Monday, January 16, 2017

Kroger Sweet and Salty Almond Granola Bar, Kroger Xtreme Trail Mix Chewy Bars: Peanut and Chocolate (Kroger)

I really hate shopping at Kroger, as I do with most large supermarket chains, but certain life events have lead us to go there more often.  For this reason, as well as others, we will now be including their store-branded, private label products amongst our roster of goods here on Budget Food Review.  And speak of the devil, here are two to kick things off!


God, I despise the experience of shopping at Kroger. But these are pretty tasty little bars.

My sweet, loving wife picked me up a box of these to take to work as a snack, so I eagerly dug in. Without a big lead-in, let's delve into the details:

I've had the national brand before, but only in the peanut variation...I've tended to stay away from almonds because I'm not really all that into “serious” nuts. Well that was my loss, because this is even better than the peanut version. For starters, that tends to be a nut overload, because the peanut one is dipped in peanut butter, which then leads to a lot of peanut. I really like that one, but I have to be in the mood. This one is still super-sweet, but the almond is joined with a layer of “yogurt flavored coating”. Okay, why they couldn't use something real instead of something made up of "yogurt flavoring" is beyond me, but that's not for me to decide.

Both flavors compliment each other very well. It's very sweet, and don't think for a second it's healthy just because it has “almond” and “granola” in the title, but as a little pick-me-up, it's a great little treat. The almond also seems to be covered in some kind of sweet glaze, so it's not as dry (or healthy) as normal, but I'm not going to complain about that, because I hate plain almonds. I would definitely get these again.

On the flipside, the ingredient list is somehow five miles long, and filled with a plethora of weird ingredients. I'm sure they all serve a purpose, but it's definitely eye-opening, considering oat bars seem to be one of the easier ones to make “all natural”. (Don't you just need oats, toppings, and a binding agent?) There's also a plethora of sugar and fat, with brown sugar (via the oats), sugar, AND high fructose corn syrup appearing relatively high in the list, culminating in a total of 12g for the entire bar. That might not sound like much, and there are certainly things with much more than that, but given the size of the bar, it's not great.

Still, “healthy” isn't always on the list of criteria when selecting something to eat, so despite its weaknesses, I would definitely get these again. If you just want a great-tasting bar that will put something in your stomach to tide you over until you can eat a full meal, this one will help do the trick.

Overall: 7.5/10. It's very sweet, so if you're not in the mood for sweets, stay away, but this blending of granola, almond, and yogurt “flavored” coating is pretty darn tasty. Great texture, too, as it's all so deliciously chewable. Definitely worth a look if you're into this sort of thing; I would gladly get it again in the future. The only unknown variable is the price, as I was not with her when she bought it...assuming these are $1.99 or less, and I'm sure they are, they provide decent value for six bars. Also of note: there is quite a bit of fat and sugar in each bar, so don't think that it's “healthy” just because it has “granola” and “almond” in the title...manufacturer's cleverly try to cash in on health fads by including such keywords in the titles, despite the product being loaded with unhealthy ingredients. But if “healthy” isn't in your criteria and you just want a great-tasting snack to tide you over, this is an excellent choice.


I wouldn't wish a shopping trip to Kroger on my worst enemy. Also, these bars are only alright.

I'm not big into trail mix (again, my wife picked these up for me), so you'll probably need to adjust the final score accordingly: if you love the stuff, add a couple points, while if you hate it even more than I do, then stay away.

That being said, this is a decent little bar, which I took to work with me and basically ate as a breakfast in the mornings. The main reason I don't like trail mix is because of the raisins...when I was younger, I was huge into the dried fruit, but ever since I was around 10 years old, I just couldn't eat them much anymore. The flavor of the raisins is strong enough to overpower almost everything else in these bars. I don't appreciate that so much, but again, that just comes down to personal preference.

On the flip side, there are two different kinds of chocolate, which does help to at least neutralize the raisin flavor somewhat. Neither of the chocolates (chips and circular candies) are all that sweet, which is also a good thing, because it prevents it from being almost overwhelmingly so, like the above almond bars. If you like trail mix, chances are you are really going to like these.

The same issues for the almond bars apply however: despite the even simpler setup (there's no coating at the bottom), the ingredient list is incredibly long, and the bars somehow have even higher fat and sugar content than the almond bars! Talk about a surprise! We can expect some fat and sugar to derive from the chocolate, but I wouldn't have expected it to be that much considering the lack of intense sweetness. The sticky binding agent is also a bit of a problem, as it sucks away any feeling that this may be “all-natural” (and is probably the main culprit behind the dozens of seemingly-unnecessary ingredients).
It's a decent bar that once again comes down to price...assuming these are $1.99 or less (again, my wife picked these up so I'm unsure) then I'd consider these a worthy value; anything more and they're completely overpriced. Either way, I probably wouldn't get these again, but they were worth a try.

