually don’t have a problem putting down snacks after I’ve had a few, but with these, I literally have to engage willpower, lest I down half the box--or more--all in one sitting. And at a mere $1.79 for a 12.4 oz. box, there is value in spades. Just all around fantastic stuff here.

Savoritz Reduced Fat Cheese Baked Snack Crackers (Aldi)

Almost just as good as the "real" thing. 
Savoritz's regular version of the popular cheese cracker is one of my favorite buys at Aldi: it's a spot-on replica of the national brand, and one of those things that are too affordable, making it way tougher than it should be to walk by them without buying them. I kept seeing the “reduced fat” version they always carry and was interested to try it, but for whatever reason I just didn't. Then that great wife of mine reminded me about their existence by pointing them out during a shopping trip, and urged me to get them. Since my motto is “there's no time like the present”, I decided to stop putting it off, and picked up a box.

Honestly, I think part of it is just a mental block, because I don't quite feel like these are as addicting as the regular kind, despite tasting almost exactly the same. I haven't analyzed the boxes or nutrition labels to tell what's different between the two versions (usually in order to cut back on an ingredient, it must be filled with more of another, or entirely different ingredients altogether to maintain the same taste) but I believe the front of each box gives us most, if not all, of what we need to know: The “full-flavor” box declares “made with real cheese”, while the reduced fat version boasts: “made with real cheese and natural cheese flavor”, with everything under “made with real cheese” in suddenly much smaller lettering. This leads me to believe that they simply use less actual cheese and add in “natural” (aka “lab-created”) flavoring to kind of “clone” the rest. They do a fantastic job because it's nearly impossible to tell the difference.

For those looking to cut back on the amount of fat that they eat, this provides a good way to do so without really sacrificing anything in the way of flavor. Aside from that, health differences between the two don't seem to be too much: the reduced fat has an added gram of monounsaturated fat, but cuts back on the rest of the saturateds (neither contain trans). The full-flavor has 4% calcium while the reduced fat has none, but the reduced fat has an extra gram of protein and three extra carbs. The biggest difference is exactly as advertised, with the reduced-fat containing 5g of fat (still a pretty healthy dose) compared to 8g for the regular; it's just a couple of minor things here and there.

Now, obviously, even with the decreased fat, this is still junk food, of which I'm sure we are all aware. But 3g (per serving) is a decent reduction and, while it probably won't take it into the level of a “guilt-free” snack, when you're watching your figure, every little bit counts. Honestly, since they are the same price, I will probably just stick to the regular version, because something about this one seems ever-so-slightly off to me (and again, I think it might just be a mental thing), and they're not as addicting to me. Although, maybe that's not such a bad thing after all...

Overall: 8/10. These are excellent and taste pretty much exactly the same as Savoritz regular, full-flavored version of this product, but I feel like they're not quite as addicting. Now, I fully agree that it might just be a mental thing, and even then it's not entirely a bad thing (I didn't find myself wanting to polish off half the box all at once), but if I want an unhealthy snack cracker in the future, I'll probably just stick to the regular stuff considering it's the same price. However, for those on a diet or looking to cut back on the fatty stuff, the 3g of fat (per serving) reduction is a pretty decent amount, and every little bit helps. A great product at a great price no matter how you look at it.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Specially Selected Spinach Ricotta Bistro Style Frozen Flatbread (Aldi)

Not very good.
Here we have another Specially Selected flatbread, which is available as an occasional Special Buy from Aldi stores across the States.

Pulling this out of the box, it looked pretty much like any other number of similar offerings that Aldi has had over the years…there’s lots of green, lots of cheese, and some mushrooms for good measure. So pardon us that my wife and I weren’t all that excited to give it a shot once we opened it up. But then I re-read the box, and remembered that this doesn’t feature a pizza sauce, or a pesto, or any other sauce “typically” found in supermarket pizzas…it features a “sweet onion” sauce. That was actually enough to perk me up, because I’ve never heard of such a sauce on a pizza before. Also illuminating: there are bits of ricotta cheese randomly placed throughout. It now had my attention.

