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And the Winners Are...

How often, as you shop, have you found yourself standing in front of two similar products and wondering which to choose?There are several factors to consider when making a choice—nutrition, cost, brand, texture and flavor. Is the product organic or not? Usually the hardest question to answer is which brand tastes best—that answer normally requires spending a little cash, but recently Co-op shoppers had the opportunity to try some products at our expense.

In January, our monthly Friday night sampler took the form of a blind taste test of four types of popular food items. We pitted four organic products against their conventional counterparts and let customers vote for their favorites. Our tasters were self-selected shoppers of all ages. Some of them tasted, voted and left fairly quickly, others took more time, alternating tiny bites of each food, thinking, comparing, and then adding specific comments to their ballots. We had a total of 88 completed ballots by the end of our tasting, and appreciated every one. Some people did not choose to taste every item and a few customers voted for both products in some categories, which affects the vote totals listed below.

L’Estronell Organic Olive Oil vs. Aptera Olive Oil

Round #1 of the taste test featured Aptera Olive Oil and L’Estornell Organic Olive Oil. These are both imported, low acid, extra-virgin olive oils. Aptera Olive Oil is produced by a farmers’ cooperative on the Greek island of Crete. It is made from the Koroneiki variety of olives, which are quite small and oval in shape. The L’Estornell Oil is made with Arbequina olives, grown, pressed, and bottled by the Vea family in the Catalan region of Spain. Arbequinas are small, round olives that are also sometimes seasoned and used as a table olive. We provided cubes of sourdough bread for our tasters to dip in the two oils for tasting. The Aptera Oil was the favorite of the evening garnering 50 votes, compared to 24 for L’Estornell. The L’Estornell Olive Oil has a distinctive flavor that some tasters really enjoyed, but a few others characterized as “peppery,” “harsh,” or “bitter.” Aptera’s flavor was described as “smooth,” “mellow,” and “mild,” but a few folks also thought it was “bland” or “insipid.”

Willy Street Co-op’s Vegan Minestrone vs. Progresso Minestrone

In Round #2, tasters tried minestrone—a canned version from Progresso and Willy Street Co-op’s Vegan Minestrone recipe prepared by our staff at the Off-Site Kitchen. The Progresso Soup featured a large percentage of broth with some vegetables, beans and pasta. Our Minestrone, by contrast, was packed with pasta, vegetables and beans but a little light on the broth. This is a common phenomenon with homemade soup—the broth tends to be absorbed by the pasta after the soup has been cooked, turning it into more of a stew than a soup. No extra salt, pepper or other seasonings were made available to our soup tasters. The Progresso Soup edged out our homemade, 43 votes to 36. Some folks who commented liked all the texture in our vegan minestrone, but many wondered what had happened to the broth. A few people said the Progresso Minestrone reminded them of soup from their childhood and many people thought the higher salt level in the canned soup made it more flavorful. Other voters felt this was not a fair comparison, because of the textural differences, but also because the conventional soup uses flavor enhancers that our recipe will never include.

Vicolo All-Natural Four Cheese Frozen Pizza vs. Chicago Avenue Four Cheese Frozen Pizza

Round #3 had tasters comparing Chicago Avenue Four Cheese Frozen Pizza and Vicolo All-Natural Four Cheese Frozen Pizza. Vicolo Pizza was originally created in San Francisco by a restaurant of the same name. The Vicolo Pizza is made on a rustic, cornmeal-blend crust and topped with whole-milk mozzarella, fontina, provolone and Parmesan cheeses. Vicolo’s label says its pizza is all-natural and contains no preservatives. Chicago Avenue pizza comes from a specialty frozen food companyin Illinois. It has a more typical thin crust and no organic ingredients. Its toppings include part-skim milk mozzarella cheese, as well as Cheddar, provolone and Romano cheeses. Both pizzas have a tomato-based sauce with the Chicago Avenue sauce being more typical of frozen pizzas. Forty-four customers rated the Vicolo pizza tops and 31 preferred the Chicago Avenue brand.