Overall: 6/10. I'm not really into trail mix, so adjust my score accordingly to your tolerance for the peanut/chocolate/raisin mixture, but these bars are pretty decent for throwing something in your stomach first thing in the morning. I thought there were too many raisins, which was the overwhelming flavor, but there is a good amount of chocolate, thanks to both chocolate candies and chips. The bar feels unnecessarily sticky thanks to the binding agent used, which kind of disrupts the feeling that this might be a “natural”, “healthy” bar (it's not), but it's edible and that's sometimes all I'm looking for in a snack.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Crofton 15-Piece Cookware Set (Aldi)

I'm not quite ready to make a full return to the world of blogging, but I do feel the need to weigh in on this product since they're offering it again this year.  More specifically, I feel the need to urge everyone to completely avoid it, because it's absolute junk.

Last year, my wife and I were in a tight financial situation during Christmastime...she had lost her job back in July, and was just getting settled into a new one, which paid only minimum wage, the week of Thanksgiving. In other words, we did not have the luxury of a "disposable income", and so I wanted to get her something practical for Christmas; since she had been asking for a new set of pots and pans for what felt like ever, I initially jumped at the chance to get these for her when I saw them in last year's Aldi ad.  After all, her current ones were setting off our smoke alarms, as the nonstick coating had almost completely worn off--if that's not a sign that it's time to get new ones, then I don't know what is.  As most of you know, cookware sets are often twice as much as the price Aldi was wanting for this, and so I figured I could fit this into the budget, thereby making both of us happy.

However, I never go into a situation without thorough research, and so research I did.  My main point of contention was the specific mention of "Xylan Plus" coating, which I knew nothing about.  After finding information about it--from the manufacturer's own website, no less--my fears about purchasing this only grew.  The manufacturer of Xylan only gave Xylan Plus a 4-6 rating (out of 10), and basically said it was one of their weaker nonstick coatings.  Initially, I decided that I was just going to pass, and figured I could find a better set for around the same price at a place like Big Lots.  But I kept coming back to the $40 price tag, and eventually talked myself into getting it anyway.  The rationalization was that our finances should be completely in order by the following Christmas, and even a bad set of pots and pans would last a year, at which point I could use our financial gain to buy her an even better set (NOTE: Our finances are still not sorted out, and have gotten even weirder, thanks to the arrival of a month-old newborn to our family...but this is beside the point).

So I bought it for her, and she was happy to receive it.  In fact, it would be the only thing I bought for her for Christmas that year.

Long story short, the coating wore off from the most-used pans in the set within six months of purchasing it--and that's being generous, because according to my wife it was actually closer to ONE month. She might cook a little bit more than the average person, but we're not talking about anything like we own a catering business and were using them fifty times a week, or something--with just standard use (three or four uses per week to start), these wore down incredibly fast. The coating on the large saucepan is now completely gone, and bits and pieces have worn off to a clearly noticeable degree on every other pan in the collection.  Our last set (Rachael Ray) had lasted us around 7 years, with the same frequency of use, so even with the weaker coating, this is inexcusable.

Thankfully, my wife got knocked up and didn't even need to use the pans for the last three months, when she was too big, and tired, to even think about cooking, which has bought me some more time to get her a better set. But even at $40, this is a complete waste, unless maybe you plan on using this as a backup, or rarely ever cook.  Aldi rarely disappoints me, but it completely shit the bed on this one; I don't want to see anyone else get ripped off like we did.

OVERALL: 0/10. A junk collection of shitty pots and pans that literally started wearing down within A MONTH of my wife using them. Now, a little less than a year later, all the coating is gone on the large saucepan, and the others are all missing large, noticeable chunks throughout. I researched these after seeing them in last year's ad and figured even the low-rated Xylan Plus coating would last at least a year, thereby buying me more time to save up for a better set, but the reality was much worse than that. Unless this is going to be an infrequently-used backup, or unless you rarely do any cooking and just want to have a set on hand for when you have to, this set is a complete waste of money at any price. No matter how low your budget is, please, please PLEASE learn from my mistakes and spend a few more dollars on a name-brand'll be glad you did. Hands-down the worst purchase I ever made at an Aldi store.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

SimplyNature Kids Fruit-a-Riffic Punch, and Berry-Licious Lemonade (Aldi)

Not for children.  All water, barely any juice.
In case it's not obvious how much of a child I am, I have wanted to try a good number of the items in the SimplyNature Kids line, but have yet to do so. All of their products seem really “fun”, at least in the way advertisements make children's food products seem “hip” and “cool”, even though all you do is eat them, which isn't fun at all. The packaging is also adorable, sticking to a simple color scheme, while not going overboard on the cutesy designs (for example, the bottle to the Fruit-ariffic Punch features a real picture of strawberries, grapes, and watermelon, complete with drawn-on faces and appendages on a couple of them).