Well let me just say that the sauce puts the “sweet” in sweet onion, and then some…to my astonishment, it went completely overboard. In fact, it’s so sweet, and with the onions by nature, so strong, that it pretty much pummels all the other flavors into oblivion. In case that doesn’t quite spell it out for you, it borders on “sickeningly sweet”, and anyone whose read this blog with even occasional frequency should know by now that my palate clearly favors sweet. The ricotta does add a nice bit of creaminess to the texture, with some of that flavor peeking through at the end, but the frozen mushrooms (which are pretty small) do nothing to add to the flavor. I couldn’t even really taste the spinach or the Ementaler cheese.

I have to say this is pretty much a failure, and we will not be trying it again. It’s at their standard price point for frozen pizzas (and flatbreads), which is $3.99...since it’s pretty much the same as every other kind, it doesn’t earn any extra points for value, nor does it really give anyone incentive to give it a try. There are enough solid options from their constant inventory (such as their spinach and goat cheese pizza) that you should never have to resort to getting this.

Overall: 4/10. On paper, it sounds pretty good: spinach, Emmentaler cheese, mushrooms, and dabs of ricotta (well, not crazy about mushrooms, but the rest sound good). But where it goes wrong (and, ironically, what intrigued me the most about the pizza before actually trying it) is the sweet onion sauce…it’s simply too sweet. Like, ridiculously so, to the point that it pretty much ends up sabotaging the rest of the flavors, overpowering them into submission. The ricotta does give it a nice creamy texture, at least in the bites that it’s present in, and you can generally taste it in the back of the taste buds (once the taste of the onion sauce dissipates a bit), but as for the mushrooms and spinach and cheese…not so much. At $3.99 per box, the price is in line with almost every other frozen flatbread/pizza that Aldi offers, so there’s really no argument that it’s going to save you any kind of money. We will not be picking this up again.

Specially Selected Bistro Style Bruschetta Frozen Flatbread (Aldi)

Why I hate taking pictures.
Well another week, and another pizza! This time, we have the Bistro Style Bruschetta Flatbread, released under the Specially Selected label at Aldi stores. We got this one because it’s a pizza fit for vegetarians, so it was one I could enjoy with my wife--although at a quick glance it looks like there’s chicken on the pizza, it’s simply made up of tomatoes, onions, and cheese, with a crème fraiche sauce, and some garlic in there somewhere.

Admittedly, we were a little pressed for time when preparing this--my wife had to be at work in under an hour--so our attempts to shave off some cooking time backfired a little bit; the edges were nice and crispy, but the center was still soft. It was cooked enough, but easily could have, and should have, served some more time in the oven. So the texture was a little off, but that was completely our fault. Still, the flavors remained largely unchanged, so while the onions were a little flimsier than they probably should have been, it didn’t detract from our enjoyment of the pizza very much at all.

For starters, not having a tomato-based sauce on a bruschetta pizza (bruschetta being an Italian appetizer, kind of similar to salsa in appearance, though not so much taste, that is made up of about 90% tomato) is a pretty gutsy call. I mean, even most margherita pizzas, which feature tomato as the main topping, also have a tomato-based sauce; not surprisingly, this means there’s not a real heavy tomato flavor. Instead, we get a strong dose of garlic and onion, along with a sprinkling of tomato in there somewhere…I’m really kind of baffled as to why they picked to market it as “bruschetta”.

So fans of tomato might be slightly disappointed. But I thought the flavor was good right out of the gates, and I would pick this flatbread up again in a heartbeat. The crème fraiche is good as it always seems to be, even in processed frozen foods, and adds the perfect first layer of toppings to the proceedings. The cheese is also rather scantly placed, so don’t expect a lot of it, but I liked that it was light and not overly cheesy--it allowed the other flavors to shine through.

My biggest gripe, and I believe I’ve mentioned this before under a similar product, is that, much like the name insinuates, flatbreads are very thin. Yet these retail for as much as Aldi’s other pizza products. I don’t care what angle you come from--Specially Selected seems to be the discount grocer’s more “upscale” products--paying the same price for a clearly smaller amount of food just feels, well, kinda stupid. My wife and I each ate three pieces for dinner, and it wasn’t nearly enough, so I went back and ate two more later, which still wasn’t very filling. I guess what I’m trying to say is: Why pay for this, when you can get something twice as filling for the same price? As I said, the flavor is good, but nothing so outstanding that it’s worth the inflated price tag.

