Saturday, January 14, 2012

PRODUCT REVIEW: WhoNu? Nutrition Rich Cookies

The shtick behind WhoNu? cookies, aside from the baffling spelling, is that they are "healthy" cookies. I have to admit, this is something that I had long wondered: why had no company made cookies with added nutrients? I always assumed that it could be done cheaply and with little effect on the final product's taste. Well, WhoNu? has confirmed this. It can done.

Each serving of three cookies has 160 calories and a whole bevy of nutrients. Very cool. I'm glad to see a company trying to take something that is traditionally unhealthy and make it healthier. As the box states, the cookies have as much fiber as a bowl of oatmeal, as much calcium as a cup of milk, and as much vitamin C as a cup of blueberries. There is more on the back of the box that I won't bother listing.

Before I talk about the taste, I want to talk about the philosophy. I am very dedicated to dietary health, and as such, I don't like dodges. Not for some vaguely Christian moral reason about not enjoying anything, but because unhealthy foods are unhealthy. Trying to take something unhealthy and make it sorta'-healthy does not eliminate our reliance on the product. The same principle applies to diet sodas. Yes, they are zero calories, but the goal is not to continue drinking soda while simply dodging the calories with some ersatz sugar. The goal is to stop drinking soda altogether.

At the same time, sweets and treats are great. They are an important part of anyone's diet because we very much should be enjoying all elements of the culinary world. Cakes, pies, cookies, and candy, while something that should not be eaten constantly, should be eaten every now and then. They are great! And if, in your periodic treat-eating, you can find a product that is healthier than other, comparable products, it only makes sense to eat it.

So, I guess, my review comes with a caveat. These are STILL COOKIES. They are high in calories and do not fill you up. Just because they are better than other cookies does not mean that they are better than eggs and toast. With that said, on to the review.

These cookies are excellent. No, they are not gourmet, but the company was obviously not shooting for that. They wanted to make a direct competitor to Chips Ahoy and Oreos. I didn't do a direct taste test, but I could tell from memory that the Oreos rip-offs taste slightly different. They are not quite as sweet, but at the same time, they have a slightly better chocolate flavor.

The Chips Ahoy wannabes taste identical to their target. Two of my friends said that they tasted slightly different, though. I would have been happy that the cookies are made with no HFCS and no hydrogenated oils, but they went one step farther and loaded them with nutrients and fiber. Unfortunately, the Oreos use palm oil, which is made with the blood of baby orangutans. Cute ones.

The actual nutrition levels are quite high. These would literally be a better breakfast choice than many cereals. As such, it is impressive that the flavor is the same. If you treat these as cookies, and simply replace extant Chips Ahoy consumption with these, I cannot recommend them enough. But the danger of using them as replacements for otherwise healthy foods is very real. I repeat: these are cookies.

Truly, they needed to be cookies! These needed to not be health food. We already have healthy "cookies" littering the shelves of Whole Foods across the nation. Instead, what the market needed was Chips Ahoy without the crappy ingredients.They did that and did it perfectly. These taste like cookies. Are they the best cookies? No. But neither are Chips Ahoy. So if you eat Chips Ahoy, stop, and start eating these.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

PRODUCT REVIEW: Starbucks Blonde Roast

Starbucks is making a big deal out of their first light roast, and rightfully so. This is far and away the lightest roast that they have ever produced. In fact, I think that they went further than they needed. Most people would have been happy with a coffee that was merely not charred to a crisp.

This shift in strategy is coming in response to huge pressure from McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts, both of whom offer lighter coffee that, in many taste tests, is significantly preferred over Starbucks house roast, and, as near as I can tell, universally preferred over Pike Place. I have never been a fan of the 'Bucks' blasted house roast, and Pike Place is too bland. Blonde, specifically the Willow Blend, is much better.

The light brown appearance and healthy, undamaged beans bode well.
The roast is such that there is little-to-no oil on the surface of the bean and has a very light-brown color. Compare this to oily-as-hell and nearly black beans of Starbucks' usual selection.

This bloom is slightly down from its peak. Not bad.
I liked that the beans appeared to be fresh, with a much better scent and bloom during brewing. I don't know how well the beans will hold up after sitting on a grocery shelf for awhile, but perhaps Starbucks was forced to use fresher beans because they couldn't hide low quality with an obscene roast.

The nose is significantly better than anything else Starbucks makes, both from the beans, grounds, and final brew. Talking about flavor notes in the coffee is not an academic affair like with everything else at Starbucks because the terroir of the beans has not be cruelly executed.

The initial flavor profile is obviously very similar to Starbucks' ordinary roast, but there's more of it there. Notes of toasted bread, berries, and small amounts of caramel, peanut butter, and chocolate are all noticeable. It is a much more interesting and pleasant roast to drink.

There is a huge caveat to this, though. The coffee brewed in Starbucks locations is weak, watery, and lacking all punch. The Veranda blend is partly to blame: it isn't as punchy as the Willow blend; but that's only part of the story.

Both home preparation methods produced wildly superior cups to what I got at-location. The siphon-pot (3:30 heat, no cold compress) brought out acidity to the detriment of the coffee. It gave it way too much bite and an astringency on the finish that was not hidden by milk. I didn't bother with an espresso double, but the espresso single worked well. I certainly would not opt for this method, but it wasn't bad.