I'm honestly unsure of why I have never tried anything, despite always taking an interest in the kids items that are available. A few things have been a little too expensive for me, and of course there have been a couple that just didn't appeal to my tastes, either then or now, but for the most part the products they offer speak to the inner child in me. My wife is the same way, so why she has never asked me to get something from that line is an even more baffling quandary.

At the risk of sounding like a complete pedophile, I'm happy to say that my SimplyNature Kids virginity has finally been taken! As soon as I saw Fruit-ariffic Punch in the Aldi ad, I added it to the shopping list. I mean, the juice of grapes, strawberries, AND watermelons?! Two out of those three are some of my favorite fruits; the fact that it is organic only sealed the deal. I'm not one of those people that are hugely in to organics—I think the price trade-off is ridiculous, especially considering the food corporations themselves are largely responsible for defining what constitutes “organic” in the first place—but if the price is right, I'm willing to give them a shot. This didn't even make it to the fridge before I eagerly dove in...

Kids are going to hate this...hell, I almost hate it. It tastes like how I remember sports drinks tasting when I was younger: all water, with just a hint of juice for flavor. There's almost no sweetness whatsoever. I'm not suggesting that children need a boatload of sugar, but they do seem to like things that have taste, and this barely even registers on that scale. I get that there are no added sweeteners, so added sugars would be out of the question, but maybe just adding a touch of extra juice would have made it a little more palatable. Furthermore, I always make the mistake of assuming things when it comes to “healthier” beverages; in this case, I just assumed it would be 100% juice. It's only 30%, with water no doubt making up the remaining 70%.

There are a few pros (though they don't come anywhere near outweighing the cons in my book): Each 8 oz. serving does get you 100% Vitamin C, which is a good thing, as is the mere 35mg of sodium and 10g of sugar, to go along with 45 calories per serving. The price tag is also somewhere around the $1.99 range, if I remember correctly, which puts it on the more affordable end of organic juices. But in the end, it just feels like a gyp, considering a majority of what you're paying for is nothing more than water.

I think this is a product that's completely mis-branded: there's certainly a niche for this kind of drink with everyone looking to cut back on sugar and such these days, but marketing this toward kids is completely moronic. It tastes a lot like the popular brand of vitamin-infused water; with different packaging to appeal to grown-ups, along with the “organic” and “natural” talking points on the bottle, it could serve a purpose and appeal to a certain demographic. But as a kids product? Not a chance.

Overall: 3.5/10. This stuff is awful as both juice, and a kids' product. It's severely watered down, with hints of organic juices from concentrate all that there is in the way of flavor. What kid is going to drink this junk? It does taste like the popular brand of vitamin-infused water, so I could see it work with a complete re-branding (maybe as an addition to the Fit & Active line, with a focus on the “organic” aspect), and the health benefits are pretty good (only 35 mg of sodium, 10g of sugar, 45 calories, and 100% vitamin C per 8 oz. serving). But as a product marketed for children? I would only use it as a form of punishment.

Tastes like this is 90% water.

Well, we're back with a SimplyNature Kids organic juice product, and if you read my review of the Fruitastic Fruit Punch, you pretty much know what to expect this time around.

Once again, this is basically a severely watered-down juice product that I can't see any kid enjoying. The taste is very, very light, and there's virtually no detectable sweetness. Despite all this, though, I will say that I found this one to be better than the fruit punch, because the lightness benefits this one a little more.

Whereas fruit punch is one of my favorite flavors, and should also be—as the name suggests—a collection of powerful-tasting fruit juices, lemonade can sometimes be a little too sour or tangy when full strength. Since the flavor is weaker, this prevents that from ever being an issue. The berries unfortunately also suffer the same fate, and although I would have liked for those to taste much stronger, there's really nothing I can do about it.

Honestly, I'm starting to kind of appreciate these a little bit more, because I can't stand the taste of water, and don't always want to add those drink mix powders, which are made out of chemicals and “natural flavors”. These provide a nice alternative to water, with a mild flavor, a mere 35 mg of sodium, and a scant 10g of sugar (per 8 oz. serving), while also providing 100% vitamin C and 31% juice (weird percentage). It's not something that I can sit back and sip, but I've found myself going to this more and more when I'm thirsty and want something with a little bit of flavor.  Rather than soda or some other junk, I've also been drinking this for dinner quite a bit lately.

That being said, I think I've had my fill of these for the rest of the year, but this is a pretty healthy drink that tastes like I remember sports drinks tasting in the '90s. If you want a throwback to when they were predominantly water, with some flavoring thrown in as an afterthought, here you go.