Overall: 6.5/10. Let’s get the “knocks” out of the way first: Why it’s marketed as a bruschetta product when there’s barely any tomato on it (even the sauce is crème fraiche, and not tomato-based at all) seems kind of pointless; so is the fact this retails for the same price as Aldi’s other pizza products, despite being very thin and unfilling. But the flavor, which mainly consists of garlic and onion, is pretty good. If you want something that more resembles a snack, or if you’re just eating this all by yourself, or you’re not at all hungry, then you might get more of your money’s worth. I ate this with my wife, and was still pretty hungry after we split it, so I didn’t feel like there was much in the way of value. I’d get it again, but not in the near future, and not very often.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Nature's Nectar Wild Cherry Flavored Juice Pouches (Aldi)

I still suck at getting the straw through the little foil target, and the taste isn't really worth the effort.
Aaaah, the juice pouch. While other kids' drinks were in boxes, one company had to come along and put it in a pouch instead. One of my favorite childhood memories involves trying to poke that sharp straw through the small hole at just the right angle that it would puncture it and go into the drink, instead of impaling the pouch all the way through, forcing me to basically shotgun it so that all the juice didn't leak out. To be a kid again. 

I'm actually finding I still have the same struggles...I managed to poke the hole open without getting the straw in, and when my wife went to show me how to do it (she's a pro), she got juice all over the place, thanks to my error. Oops. (At least I can say from my failures that the drink is clear, so chances are good there aren't any artificial colors inside). Thanks to the extra hole she pre-scored right underneath the manufacturer's straw hole, I was able to finally get it in and take my first drink.

I have to say that I'm rather underwhelmed with this one. Granted, cherry would have never been my first choice (I knew my wife would want it and bought it for her), but it tastes a little watered down to me. I guess that was always a characteristic of the national brand, too...the tastes always seemed a little weaker to me than the ones in boxes. But that could also just be because I usually got the boxes and was more familiar with them. The cherry itself is made up of “natural flavors”, so there aren't actual cherries anywhere to be had here, but from what I can taste of it, it's pretty accurate. There is a strong cherry aftertaste that lingers in the back of the throat for a while.

Now that I've sipped it a few more times, it tastes like a white cherry Icee, which were passable, but never my favorites. It's got that kind of syrupy taste that you can tell was created in a lab. Similarly, I find these to be decent, but nothing that I would get for myself—I don't like this flavor nearly as much as my wife does. It is good for a change of pace between all the juices I've been getting, and these have 25% less sugar than most boxed drinks (according to the packaging, anyway), so there's that. Now if only we could put some actual fruit juice in these, that would be even better...

Overall: 5.5/10. To be fair, cherry isn't my favorite flavor (got them for the wife), so take my opinion with a grain of salt (as you should take any opinion anyway), but I was pretty underwhelmed by these. The taste reminds me of a white cherry Icee, though the cherry flavor seems a little watered down to me; it does lead to a strong cherry aftertaste that lingers. Apparently, they have 25% less sugar than regular juice drinks, but that still amounts to 16g per pouch, which seems pretty high. Still, $1.79 for ten pouches is pretty inexpensive, so there are some savings to be had for those that enjoy these more than I do. On a side note, I still suck at opening these pouches, 25 years later...

Nature's Nectar Iced Tea and Lemonade Beverage (Aldi)

It tastes good, but it's not always all about the taste, as you will see in my investigative report below...
My wife and I were on the hunt for something that never showed up to our usual Aldi location, so we ended up going to a different one to look for it. While there, I saw this plain-looking container of the combination frequently referred to as an “Arnold Palmer”: sweet tea and lemonade. My wife almost immediately mentioned she thought it would taste like the tea company named after a state (hint: Phoenix is in it), but I quickly dismissed that notion, because Aldi actually carries that name brand (the theory is that Aldi only carries name brands when they cannot find a supplier than can accurately mimic it; once they do, they get rid of the main brand and replace it with their own knockoff). Besides, this bottle didn't resemble that brand's aesthetic at all: it was shaped differently, the colors and fonts were completely different...usually something is there to allude to what product it's knocking off, but this had none of it. So I just figured it would be its own thing.

Lo and behold, my wife was completely right: this is just about an exact knockoff of the national brand Arnold Palmer. It's a mix of black tea and lemonade, and both parts are balanced well enough that they each get a chance to shine. It captures the same flavor with a very low price (a 64 oz. bottle retails for $1.49) so there's really no reason not to try this. Other than that, not much else I can say about it, except that it's a Special Buy, so chances are good that, by now, your store won't have any left.

