2011 Taste Test Awards: Grocery Category Winners

The Tasties are back! Find America's best supermarket products in 18 categories. By Cindy Hatcher

Cooking Light Taste Test Awards

Photo: Travis Rathbone

How We Taste Tested

To qualify, foods had to be available in major markets nationwide. We vetted products against nutrition standards, eliminating those that contained artificial trans fats, too much salt, or artificial sugars.

We tasted almost 200 finalists “blind”: The tasters did not know which brands they were sampling until after. Keep in mind that not all products are low-fat: Good nutrition agrees with good eating when high-fat items are chosen for maximum quality and used moderately.

Best Canned Salmon

Photo: Randy Mayor

Canned Salmon

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) lists wild-caught Alaskan salmon as a "best choice" for sustainability. Both our picks earn the MSC's blue check mark.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Deming's Red Sockeye Wild Alaska Salmon. 
A light, pleasant salinity and buttery texture bring this within hailing distance of fresh. Big, tender chunks of moist fish. (Sold as Double Q in the Southeast.)

TASTE TEST AWARD: Wild Planet Wild Alaskan Sockeye.
The firm (but not overly dry) texture is excellent for salads—the fish flakes nicely and holds its shape. No mush here.

Light Ranch Dressing

Photo: Randy Mayor

Light Ranch Dressing

This all-American staple gives a creamy, herbaceous kick to any veggie that crosses its path.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Litehouse Lite Ranch. 
A creamy, thick buttermilk consistency balanced by kicky vinegar, peppery tang, and bright notes of onion and herbs.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Hidden Valley Light Ranch.
An excellent version of the full-fat counterpart. This one gives you a fraction of the fat, but the tangy ranch flavor is full-on.

Cocoa Powder

Photo: Randy Mayor

Cocoa Powder

What's the difference between natural and Dutch process cocoa powders? Natural cocoa is simply finely ground roasted dried cocoa beans. Dutch cocoa has been alkalized to yield a deeper, less acidic flavor. (It's also a bit pricier.) If your recipe doesn't specify, opt for natural.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER (Dutch): Droste.
An intensely bittersweet chocolate concentration that's pleasing to the eye, nose, and palate. This is the high-end cocoa you break out when you want to impress.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER (Natural): Nestlé Toll House. 
Nuanced flavor and a powdery, delicate texture for melt-in-your-mouth baking. Great for everyday baking use.

All cocoa powders were tested using our June 2007 recipe for Bittersweet Brownies.

Brown Rice Flour (Gluten-Free) Pasta

Photo: Randy Mayor

Brown Rice Flour (Gluten-Free) Pasta

Gluten-free pastas are made from nontraditional flours like corn or potato. We chose brown rice pasta because it's sourced from a whole grain.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Jovial.
Closest to traditional semolina pasta flavor with a mild wheat taste, this option boiled the best, with no gummy texture (a problem with some gluten-free pastas). A great pantry staple for simple marinara and veggies.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Tinkyada Pasta Joy. 
Bouncy noodle texture with a nice bite and a flavor reminiscent of basmati rice. Nutty, earthy, and mildly sweet, ready to stand up to acidic tomatoes and rich sauces alike.

Reduced-Fat Plain Potato Chips

Photo: Randy Mayor

Reduced-Fat Plain Potato Chips

They may be fried, but these reduced-fat chips offer taste, texture, and crunch closer to that of full-fat options for just a few more calories and fat grams (much of which is the heart-healthy kind) than baked chips. Manufacturers are able to do this by adding a step post-fry where they quickly remove excess surface oil before it dries.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Lay's Kettle Cooked Reduced Fat.
Just about indistinguishable from their full-fat counterparts—the only thing missing was the grease on our hands after we raided the bag. Great crunch, courtesy of a thick-cut; super-bright salinity that melts away to soft, true potato flavor.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Ruffles Reduced Fat. 
Perfect for the thickest, sloppiest dip. Stays crunchier longer out of the bag than similar ridged potato chips.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Cape Cod Kettle Cooked Reduced Fat. 
Supercrunchy with lots of character—all the twists, bubbles, and folds say "homemade," not "factory."