Overall: 5/10. I still can't see any kid in the world liking this, and still believe that they're catering this to the wrong demographic, but this watered-down juice product is kind of growing on me as a (slightly) more flavorful alternative to water. Whereas the fruit punch disappointed me because I really like the flavor kick of a normal fruit punch, this Berry-Licious Lemonade works better as a diluted juice because, at the very least, it prevents the lemonade part from being too sour. The main drawback to this is that the berry flavoring also suffers the same fate—if that was a wee-bit stronger, this might have been even better. It's decent, but I wouldn't put this anywhere near a normal child, and I can't say that I'll even buy them again at any point in my life.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Fit & Active Chicken Alfredo Florentine, and Five Cheese Lasagna (Aldi)


Did not realize how terribly blurry this picture was when I took it.

TV dinners, as disgusting and unfoodlike as they are, still can fill a viable role in the right person's life. Take me, for example. I lost several pounds after being on a certain medication, and these usually offer just the right combination of cholesterol, fat, and sodium to help me get right back on track. They also function as a quick meal, or more likely in my case, a quick snack to hold me over between meals.
This reminds me of fettuccine alfredo TV dinners that I've had over the years, and have tended to like (although Aldi's version, which they no longer sell, wasn't very good at all), at least based on look. I was expecting a smell similar to rich, creamy alfredo, but this had a different smell entirely, one that said I should just put the fork down and walk away. But I decided to ignore the ominous scent and dove right in...

Sometimes, the nose can be a deceptive force. There are cheeses that smell like hell, but that taste delicious. Ditto for beverages, and any number of other edible items. Unfortunately, in this case, it was right...the sauce here tastes more like a gravy for dumplings than it does any kind of sauce that should be adorning a pasta. Even though there seems to be a lot of sauce, the flavor in each bite dissipates before the noodle is swallowed, leaving behind the bland taste of a lame, frozen fettuccine noodle, mixed with a taste that I could swear is cardboard packaging.

Ironically, the creepy chicken is probably the best component here, as it seems to be seasoned (or “naturally flavored”) with something that would approach “delicious” were the rest of the dish not so underpar. Worst of all, and the reason I haven't bought a frozen dinner like this from Aldi in a long time, is the $1.19 price tag: similar brands with far more options offer the same kinds of meals for $1 elsewhere. Sure, you have to wait for them to be on sale, but they seem to be more often than not, at least on the rare occasions I wander into a supermarket. That's one of the dwindling downsides to Aldi...with no sale prices on their items, it's never less than this price.

Since this is Fit & Active, that would insinuate that these are at least slightly better for you than standard TV dinners, and at a quick glance (and with nothing to compare it too), I could see a case being made: Each carton has just 25% sodium, 11% fat, and 10% cholesterol. These are no doubt high numbers, but relatively low compared to others that I've seen; I wouldn't call these “healthy”, but those that do stay active could probably easily burn off the 250 calories in a short time frame.

In short? Not very good at all.

Overall: 4/10. It looks like it will be a creamy alfredo-like pasta, but the sauce actually tastes more like the gravy in dumplings than anything that should be on a pasta. It's pretty bad when the weird chicken ends up being the best thing in the entire dish. The price tag is also a letdown, with these retailing for $1.19...other supermarkets always have similar frozen meals on sale for $1, and they have a lot more flavor than this. Minor upside: this is “healthier” than most TV dinners, with only a quarter of your daily sodium intake (assuming 2,000 calorie diet) and a tenth cholesterol, but when the tradeoff is crappy flavor, it's kind of hard to take that seriously. Been avoiding Aldi TV dinners for a while now, and this is just only cements my decision for the future.


Healthier than I would have expected, but still nothing of note.

It was crunch time. We were about to get in the line at Aldi, when I realized I didn't have anything for just myself in the cart—we had plenty of family meals, but nothing I could eat just as a snack, or a meal for just me in case my wife was working late. 

I will definitely have to say this is better than the Chicken Alfredo Florentine, but it's still with its own set of problems. Can something that literally only has two layers even be considered lasagna? That's right, all you get are two thin noodles with a small layer of cheese sandwiched in between them, and that's the “lasagna”. There are little specks of white on top of the lasagna that I'm also assuming is supposed to be cheese, but there's not enough of it to make any sort of impact anywhere.

One big saving grace is that they load you up on sauce—there's plenty of it, allowing you to drench each bite in sauce to avoid the blandness of the rest of the dish. It's not that the sauce is really all that good—it tastes just like liquid tomatoes and sugar—but it's certainly edible and probably the high point of the entire thing. The cheese sandwiched inside, which is the blend of four cheeses that the title of this product alludes to, is also pretty good, but there's not all that much of it in most bites.