Except, are you actually getting a good deal? It also brings me back to the quandary I posed earlier: Why would Aldi have a Special Buy knockoff of a brand that they always carry? Digging in a little deeper: Why would they undercut themselves by offering the national brand version for even cheaper? It doesn't really make sense, but that's exactly what they did! In the next paragraph, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I will break it down for you.

I just bought a jug of the name brand, from Aldi, for $2.49, the price it has been lately. Even assuming this price is temporary, I've never seen it go above $2.79. Inside the “jug” are 128 oz. of tea, which equals one gallon. As you can see from earlier in my post, a 64 oz. bottle of Aldi's version costs $1.49; doubled, that means a gallon of Aldi's version would run you $3, which is more than I've ever seen a single gallon of the name brand stuff go for there. As you can see, while the flavor is every bit as good as the name brand, you're also paying a higher price.

Now, I know things like this aren't always cut and dry, so while the above math is correct, it might not make sense for everyone. For example, smaller households might not have enough people that can drink an entire gallon, in which case paying a little bit more (in the long run) for this, would make more sense than spending more for a gallon and wasting half of it. I get that. And even so, it's not like $1.49 is a ridiculous price to begin with, for 64 ounces of liquid refreshment. But for me, it makes much more sense to stick to the name brand, at least as long as Aldi will continue to offer it for such an affordable price.

Overall: 5/10. This is another review where I'm put in a quandary: this is almost an exact knockoff of the popular iced tea/lemonade mixture made my a company that shares the same name as a state in the U.S. (hint: it begins with the letter “A”). The only problem is, at least at our Aldi, they actually offer gallon jugs of the name brand stuff, for just $2.49. Nature's Nectar's 64 oz. bottle is $1.49, meaning the name brand is a whole 50 cents cheaper, per gallon. Still, it's a sloppy business model for Aldi to undercut themselves, and why they even offered this as a Special Buy defies all logic. I guess if your local Aldi doesn't carry the national brand version of this, then this might be a pretty decent deal. Ditto for smaller households that can't drink an entire gallon before it expires. For the rest of us, though, it's probably a better idea to just stick to the name brand, since it's less expensive to begin with.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

UPDATE: Summit Red Thunder Extra Strength Grape Flavor Energy Shot (Aldi)

UPDATE (Nov. 2020): The price of these continues to go up, rising to $.79 in 2019, then to $.99 a little while after that; as of now, it's up to $1.09. The rating has been adjusted accordingly, and updated notes are in italics.
One of the very best deals in energy.
It had been a while since I set foot in an Aldi store prior to my visit last month, and as I was getting ready to check out, my gaze naturally wandered to the “impulse buys” section. It had the usual suspects: gum, “travel” packs of peanuts, batteries, etc., as well as their standard energy shots, which they've had for years, and which I have reviewed in the past. But among the familiar shots were a new kind with darker packaging that I had not noticed before. Not only was it grape, a new flavor that I hadn't tried, but it was also an “extra strength” variety, for the same paltry 69 cent price tag of the regular. “Alright, Aldi, you win,” I sighed to myself as I put it with my other products on the belt.

As I've stated in many reviews before, I tend to enjoy the energy drink cans a lot more, because you feel like (and you are) getting a lot more liquid for your buck. But sometimes you just want a concentrated, quick blast of energy that gets started right away, so with that in mind I've started getting these a little bit more often. You never know when you'll get hit with a sudden overwhelming attack of tired at work, or upon coming home, only to realize you have a night full of activities ahead of you to slog through. These are the times when a shot is preferred much more over a full-size can, because of the almost-immediate relief. Besides, I was just as interested to try the grape flavor as I was the added caffeine content.

The taste, for me, provides a nice kick of nostalgia. Does anyone remember Dimetapp? It was a liquid medicine that was the only delicious one in a sea of gag-inducing “tussins” and syrups. I don't remember what it was used to “cure” (a quick Internet search reveals cough and cold), and I don't even remember if it actually worked, but I never minded my ailments as long as there was a bottle of that stuff in our house. This has a very similar flavor, which is similarly marketed as “grape” and has vague similarities to the purple fruit (like a light purple color), but otherwise isn't very accurate at all. What it is, though, is sweet and smooth and it goes down easily, whether you gulp it down all at once, or take it in halves (or even “quarters”, as I find myself doing to stretch out the energy rush; being sensitive to caffeine has its advantages after all).