Sibby’s Organic Vanilla Ice Cream vs. Chocolate Shoppe Old Fashioned Vanilla Ice Cream

Round #4 of the evening provided dessert. This round, along with the pizza, seemed to be the favorite of the under-20 age group! Madison’s own Chocolate Shoppe Old Fashioned Vanilla Ice Cream squared off against Sibby’s Organic Vanilla Ice Cream made in Westby, Wisconsin. Both companies use real Madagascar vanilla, cream and cane sugar. Chocolate Shoppe adds milk, whey solids and a stabilizer while Sibby’s recipe includes non-fat dry milk and egg yolks, but no stabilizers. The ingredients in Sibby’s are all organic. The Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream is lower in sugar but higher in calories and fat than the Sibby’s Ice Cream. Like the olive oil, this was another category with a sizeable point spread in the final vote tally. The Chocolate Shoppe ice cream was the favorite of twice as many people with 47 votes to Sibby’s 23.

Nutritional information

So what about the nutritional aspects of the products we tested? Since most of the products were processed convenience foods, we decided to get a health practitioner’s opinion. Dr. Chad Oler, N.D. is a naturopathic physician in practice at the Natural Path Health Center here in Madison, and he agreed to comment on the products in our taste test.

Dr. Oler thought both of the olive oils we tested looked great. He notes that both are extra-virgin oils, meaning that they are cold-pressed and from the first pressing of the olives. This process retains the most nutrients and does not damage the oil by heat created in processing. Dr Oler says, “Organic, extra virgin olive oil is a great source of monounsaturated fats, which are good for the circulatory system, skin health, respiratory health and digestive health.” He reminds us, “Because olive oil is sensitive to high heat, light and oxygen, it should be stored in an opaque or dark container with a tight fitting lid. Olive oil can be stored in the refrigerator. It will solidify in the cold, but is perfectly fine to use. Olive oil should be used at low to medium heat for cooking.”

The commercial minestrone did not fare quite so well with Dr. Oler. He points out that the Progresso minestrone “has many potential allergens, including wheat, egg and milk ingredients as well as soybean oil, which is high in omega-6 essential fatty acids which can increase inflammation (and therefore allergies/sensitivities and other conditions related to inflammation); it is very high in sodium with almost half the daily allowance in one cup, and most people will eat more than a one-cup serving.” Dr. Oler did likeour Homemade Vegan Minestrone because it contained “only whole food ingredients (no extracts or artificial anything) and olive oil—a much better alternative to soybean oil.”

Dr. Oler prefaced his analysis of the pizzas tested by pointing out with a smile that “Neither is going to be very good for you!” He went on to say, “This is a good example of the need to read and understand labels. At first glance, it looks like the Vicolo Pizza has more calories and about the same amount of sodium; however this is for one-third of the pizza. The Chicago Avenue serving is for one-fourth of the pizza, so it actually ends up having more calories (1520 per pie) than the Vicolo (1380 per pie). The Vicolo has more calories from fat and specifically saturated fat, which isn’t good in general, but a person can have their pizza and eat it too as long as they don’t eat more saturated fat during that day. The Chicago Avenue Pizza has more calories from carbohydrates and protein as well as more fiber, which is going to be healthier for most people. The fiber content of the Chicago Avenue Pizza is much better, having 12 grams per pie vs. three grams per pie for the Vicolo. I would bet, however, that the Vicolo pizza tastes better because of the increased fat—we (humans) like the taste of fat!”

And as for dessert, Dr. Oler was emphatic, “Dairy products should definitely be organic for optimizing health. The hormones, pesticides and herbicides used on the feed and antibiotics and other drugs used on these animals can be transferred through milk and other dairy products. These compounds can have a dramatic impact on our health over time, especially the hormones. Therefore, the Sibby’s would be, hands down, the ‘better’ treat.”

Future tastings

While our taste test was completely unscientific and the results won’t change the course of history, the participants and staff had an enjoyable time. Many people seemed truly surprised, and sometimes disappointed, when their winning choices were unveiled. Many people thought we should schedule additional tastings in the future. It could happen—keep an eye on the Reader!