Nutritionally, I have to say that I'm kind of impressed: There are 12g of protein per single-serve meal, while all the usual suspects of bad health for frozen TV dinners are kept at or below 15% of your daily intake, assuming a 2,000 calorie diet (sodium = 15%, carbohydrates = 14%, total fat = 7%, saturated fat = 10%). No, these numbers aren't going to give it a “Healthiest Product of the Year” award from the National Institute of World Health, but for a frozen dinner, those are some pretty modest stats. There's also 8% dietary fiber, thanks to those noodles, which is also a decent dose, as well as 15% of three vitamins (calcium, vitamin C, and iron). That's not to say you should be fooled into thinking this is healthy enough to eat all the time, but when compared to similar meals, this one is a lot better than a vast majority of them.

Overall: 5.5/10. It didn't fill me up, but these meals never do, so I wasn't really heading into this with that expectation. It's a little light on the flavor side, YET it's also relatively light in sodium, calories, fat, and cholesterol compared to similar frozen dinners, so I guess that's a trade that you just have to expect. The $1.19 price tag is okay, however it's not as spectacular as the savings on other Aldi products. I can see this filling a certain niche, though, with the high amount of protein (12g) and decent amount of dietary fiber (8%). It won't have a permanent spot in our freezer, but this is a decent little snack to fill the void of an empty stomach that I will continue to get occasionally.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Belmont Make Fudge Not War, and Brookie Dough Pints (Aldi)

Very expensive in price, very average in flavor.

Aldi seems to be trying to go slightly upscale in a lot of areas, balancing their “premium” offerings with the inexpensive “discounted” products that made them famous in the first place. For example, their cheese selection has been greatly expanded, and it's not uncommon to find aged cheddars, brie's, goat cheese, and other offerings as Special Buys throughout the year. It's all a part of their plan to cater to everyone's tastes (or, perhaps more importantly, their income levels).

But the area that I've noticed the most change is in their ice cream section. They've always had half-gallons of basic flavors, and party-sized tubs of vanilla for parties, but within the last few months have added premium chocolate ice cream (which was $3.99 per half-gallon, but has dropped to $3.79); some pints from their Specially Selected label, which is their more “gourmet” offerings; and on the last trip, some additional pints with “clever”, playful names and cartoon sheep saying things like “Sheep happens!” on the front, a baffling occurrence considering sheep have nothing to do with ice cream, fudge, or war.

The packaging is light and kind of “fun”, which is what initially caught my eye; the fact the packaging is strongly reminiscent of a popular national brand of ice cream is what won me over. I thought the price was a little excessive for what it was, but if it tasted as spectacular as I was hoping, it would be worth every penny. And my wife was also encouraging me to get it, because she really wanted to try it. So into the cart it went, and it didn't make it through that first day without getting opened.

It tastes like chocolate ice cream with brownies inside, which I guess is a good thing considering that's what it is. But it's not entirely a good thing, because it tastes like every other chocolate ice cream with brownie pieces—the chocolate ice cream is slightly bitter, while the chunks of brownie are chewy, soft, and sweet. It's good, but it's nothing spectacular, yet these are being sold for a price that would insinuate this stuff is out-of-this-world: $1.99. For one PINT. That's right, for roughly the same price as a half-gallon of their basic flavors, Aldi is offering just one single pint of uninspiring ice cream. Ice cream that I could get across the street at a supermarket chain for just a dollar or so more for a half-gallon of their store brand. Even my wife was unimpressed, and she's usually very easily impressed when it comes to ice creams.

Overall: 5/10. I appreciate that Aldi is trying to cater to more upscale crowds, but no matter how I look at it, I can't wrap my head around the “why?” of this particular product. It's nothing out of the ordinary, yet it's being sold for a rather astronomical price: $1.99 for a single pint. This literally tastes like any number of similar ice creams I've tried, with the chocolate starting off sweet and finishing slightly bitter, and the doughy balls of brownie serving up some soft texture and added sweetness. For just a bit more, I could get the store brand half-gallon of a very similar product, which means there's not much in the way of value. It's not that it tastes bad, it's just that it tastes average, and is way too expensive to merely be average.

Slightly better than the above, but still WAY overpriced for what it is.

As you can see from the above review, Aldi has started selling pints of ice cream for around the same price that they sell their's really kind of a pointless idea when you think about it, but I guess the ones in pints are supposed to be more “premium”. As you can also see from the above review, I was not very impressed with the first one I tried, but that didn't stop me from grabbing “Brookie Dough”, despite the appearance of the phrase “YoLo Cookie Dough!” displayed on the front. Christ Jesus that's a whole new level of dumb.

Anyway, this seemed to be more my style, because I prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate, and the last one we tried was just chocolate on top of more chocolate, which got old. Here, as the name implies, we have “brownie” chunks and “cookie” dough rolled up into one little pint. We also get chocolate AND vanilla ice cream, which gives us the best of both worlds, and would at least help prevent the chocolate overload that was apparent in the last one we tried.