Much like the original version, this stuff works. I can't say for sure whether I think it works “longer”, or “stronger”, to justify the “extra strength” connotation, but it does get to work pretty quickly, giving me a nice kick in the pants that noticeably seems to last me about two hours. Best of all, even when the obvious effects are gone, the sugar-free formula doesn't leave me feeling even groggier and more tired than I initially did after the energy wears off (like what used to happen to me with the heavily-sugared cans).

Actually, I think the “best of all” should be reserved for its price tag, which I must once again remind you is a mere 69 cents has gone up $.40, rising to its current price of $1.09. While it's true that the price of goods are rising pretty much everywhere - especially this year - other brands have still managed to keep the cost of their shots at the $1 mark, taking this down from a "steal", to just a solid "deal". Also a concern: with the cost seeming to rise every few months, how high will it continue to climb? 

Regardless of that, the formula remains unchanged, and thus it is still highly recommended; just not as enthusiastically as before. 

Overall: 8.5/10 (-1.5). The best deal in energy is no more: following rather brisk rate hikes from $.69 to $.79, then $.79 to $.99 within the span of a few months, these have gone up once again to $1.09. They still taste better than most shots, and work very well, but considering the price has gone up $.40 within the span of a year, they aren't quite as phenomenal a deal as they used to be. Hence the reasoning for the adjusted rating. I enjoy the fake grape flavor, because it reminds me of a grape cough medicine I used to take as a kid. It's sweet, without being overly syrupy, and goes down smooth. But even if you don't have the same affinity for the flavor that I do, it gets to work pretty quickly, and is a mere 69 CENTS, making them not only one of the best deals in energy, as I stated in my review, but also quite possibly one of the best deals within the walls of Aldi, period. Since it's sugar free, there's also no noticeable crash once the effects wear off. Each 2 oz. bottle contains a respectable 230 mg of caffeine (putting them on par with many name-brand sugar-free energy beverages), as well as a ridiculous 8,333% of vitamin B12 (and 2,000% of vitamin B6) meaning it delivers in all the right places. I want to find some kind of fault with it so I don't have to give it a perfect score but...did I mention it's only 69 FREAKIN' CENTS?!

NOTE (June, 2019): The price has gone up to $.79, but that's not enough to alter the score: it's still a phenomenal product for the price.

UPDATE: Summit Red Thunder Extra Strength Berry Flavor Energy Shot

UPDATE (Nov. 2020): After rising from $.69 to $.79, then from $.79 to $.99 within the span of a few months, these have now gone up to $1.09. The score has been adjusted accordingly, with updated notes in italics.
One of the very best deals in energy.
Well what is there to say about Red Thunder’s Extra Strength Berry Energy Shot that I haven’t already said in my previous review of their regular (as in, not extra strength) berry-flavored energy shot? I gave that one perfect marks, and so it stands to reason that I must give this one perfect marks, too. Why? Because it’s pretty much the exact same thing as the regular version, only with extra caffeine. 230 mg, to be exact, making this a huge kick in the pants if you need a quick boost.

In fact, having had the national brand recently (after stealing one from a co-worker…shhhhhhh), I can honestly say that I much prefer Red Thunder’s version. The NB (as it will be referred to from now on) has, in my opinion, a much more syrupy, over-the-top flavor. Not that Red Thunder’s is accurate to an actual berry in any way, shape, or form, but the sweetness is slightly muted and it tastes even better. If you have tried Red Thunder's regular berry shot, then you've pretty much had this one, as the flavors are very identical, if not exactly the same.

Unfortunately, one of its biggest draws - cost - has been somewhat dampened by a series of steady but small increases, which has seen the price rise $.40 - from $.69 to $1.09 - within that time. Considering the cost seems to rise every few months, it begs another question: how high will it continue to go before it finally "settles"? Thankfully, the formula remains unchanged, and so they are still highly recommended, just not as enthusiastically as before; since other brands have maintained dollar price points, these are no longer some of the cheapest shots on the market.

