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.