Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Whole & Simple Sweet & Sour Frozen Protein Bowl (Aldi)

WARNING: Does not look a thing like that picture.
I'm pretty much a sucker for frozen “bowls”, especially from Aldi. They're just real easy to make (toss in the microwave and voila!), usually look very tasty, and are generally affordable, since they are single serving meals. Oh, and because they're single serving meals, they're great to have around the house for when one of us is alone and just want a quick bite to eat. I didn't recall seeing these in their circular (which I usually pore over with a fine-tooth comb), but when I saw them in person I didn't even hesitate before throwing both styles into my cart.

These are taking advantage of the latest trend of “health foods” that's sweeping the nation. Actually, all of Aldi is going in this direction: even the items at the register—typically the “impulse buy” junk food section of the supermarket—have been replaced in favor of single serve kids' squeezies, trail mixes, and nutrition bars. Pretty clever marketing, if you ask me, and just one of the many ways they continue to drive additional traffic through their stores.

As I've been doing lately, with generally bad results, I merely went off the look of this box rather than actually reading it, so what I thought were little bits of chicken happened to be little pieces of tofu. I wasn't the least bit upset, though, because I've actually always wanted to try tofu (even though I more or less understand them to be flavorless pieces of healthy nothingness, but hey, healthy is good). The rest of the ingredient list, for the most part, is actually pretty straightforward, with only a couple preservatives and unpronounceables—it's pretty much a “what you see is what you get” kind of a thing, with noodles, carrots, cabbage, bell peppers, green onion, and broccoli all tossed with brown noodles and completed with some sriracha sauce, and something called gochujang sauce, which I have never heard of before.

Oh well, after a short time in the microwave, it was time to dig in! My wife was completely turned off by the aroma, which she described as smelling like “fake food”. It does smell a little different than I was expecting—the “sweet and sour” smells a little off compared to most frozen dishes, with a little hint of something bitter maybe—but it also smells “fresher” in a way. Going by appearance, though, it looks like a herbivore just threw up into a bowl. In other words, the taste could pretty much go either way.

I will say the finished product looks nothing like the picture on the front of the box (surprise!): The image used makes the noodles look like lo mein, but the end result looks nothing like a lo mein: the noodles are much sadder, and shorter, and thinner in person. The texture, which is made to look smooth in the photo, is actually rougher, as the sauce is more a “paste” than an actual sauce. These definitely aren't dealbreakers, but it did make me wonder what exactly I had gotten into.

I don't eat “healthy” stuff very often, and if “healthy” had a specific taste, well it would be somewhere along the lines of this. The sweet and sour flavor takes some getting used to, because it's not nearly as “sweet” as it generally is in frozen dishes, but it's edible. The rest of the flavoring is pretty much comprised of vegetables, with a little blast of heat, presumably from the sriracha sauce. The tofu gives it a much-needed hint of soft texture, considering the rest of the dish pretty much consists solely of hard, crunchy veggies. All in all, the taste is very straightforward, and very low-key, compared to most heavily-processed frozen meals, and something that I'm going to need to get a little used to.

Healthwise, I'm honestly not sure how this compares to similar things, and I'm left wondering if the health trade-off is really worth the overall blandness of the dish. There's still a pretty ridiculous amount of sodium (400mg, though I guess that's less than most frozen foods), and a pretty (un)healthy dose of sugars (21g) per bowl. Fat is kept to a minimum (2g), and there's 244mg of potassium, and 5g of protein, both plusses. On the vitamin side, there's 36% vitamin A, 70% vitamin C, and 6% each of iron and calcium. That's it. I was honestly expecting a bit more, but I do suppose these are better numbers than you'll find in, say, a Lean Cuisine.

At a price of $2.49, it's a little more expensive than what I'd usually get for a single-serve bowl, but considering the ingredients are largely natural, with minimal preservatives, I suppose this is a good price point for that. This kind of stuff isn't something I would get all the time, and it isn't all that filling (I ate it as dinner and still needed something else afterward to feel full), but if you're dieting or watching what you eat, this can provide a little snack with a minimal health hit, at least when compared to many other offerings down the frozen food aisle.

Overall: 5.5/10. I don't have much experience in “healthy” foods like this, but I'm wondering if the relatively bland taste trade-off is worth the moderate health benefits. Sodium and sugars still seem high to me (though, to be sure, lower than many frozen entrees), and the vitamin front only brings us 36% vitamin A, and 70% vitamin C, which can pretty much be found everywhere (there are also small amounts of calcium and iron). On the plus side, though, there are no “natural flavors”, and very little in the way of preservatives (some are only found in the sriracha sauce). The $2.49 price tag seems to be pretty decent for something marketed as a “wholesome” food, though it left me wanting a lot more when it was all said and done. I might get this again, but I think for the most part I'll stick to more flavorful foods that will just kill me quicker.

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