Overall: 8.5/10 (-1.5). Thanks to sharp increases which have taken them from $.69 to $1.09 within a few months, these are no longer the best deal in the energy shot world. And considering the cost has consistently risen every few months, the main concern is: how high will it continue to climb? That being said, their formula hasn't changed, meaning they still taste better than most competitors, and work very well; they remain highly recommended, just not as enthusiastically as before.  Wow, Aldi keeps stepping up their energy shot game! I called their regular shots “the best deal in energy”, and now that they offer extra strength shots for the exact same ridiculously low price ($.69), I have to now apply that saying to this, too! This berry shot tastes similar to the national brand shot, though a little less cloyingly sweet. It doesn't taste anything like an actual berry, but the flavor is inoffensive, and goes down easy, while the resulting kick is noticeable and lasts for a while. Now if only Aldi would pay as much attention to the actual energy drinks they offer instead of just the shots, then maybe we could get rid of Gridlock, and replace it with something that doesn't suck (or at least a tastier formulation).

Friday, May 12, 2017

Little Journey Organics Prune Apple Butternut Squash with Quinoa Baby Food Puree (Aldi)

In non-shocking news, the combination of prune and butternut squash shares the same flavor profile as vomit.
Just when I was starting to get comfortable with the Little Journey Organics baby food line, that's when I seemed to come across all the weird flavors. In this case, we have prune, apple, and butternut squash all being forced together, a combination that features two things I don't even like.

Still, I'm of the mindset that anything is worth a sampling at least once. Sometimes, there are surprises, such as my choosing the Apple Sweet Potato variety as one of my favorite flavors, despite hating the taste of sweet potatoes. Other times, I get exactly what I'm expecting: Exhibit A, ladies and gentlemen, is this pouch.

Of course, with prune and butternut squash being the main ingredients, it's not going to be sweet, I think that much you can expect right out of the gate. But I didn't expect it to taste as bad as it does—it literally seems like those crazy rascals at Little Journey Organics just decided to throw the only three leftover ingredients they had into a vat and, against their better judgment (and common sense), still decided to put the end result on store shelves.

The apple provides a little bit of sweetness, but it feels completely out of place, like it can't decide if it wants to be sweet or savory, and just settles for tasting like vomit. I know babies are supposed to start off with foods that aren't super-sweet, so that they can get their taste buds acclimated to a variety of different kinds of foods, but if that's the case, I'd much rather go for a jar of carrot baby food, or something much simpler. Why mix these three disparate flavors into one? I'm completely baffled.

At $.79 the value is good, as it is across the line, and this one at least has 70% vitamin C, which is less than most LJO products, but all that is canceled out with an offensive flavor that I can't see anyone being able to force down, child or grownup alike.

Overall: 1.5/10. A putrid combination of three separate fruits and vegetables that should never be mixed together, this is by far the worst of the Little Journey Organics flavors I have tried. The prune and butternut squash provide a non-sweet flavor, while the apple comes through to deliver a baffling serving of sweetness that just feels completely out of place. It also leaves a rather grotesque aftertaste, like a constant reminder of the mistake you just made for having tried something that basically tells you on the label it's going to be terrible. There are much better flavors to treat your kid to, even on the savory side, without having to settle for this mad scientist-created lab abomination.

Little Journey Organics Apple Carrot Baby Food Puree (Aldi)

Apple and carrot, and it's GOOD? Who knew?
We've taken a look at quite a few offerings from Little Journey Organics, the Aldi baby product line if you are just joining us, and we've seen what is mostly an excellent set of products, with a couple of curious failures so bad, they have to be intentional. Now we're going to be looking at a combination that, although very uncommon, actually sounds kind of palatable: Apple Carrot.

Whoa! The first thing I noticed has nothing to do with the flavor, but the packaging, which assures us it “Contains Vitamins A & C.” Now all of the ones we've taken a gander at thus far have had solid vitamin C content, ranging from 35% all the way up to close to 170%. Since there was no specific number mentioned, I expected it to be a small number, and in the case of vitamin C, it is: a mere 8%. But what I wasn't expecting was the vitamin A content, which comes in at a whopping 440%! Pretty astonishing number, and one that many adults could benefit from, too, myself included.

Anyway, the taste is pretty fantastic in this one. I'd say the flavor is about an even 50/50 split, but somehow the carrot actually compliments the apple flavor, without really diminishing from it or tasting out of place. The apple gives it a blast of sweet, and since carrots themselves have a certain sweetness to them, it just goes along with the flow. I could see how some might have to get a little used to the taste—after all, it is a straight-up veggie/fruit combination—but I loved it from the first sip to the last. I'm not sure if this one is my new favorite, but it's pretty close if not.