The sweet spot was hit with pour-over, specifically the Clever Coffee Dripper (4-minute steep). It brought out every drop of rich flavor from the beans and produced none of the biting acidity of the siphon pot. There is much more body hidden in these beans than Starbucks' preparation method would indicate.

The brew at Starbucks is not something that I would buy. It is adequate, but compared to the drip coffee available from smaller cafes, and even sometimes McDonald's, it doesn't justify its higher price. The whole beans in a bag, on the other hand, are something that I would certainly buy. While, as always, I recommend finding a local roaster for maximum freshness and quality, both critical for good coffee, blonde is some of the best coffee that you can buy on the shelf. It more than earns its recommendation.

Starbucks Blonde Roast: RECOMMENDED

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Peanut Butter Comparison Part Deux

My first, and thus far only, product comparison cum taste test was for peanut butter, which I did, like, a hundred years ago. That analysis resulted in Skippy Natural easily beating all of the other sweetened peanut butters. Since then, Jif has also launched a natural version of their peanut butter, but after trying it, my previous conclusion stands: Skippy Natural is the best sweetened PB available on the market.

In retrospect, I regret not having included natural peanut butters. My rationale was that, since sweetened versions make up the vast majority of sales, an analysis that focused on them would be more useful to buyers. Since then, though, I have given natural versions a fair shake, and let me tell you... once I tasted the rich, delicious, peanutty goodness of natural butters, I will never, ever, EVER go back.

Obviously, that makes the winner of this comparison a forgone conclusion; Skippy is most certainly not taking home any prizes. But does that mean that all natural butters are better than Skippy? Read on!

Yes. Yes, it does. You must admit, I can never be accused of circumlocution. Skippy is inferior to essentially every brand of natural peanut butter on the market. But within the natural brands, there is a great deal of difference.

I tried to find multiple natural, unsweetened peanut butters, but the market is pretty thin.1 For example, aside from Skippy Natural, Wal-Mart carries Smucker's and nothing else.2 Target, with a higher SES target demographic, carries a wider selection, but the majority of their offerings are still sweetened and buffered with some sort of oil. Real, natural peanut butter is, for some reason, just above a niche market. This is sad, because I think that if more people allowed it to become part of their diet, they would wonder how they ever did without.

And speaking of without, further ado. On to the ratings.

Smucker's Natural: 95
Delicious in every way I could expect a peanut butter to be. It's rich, with little bite, and fabulously mellow roll-off into a rich, roasty aftertaste. It tastes the best, but, strangely, I don't usually buy it. Why? Wouldn't you like to know!

Teddy: 88
Teddy has a more acidic bite in the primary taste. It's not as mellow as Smucker's and the roll-off isn't as smooth. It does have a subtle sweetness that Smucker's does not, which is pleasant. Ironically, I buy this more often than Smucker's. Why would I do something so silly? A cool trick to prevent a requisite mix of the peanut butter with every serving is to stick it in the refrigerator, which stops the oils from separating. This also increases the viscosity of the butter, which is helpful with natural PB as when it is warm it has a tendency to ooze out of sandwiches.

Teddy remains soft and spreadable when it is cold. Smucker's, oddly, acquires the consistency of cement after a couple of days in the fridge. This is only fixed with a warming period and a little re-mix. I find this annoying enough to avoid Smucker's and buy Teddy. Smucker's Chunky is not afflicted with this problem, but sometimes I just want creamy, dammit.

Woodstock Farms: 87
This small organic brand lacks the nutty texture of Smucker's and Teddy and is much more comparable to traditional butters like Jif and Skippy. It is very smooth and thus blankets the palate more, but this actually had the counter-intuitive effect of attenuating the flavor. It has a distinct sweetness to it and is brighter than Smucker's, but without the acidic bite of Teddy. Its smell is very weak compared to the rich, peanut flavor that explodes from a jar of Teddy or Smucker's. As far as flavor goes, I like this about as much as Teddy. But that nutty, somewhat crunchy texture of Teddy and Smucker's is far more appealing to me.

Smucker's Organic: 82
Almost like a cross between Teddy and Smucker's, it has a significantly weaker flavor than either. It has no bite, but it is also missing all of the mellow roast of Smucker's Natural. Quite a disappointment. While that bite from Teddy is unpleasant, it has a richer peanut flavor, making it better. Smuck-Org, as I shall now call it, also suffers from the same problem as Smuck-Nat in that it turns into carbonite when chilled. Letting it warm, re-mixing, then cooling alleviates the problem for a day or two, then it becomes carbonite again.

Skippy Natural: 60
Once having the rich, smooth sweetness of natural peanut butters, Skippy is positively cloying and simple. The taste is hollow and has an almost metallic tinge to it. Because of the addition of palm oil as a stabilizer, the butter has an oily yet tasteless quality to it. Real peanut butter is oily, but the peanut oil tastes like peanuts. I could never go back to this peanut butter. If your kids absolutely can't do without sugar in their PB, this is certainly the best variety to buy. But trust me, keep some deliciously-delicious natural PB for yourself.


1: There is a wider variety of peanut butters available online, including variants from Smucker's such as Adams and Laura Scudder's, and smaller companies like Krema. The problem is that most of the time, you cannot purchase a single jar online. You can only buy a pack of three or more. If you do not like the peanut butter, you must either grin and bear it, give it away to friends, or throw the peanut butter away.

2: I didn't include any almond butter, pecan butter, or peanut butter that has been blended with something, since that isn't peanut butter.