It took me a little while to get to the first “chunks” and I started to worry that they were included sparingly, but once I found one, a whole bunch soon followed. The brownie chunks are just like they were in the previous ice cream, soft and doughy, with a strong chocolate flavor. The cookie dough pieces, though, are where it's at...these are fantastic little bits of raw cookie, complete with a grainy texture that recalls the massive amounts of sugar that are probably contained within. The taste, though, is ridiculously good, with a depth missing from most cookie dough ice cream.

Unfortunately, simply by nature, the taste of chocolate will always overwhelm the laid-back taste of cookie dough, and that's the case here—if you get some of both in your mouth, you may not even notice the dough at all. I also wish they would have kept the chocolate ice cream out of here altogether...why do we need both chocolate and vanilla? The brownie chunks would work just as well inside a vanilla ice cream as they do a chocolate, and just like the dough, the chocolate ice cream overwhelms the weaker (yet, in my opinion, tastier) vanilla.

In short, this one is better than the previous one we tried, but not by as much as it should be. The cost is also a factor: This, like all of their pints that I'm aware of, retails for $1.99. Aldi's 1.5 quart “full size” ice creams start up at $2.29, and the ones I've tried (cookies and cream, cookie dough) are pretty fantastic, especially for the price. And that's the quandary, because the pints that I've had, despite the attempt to make them appear more “premium”, just haven't had the mind-blowing taste that a $2 pint needs to have to justify its cost, especially when the 1.5 quart sizes are so close in price.

In other words, I'll be sticking to the larger containers, thank you very much.

Overall: 5.5/10. I liked this one better than the brownie and chocolate ice cream, but not by much. Brookie Dough is half-chocolate and half-vanilla ice cream, with both brownie chunks and cookie dough pieces. The “vanilla side” is fantastic, with a delicious vanilla ice cream and some of the best cookie dough I may have ever had in an ice cream. The brownie chunks are large and chewy, with good texture and a good chocolate flavor. I'm just wondering why the chocolate ice cream is even necessary...between those two things, the “chocolate side” dominates the weaker “vanilla side”, despite the latter being better (in my opinion). The $1.99 price tag is also an issue, because the “full size” 1.5 quart containers are just $.30 more. With that kind of closeness in pricing, paired up with average flavors, why even consider the pints at all? Good question.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Crazy Candy Co. Gumballs, and Sour Gummy Belts

Lots of flavors and gumballs for under $2.

My wife is a child. No, literally. Well, not literally in the sense that I'm a pedophile (she is 27 years old), but literally in that she has many of the same interests that children do: she purchases kiddie pools for herself to lay in, alone, over summer; she enjoys coloring in kid's coloring books to pass time; and she will often try to talk me into buying her candy at checkout counters, much in the way a child would. In other words, she's essentially a kid in grown-up form. I mention this not as an interesting psychological study, or out of spite, or to place our relationship under a microscope, and I'm also willfully excusing myself from such a spotlight (I could mention the child's basketball hoop I traveled 30 miles to purchase for $5, just so I could shoot hoops in our living room—and this was just five years ago), because all that is beside the point. The only reason I'm bringing this up at all is just a long, extended, roundabout way of saying that the moment I saw gumballs featured in Aldi's Special Buy ad, I thought of one person, and one person only.

All it took was me pointing these out at the store during a shopping trip for her to pounce on them, although I would be lying if I didn't admit that part of me was actually looking forward to trying these out, too. I remember having a small, cheap (well, kind was made of glass and metal) gumball machine when I was a kid—the kinds where you insert a penny and get one small piece of circular gum—and I used to love refilling the machine and chomping on them every once in a while. With both of us a little too anxious to relive our respective childhood's vicariously through a plastic container of gum, it only took us a day before we dug in.

The main thing I've always remembered about gumballs is how quickly the flavor disappears—that was a complaint I had as a child, and it's still a valid complaint today. I kind of understand this problem twenty years ago—after all, I don't think even the “legit”, packaged gum had flavors that lasted very long—but in this day and age, it seems like we should be able to get a fruity flavor to last longer than five minutes. It probably has more to do with the business aspect (companies don't care how long a flavor lasts once they have your quarter), but I was hoping the flavor in these gumballs would last a while.

They don't at all, with each flavor totally vanishing within the ten-minute mark (this might be generous, as it felt closer to five). The downside to this is obvious, because just as you're getting settled in, the flavor is gone; the upside, is that I was able to test drive every flavor within twenty minutes, without spitting them out too early and wasting them. There are five colors, with each one having a different flavor, as you would expect: orange, white, red, pink, and yellow.

*Orange is, as you would expect, flavored like an orange. I'm not usually a fan fake orange candy, but it was more accurate than I was expecting, and had a very strong flavor that burst out immediately upon biting into it. It was the first kind that I tried, and definitely one of my favorites.