Applesauce

Photo: Randy Mayor

Applesauce

A cup of this naturally sweet stuff (we skipped sauces with added sugar) counts as one of your recommended 6 to 11 daily servings of fruits and vegetables.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Musselman's. This is applesauce for adults. Tasters raved about the rustic texture, which struck the ideal balance between pulp and pureed. Its fresh aroma and slight tartness would please Granny Smith lovers.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Target Market Pantry. The intensity of the apple flavor really hits in every bite—with just the right sweetness to balance the tart notes.

Light Coconut Milk

Photo: Randy Mayor

Light Coconut Milk

A pantry staple for soups or curries, light coconut milk has other surprising uses: Try it in baked goods, pour a splash in a smoothie, or swap for milk in pancake batter. It also offers at least a 50% reduction in saturated fat.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Native Forest. 
Concentrated coconut flavor that's pleasantly, subtly sweet and nutty with well-balanced texture. It's creamy but not too thick, sweet but not overpoweringly so.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Thai Kitchen. 
The thickest, heartiest, and nuttiest of the coconut milks we tasted. Perfect for curries.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value. Thinner (without being watery) with a milder hit of coconut flavor. Not overly sweet. Does not have the oaky taste found in some light coconut milks—best in a dessert recipe.

Bean Burritos

Photo: Randy Mayor

Bean Burritos

Because sometimes, darn it, you just have to have a bean burrito. Here are some options that don't break the sodium or sat fat bank.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: CedarLane Low-Fat Beans, Rice, and Cheese. 
Combine just the right blend of zesty spices with perfectly cooked beans, then wrap it in a soft, chewy flour tortilla, and you get a frozen burrito that rivals any fast-food competitors (with about half the sodium).

TASTE TEST AWARD: Evol Veggie Fajita.
Brown rice and black beans render it hearty and filling, while sautéed peppers and a sweet corn salsa add tons of flavor without relying on sat fat–heavy cheese.

Shredded Wheat Cereal (Frosted)

Photo: Randy Mayor

Shredded Wheat Cereal (Frosted)

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Malt-O-Meal Frosted Mini Spooners.
The least expensive of the bunch took our top honors with its old-fashioned traditional taste. The airy biscuits have a hearty sprinkling of sugar and a crisp, light texture.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Three Sisters Sweet Wheat.
A sweet crunch hits the taste buds, transitioning into a wheaty, earthy aftertaste. Great depth of flavor.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Target Market Pantry.
Its toasted whole-wheat notes are complemented—rather than obscured—by the sweet frosting. Tall, fluffy biscuits don't lose their crunchy mojo in milk.

Shredded Wheat Cereal (Unfrosted)

Photo: Randy Mayor

Shredded Wheat Cereal (Unfrosted)

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Kashi Autumn Wheat. 
Toasty whole-grain flavor complements the bite of the biscuit. Nice pillowy consistency.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Kellogg's Unfrosted Mini-Wheats. 
A texture rock star. Nice loud crunch and a real depth to the spun wheat.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Post Honey Nut. 
Honey lends snackability and makes it a good kid-friendly option. Great crunch.

Reduced-Sodium Black Beans

Photo: Randy Mayor

Reduced-Sodium Black Beans

Canned beans are a healthy-kitchen workhorse, but regular versions are too salty. Drain, rinse, add to soups and stews. And even salads. Or whir in the food processor with garlic, cumin, and olive oil for a quick dip.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Bush's.
Cooked perfectly, yielding the best bite with a creamy center. Nice salty balance with a subtle smoky aftertaste.

TASTE TEST AWARD / Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value No Salt Added.
These hearty beans hold up well during the canning process—firm, yet still tender.