Like the others, it has the consistency of applesauce, so it's easy for young children to swallow (the package recommends six months and up, though we've started giving our five month old small amounts, and he handles it without problems), and also makes for a decent adult snack on the go, especially considering each package is a mere $.79, and many contain lots of vitamins with a minor amount of sugar (this four oz. package contains 7 grams).

The ingredients remain minimalist here, consisting only of organic apple and carrot purees, along with organic lemon juice concentrate, and vitamin C (in the form of ascorbic acid), the only ingredient not certified organic. Considering the price, this is an excellent value and something that we constantly have on hand, both for our baby, and for ourselves.

Overall: 8/10. An excellent flavor. It's probably a 50/50 split, or thereabouts, between the two titular ingredients, but the tastes actually go pretty well hand-in-hand, contrary to what you might believe. Some may take a couple sips to get used to, but I loved it right out of the gates. It has the consistency of applesauce, so it's easy to get down for a quick snack on the go (or, for its intended use as a food for babies), and this one has a whopping 440% of daily recommended vitamin A. For just $.79, with all ingredients (save for the added vitamin C) certified organic, this is a ridiculous value—one of the best I've seen for baby food.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Whole & Simple Taco Fiesta Frozen Protein Bowl (Aldi)

The tastier of the two Whole & Simple flavor options.
We just looked at Whole & Simple’s sole other offering, a pasty sweet and sour bowl with not a lot of flavor, so now we turn our attention to their taco fiesta bowl, which is made up of one of my least favorite ingredients: rice. Now, I love it with Chinese food, but outside of that sole exception, I’m struggling to think of a delicious rice-heavy dish and am coming up with nothing.

Based on the packaging, though, this one does have some other things that do work in its favor: There are a couple of cheeses at work here, which one would hope could provide some flavor sorely missing from the last bowl, as well as a topping of “tomatillo and salsa roja sauces.” I’ve no idea what salsa roja is, but I enjoy salsa, so if it’s along those same lines, we should get along just fine. And again, I would assume that would provide some extra tastiness. Let’s dig in and see if it does, shall we?

Oh yeah, this is a pretty tasty dish. The rice does play a pretty big part in the flavor—and it also plays an even bigger role in the texture—but that’s okay because there’s a lot surrounding it. The combination of Monterey jack and cheddar cheeses are fantastic, and there’s a generous helping of both to ensure many stringy, cheesy bites. The tomato-heavy sauces are fantastic, but don’t taste too tomato-heavy, so even those with an objection to tomatoes still might enjoy them; it just tastes like a good salsa. There are also lots of beans, but they don’t dry out the dish the way they sometimes tend to, and just like the rice, there’s enough flavor to counterattack the general bean blandness.

It’s good, but comparing the two bowls, it seems like an apples to oranges comparison: These don’t seem like two foods that are a part of the same line. This one has more protein, but with the trade-off of a lot more sodium (600mg), and way more fat (10g). The sweet and sour bowl, for all its imperfections (and there were plenty), at least tasted healthy and fresh, while this one just tastes like a standard bean and rice frozen entrée, even down to the noticeable sodium content, which likes to dance on your tongue. Again, there is some good flavor here, and it was surprisingly a lot more filling than I was expecting (way more so than the sweet and sour bowl), but it just doesn’t feel very light or wholesome at all, which I thought was the whole idea behind this line.

For $2.49 per one-bowl serving, it’s a decent price, though I do feel like every “lean” frozen food line offers something similar for somewhere in that price range, at least on sale, so it doesn’t really scream “savings” to me. The ingredients largely are “natural”, but there are quite a few anti-caking agents and some preservatives; moreso, it would seem, than the sweet and sour bowl above. I'm recommending this, if for no other reason than it's tasty and pretty filling, but as for whether or not it's “whole” or even “simple”, I'll leave that up for you to decide.

Overall: 6.5/10. I usually don't like rice-based dishes, but this had a lot of flavor thanks to the “black bean salsa”, two types of cheese, and two types of salsas on top. But with those added ingredients come some added health hits, as this has quite a bit more fat and sodium than the sweet and sour bowl above. I also feel like every “healthy” frozen food line has a similar “bean and rice”-based offering, and for a similar price, too, so I'm not sure that $2.49 per package really constitutes all that much in the way of value. I must say it was pretty filling, though, so at least there's that. I'm recommending it, because I would get it again, but not sure if it's really as “healthy” or “fresh” as its packaging would lead you to believe.