*We were expecting white to be either coconut, or pineapple (which sounds weird, but I'm pretty sure in machine gumballs, this is the case), but oddly, it was neither. In fact, as far as we can tell with this one, Crazy Candy Co. just completely threw out the whole fruit theme altogether: it tastes just like vanilla frosting, with maybe a hint of amaretto. No joke. There's not even a fruit that's anywhere near this taste spectrum. I thought this one was terrible; my wife really liked it.

*The red I thought was cherry, and it still might be, but the flavor isn't as in-your-face as I was expecting: it's like a slow-burn build-up to a vaguely sweet fruity flavor that may or may not be cherry. At this point, I'm losing my mind, because what I thought would be a straightforward trip down memory lane is actually becoming a confusing confrontation with everything I held dear in my childhood. Why would Aldi confuse us like this?

*The yellow, which I didn't even realize existed until two days later, is another classic fruit flavor: lemon. And like the orange, it explodes right off the bat with an authentic taste that's very welcome after a couple of near-duds. Up there with orange as my favorite of the five-flavor bunch.

*The pink looks like it would be a straightforward bubblegum flavor, and thankfully, it is. No weird surprises, just the typical taste that you've probably experienced many times as a child. This was one of the last flavors I tried, and so it helped to end things on a good, and familiar, note.

I'd say at just $1.69 per container, this collection of gumballs is worth the price, but with the caveat that a couple of the flavors are not at all what we were expecting. I wouldn't say that any of the flavors are terrible—I was able to chew all of them until the flavor ran out on its own—it's just that a couple of the taste inclusions are quite baffling. And with no flavor list to reference them by on the packaging, no questions will be answered, at least in the foreseeable future.

Overall: 6.5/10. $1.69 is a good price point for this large container of gumballs (it looks smaller than it is; there are quite a bit of gumballs inside), but the biggest drawback is the lack of flavor information anywhere on the packaging. The orange (orange), pink (gumball), and yellow (lemon) flavors are pretty obvious, but the white (which tastes like vanilla frosting with a dash of amaretto), and red (possibly cherry, but a very weird, inaccurate one) leave more questions than answers. As is always the case with this kind of gum, the flavor disappears around the five-minute mark, so don't expect to get much chew-time out of each serving. There are much better deals in the gum world, but if you just want a reminder of simpler times, when you spent a quarter to get hard gumballs that had been sitting in the machine for a year, then this could be your ticket.

Okay, but there are better versions of these out there.
My wife has been known to get the national brand of this candy occasionally when we have movie nights, so naturally when I saw they would be available at Aldi, I got excited on her behalf. While I'm not a fan of sweets all the time, I've also been known to dip into her stash, and quite enjoy the collection of overly-sugared treats. Let's see how Aldi's stack up, shall we?

I was going to review each color individually, but they don't really have much of an individual flavor profile...they're fairly similar in taste across the board, despite the assurance from my wife that there are multiple flavors in here. What they do get right, though, is the proper balance of sweet to sour—many treats try to deliver on it, yet not many succeed. Just by looking at these, it's pretty obvious they have the “sweet” covered, what with the entire outer shell of plain sugar and all, but there's also a satisfying sour kick that came very close to making me pucker. If you like the main brand of these, then you'll like these just fine.

However, due to the similarity in flavors, these get really old, very quickly. I mean, I had one of each color for the purposes of this review, and was about ready to throw in the towel after that; there's just not enough in the way of variety to keep these interesting beyond a few pieces. It has been a little while since I've had the name brand version, but I remember those being a lot better, and a lot more interesting, than these. Crazy Candy Co. does deliver some marks for value: a 10 oz. bag (more than we could even finish after a month) is just $1.69, which really isn't all that bad for this much candy.

Unfortunately, if it's just going to sit there, it's not worth much, and we were “belted” out after just a couple of servings each.

Overall: 5.5/10. A 10 oz. bag is just $1.69, which is a very reasonable price, but what it may have in value, it more than lets up in flavor—even though there are three different colors, they all taste pretty similar to me, meaning they get really old really quick. The balance of sweet to sour is pretty good (these really are sour, unlike many other candies that purport themselves to be), but at the end of the day, it all comes down to taste, and for me, these are just too generic and tiring for me to recommend them to anyone but the biggest of candy aficionados.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Millville Frosted Flakes, and Oat Squares Cereals (Aldi)

That bear is more adorable than the dumb tiger from the national brand.
Well here’s another product that I buy so frequently, I’ve never even thought to review it. It’s Millville’s Frosted Flakes, and unlike a lot of the products I critique, this is one of Aldi’s staples, so it’s available all the time.