Toasted Sesame Oil

Photo: Randy Mayor

Toasted Sesame Oil

You used to have to trek to a gourmet shop for good sesame, pistachio, almond, and walnut oils, but now they share shelf space with corn oil at better grocery stores. These are healthy oils, and the variation in texture, flavor, and bite is wonderful. Use them as you might a top-shelf virgin olive oil: a light drizzle as the perfect finishing accent.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: La Tourangelle.
Its lovely sesame aroma evokes freshly roasted coffee with a hint of caramel; flavor is toasted without being too bitter. The priciest option we tested, but well worth the expense.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Whole Foods 365.
A nutty, nuanced oil that's bold but not bitter. Intensely roasty, toasty flavor with a clean finish.

Steel-Cut Oatmeal

Photo: Randy Mayor

Steel-Cut Oatmeal

Oatmeal has become trendy everywhere from the drive-through to high-end breakfast spots because it's the ultimate hearty, healthy breakfast: full of fiber and protein.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Bob's Red Mill Organic Whole Grain.
Pleasantly chewy with complex flavor that stands up to any add-ons (try a sprinkling of dried fruit or nuts). The distinctive grains had a rice-like texture that, when cooked, reminded one tester of risotto.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Arrowhead Mills.
Yields a thick, delicious bowl that you'll want to loosen up with low-fat milk.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Hodgson Mill.
A nutty whole-grain flavor and texture with the right amount of bite make for a filling start to the day.

Steamable Frozen Green Beans

Photo: Randy Mayor

Steamable Frozen Green Beans

Frozen veggies can offer nutrition advantages over fresh, if fresh have sat in the supermarket or on a truck for a long time; with frozen, nutrients are locked in immediately after harvest.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Target Archer Farms.
Your standard steam-in-the-bag bean goes upscale with these haricots verts--like beauties. They maintained their flavor and texture, despite being frozen. Grassy, crunchy, and crisp, they're the perfect go-to for the time-strapped cook.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Green Giant Valley Fresh Steamers.
They maintained their bright kelly-green hue throughout the steaming process, and their sweet, earthy flavor wasn't lost in a waxy shell.

Salsa Verde

Photo: Randy Mayor

Salsa Verde

Stir a dollop into soups, wake up sleepy eggs, or use as a shortcut for guacamole: Mash an avocado, mix in some salsa verde, and you're good to go.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Walmart World Table.
This is a chip clinger with cumin, salt, and heat all getting their turn on the palate. Tangy with a smoky endnote—you can tell the jalapeños were roasted properly.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Mission.
Thick body with nice chunks of fresh tomatillo and lots of jalapeño seeds to add textural interest.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Frontera.
Rich onion flavor with tomatillo tang. Smoky and forward (this is not a subtle salsa).

Whole-Grain Frozen Waffles

Photo: Randy Mayor

Whole-Grain Frozen Waffles

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Van's 8 Whole Grains Multigrain.
Nice deep wells (ready to capture a pool of syrup) and a fluffy thickness that calls to mind a Belgian waffle. A hint of cinnamon adds interest.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value.
Crisp on the outside with a tenderly chewy middle. Not overly sweet, so they're the perfect accompaniment for maple syrup.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Nature's Path Flax Plus. The toasty taste and complex, hearty texture let you know these waffles are truly whole grain. Additional crunch from flaxseeds makes them an excellent—and extra nutritious—pairing for a smear of peanut butter.

Feta Cheese

Photo: Randy Mayor

Feta Cheese

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Fage. 
A bright, lemony flavor without too much salt (it had the lowest sodium content of the fetas we tasted: 180mg in 2 tablespoons). Its texture is moist and creamy, yet firm and crumbly.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Athenos Chunk.
Sophisticated, aged flavor. Slightly drier, so it would work best crumbled over salads or pasta.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Kolios.
The creamiest of the bunch, perfect for melting in hot pasta. Nice tangy flavor that ends with a zesty bang.

Balsamic Vinegar

Photo: Randy Mayor

Balsamic Vinegar

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value.
For a budget balsamic, this one packs a thick, rich punch. Ready to drizzle or glaze grilled chicken or salmon.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Pompeian. 
Made for marinades, this tangy vinegar has a slightly citrusy aftertaste.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Progresso. 
Provides a sharp contrast and less sweetness; perfect for a simple vinaigrette.

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