I’m always initially drawn to the price: a substantial 17 oz. box is priced at a mere $1.59, which always catches my attention when we’re on a budget. I like to eat cereal pretty much daily, either as a snack, or on the rare occasions I’m not hungry, as a meal replacement, and frequently anything under 16 oz. isn’t even worth the purchase for me, as I only get three or so bowls out of the whole box. With these, I tend to get four or five, which means I can at least make it through a week without having to run out and grab something to calm my cereal withdrawals.

Right out of the box, it’s noticeable that these look pretty much exact to the national brand version; that is to say, these are flakes of corn with a noticeable white hue to them, from the delicious sugar that’s attached. It’s been so long since I’ve had the national brand that I cannot compare the two, but what I like about the taste of Millville’s version is that it’s not too sweet. I have no problems eating Corn Flakes straight out of the box, but when I do want to add a little flavor, I’ll add just a spoonful or two of sugar (compared to people like my wife, who like to add half a bag). This reminds me of that, with a nice sweetness to it that doesn’t come off feeling like it was created solely to appease children.

The only downside to it is that it does tend to get soggy pretty quickly. Thankfully, it doesn’t really change the flavor much (i.e., the sugar doesn’t melt away from the soggy pieces, leaving just a bland heap of corn flakes), but as someone who prefers their cereal crispy, it’s a minor annoyance.

This is one of about three cereals from Aldi that I purchase all the time, and it never has disappointed. It’s clearly a staple in our household, but just because I’ve had it so often doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great cereal that, after you factor in the meager cost, becomes an excellent one.  I may not remember the national brand all that well, but I can taste a deal when I eat one, and this is amazing no matter how you cut it.

Overall: 9/10. It gets soggy fairly quickly…but that’s pretty much the only qualm I have with this otherwise perfect cereal. The flakes are lightly covered in sugar, so they’re not ridiculously sweet, giving them just the right amount of sweetness, while the $1.59 price tag (for a large 17 oz. box) ensures they are affordable on any budget. One of the best cereals available under the Millville line, and a constant staple in our household!  The polar bear character on the box is also adorable as all hell.

Ignore the ketchup, and overall mangled look of this box...had to take it out of the trash to get a pic.
For the most part, Aldi's cereal lineup is a pretty darn stellar combination of accurate taste and value; it's pretty rare that I flat-out hate a cereal that they carry, whether it's a part of their constant inventory, or a Special Buy. When I flipped upon Millville's Oat Squares cereal in an Aldi ad, I got excited—my wife and I are always sure to pick these up whenever they are available (I get the regular; my wife gets the cinnamon)--because the taste is very good and the price is pretty reasonable. At least, that's what we initially thought.

Recently, a supermarket chain had the national brand version of this cereal for $1.79 per box, eventually dipping to as low as $1.49, and we both grabbed a couple boxes of our favorite kind. Since I don't normally get such brands, I'm ill-equipped to compare the two flavors side-by-side, but with the taste of the “original” fresh in my mind,

The taste is similar, yet much more different than I remembered. Whereas the national brand is “smoother” in its flavor, with a non-descript oat taste giving way to a slightly sweet finish, Millville's has a stronger initial oat taste, though it eventually fades a bit, ending on a very similar note of sweetness. In either case, it appropriately feels like a rather “light” cereal, in that there's no overwhelming tastes, nor is it very filling; it's the perfect breakfast or snack where you just want to put a little something in your tummy to help get you going.

Other than the slight differential in flavor, the appearance and texture between the two cereals are pretty much exact, with this cereal getting soggy pretty quickly once doused in milk. That's usually a problem that I have with cereals, but the weird design of these flakes doesn't make it such a big deal to me—this is probably the only kind that I can tolerate once it gets soft. Unlike some Aldi cereals, the flavor doesn't wash away with the milk, so that's another solid plus in Millville's favor.

If I had to choose, and I'm aware that I don't, I would actually give the slight edge to the national brand in this one, and my decision has more to do with the financial aspect than it does anything inside the box: Aldi's version retails for $2.49, making it one of the more expensive cereals that they carry. According to Walmart (my main source of info when comparing cereals, though a place I never shop), a box of the name-brand is $3.15, but for three added ounces. That especially makes the price differential a little too close for comfort, at least as far as I'm concerned, and helps to drag down what would otherwise be a pretty excellent product.

Overall: 7/10. Normally, I would have given this cereal much higher marks in the past, but having just gotten a couple boxes of the national brand for $1.79—then, two weeks later, $1.49—from a supermarket chain kind of negates the “value” quotient of Millville's version, which retails for $2.49. Granted, I'm sure Millville is cheaper when it's not on sale, but this is still one of the more expensive cereals that Aldi carries, and that price seems a little high to me (I could also swear it was $1.99 the last time it was offered, though I could be wrong...). Aside from my problems with the price, the rest is pretty even, with the textures between both pretty much exact, while Millville's has a little more “oaty” flavor initially; both versions end on the exact same note of perfect sweetness. It's good, but thanks to the rising price of it, not great.