We never set a predetermined theme when we choose our favorite products every year. The process is intended to be open, freewheeling and … well … fun. But often themes emerge. This year, in hindsight, we see two.
One is the role technology played in half of these products. Despite current trends toward organic and natural products and minimal ingredients, there is some fascinating magic behind many of these foods. How do you get a customer’s unique message and even his or her face onto a product that’s normally produced by the billions (My M&M’s Faces)? How can you store beef tips and mashed potatoes at room temperature for weeks (Hormel Compleats)? How can chewing gum recalcify teeth (Trident Xtra Care)?
There’s also some nifty technology in Kraft’s Bagel-fuls. Maybe less, but still some in creating chips out of pistachios and other nuts. That latter one, Pepsico/Frito-Lay’s True North line, also provides the segue into the other theme for this year: really well done products.
We recognized in this 2005 feature Unilever’s Bertolli line when it was relatively new. Unilever cut no corners in making those initial Bertolli Dinner for Two entrees, and was rewarded when consumers forked over nearly $8 for them. The company has kept the line “the restaurant experience you create at home” with subsequent launches, including this year’s Premium Pasta Sauces. Imagine champignon and portobello sauce … coming out of your microwave.
Ditto for Campbell’s V8 soups, Peas of Mind baby foods, Greek Gods yogurt and even Kellogg/Keebler’s Town House Flipsides pretzel-crackers.
For better or worse, there’s no scientific or quantitative analysis that goes into this list. Our editors, contributing writers, editorial advisory board and visitors to our web site are simply asked for the products that most impressed them in the past year, the ones they buy for themselves and their families. What better way to define “best”?
The schmear is on the inside
I’m the kind of person who eats breakfast on his drive to work every morning (I hope no Highway Police read this). There’s just no time at home or in the office.
In the past, the obvious choices were cereals bars – cold, uninteresting but filling and reasonably healthy, and some of them were even tasty. A welcome change was the Breakfast Cookie from Quaker (PepsiCo) which, while essentially a cereal bar, at least looked different and could be microwaved. The idea of a hot item in the car was especially comforting.
But earlier this year I discovered a real treat. Kraft Bagel-fuls roll a golden bagel around Philadelphia cream cheese, providing a neat and easily hand-held bagel that I can set down on my center arm rest (in its wrapper) to negotiate some tricky traffic situation. They can be eaten right out of the refrigerator but are much better heated in the toaster or microwave – in the latter, it takes just 10 seconds.
Kraft introduced them in April of this year and, according to various reports, they’re doing well: $12 million in sales (not including Wal-Mart) in their first four months, according to Information Resources Inc. (But Kraft also spent a reported $7.6 million promoting them.) They wear the Kraft brand but also prominently display the Philadelphia cream cheese logo. How many new mediums for cream cheese have been introduced lately?
Bagel-fuls come in five varieties: Original (plain bagel with plain cream cheese), Cinnamon (cinnamon and brown sugar bagel with cinnamon cream cheese), Whole Grain (whole-grain bagel with plain cream cheese), Strawberry (plain bagel with strawberry cream cheese) and Chive (plain bagel with chive cream cheese).
Even the most decadent version has at most 200 calories, 6g of fat, 220mg of sodium and zero trans fat – some have quite a bit less. But there is about 2.5g of saturated fat in them. Nevertheless, they meet Kraft’s Sensible Solution criteria and wear that logo.
Since becoming chairman/CEO in mid-2006, Irene Rosenfeld has promised lots of new products and innovation. “Bagel-fuls are one example of how we are reframing our categories,” according to spokespeople. “Part of this strategy includes making our products more relevant by understanding key consumer trends, like quick meals, and their impact on our business.”
Speaking of reframing categories, one of my favorite products last year was the Oreo Cakester (a former breakfast-in-the-car item). It’s still doing well, the company reports, and this year saw a Nilla Wafer Cakester.
For a short story on the Florida company that launched a similar product in 2003 and licensed its technology to Kraft, see www.FoodProcessing.com/FilledBagelIndustries.
- Dave Fusaro
Personal connection with consumers
From personalized TV programming to music, “make it yourself” content has been named one of most significant consumer trends of 2008, according to Trendwatching.com. Leading the way in chocolate personalization, Hackettstown, N.J.-based Mars Direct Inc., a division of Mars Snackfood US, drove the trend even further with My M&M’s Faces, launched at All Candy Expo to the delight of attendees.
Yes, one can upload photos on one side of M&M’s chocolate candies and a message on the other side of the candy shell, creating your own powerful and personal story for special occasions such as birthdays, birth announcements, weddings, graduations and other occasions -- or market your brand with your logo and a message. And it’s an extraordinary way to enhance the M&M’s brand as well.\
Available online at www.mymms.com or by calling 888-696-6788, you can choose up to three of 22 M&M’s colors, upload your photo, type in your personalized message and select from a variety of packaging options. An online cropping tool allows you to zoom in on photos to select the faces you wish to print, and a preview displays what the face will look like on the chocolate candies.
Suggested retail price is $14.95 for a 7-oz. bag (minimum order three bags), $162.50 for a 5-lb. bulk box, $312.50 for a 10-lb bulk box, or a variety of 1.6- to 1.75-oz party favors (minimum order 20 bags), priced at $4.99 - $6.19 per bag, based on variety. Once ordered, My M&M’s Faces are delivered right to your door.
Mars is a master when it comes to having fun with candy. In late 2004, it began an R&D project to print personalized messages on M&M’s. After only six months, orders grew so quickly Mars had to add more manufacturing capacity and the company has sold more than 1 million bags. As we become a more and more cocooned society, sending your photo and message via a tasty treat (rather than a dull e-mail) is a delightful and delicious way to connect with each other.
- Diane Toops
Raising the profile of nuts
One usually refers to true north as magnetic north, the direction of the North Pole on a compass, but the term also can mean an all-consuming passion. Product developers at PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay unit, Plano, Texas, found their true north in creating TrueNorth, a contemporary line of novel, heart-healthy nut snacks that contain 5g of protein in every 1-oz. serving.
These crispy, crunchy snacks are natural, vegan and certified kosher. They contain no preservatives, artificial flavors, added colors, trans fats or GMOs, and most are gluten- and wheat-free. Even more important, they taste great and are a perfect adult snack.
Varieties include: Nut Clusters, available in Roasted Peanut, Toasted Almond and Pecan-Almond-Peanut combined with an unexpected hint of sweetness; Nut Crunchies with an outer crunchy coating and available in Honey Wheat Peanut and Toasted Sesame Peanut; and Nut Crisps, available in Roasted Peanut, Toasted Almond and Pistachio nuts baked in a thin flat texture.
Every TrueNorth product starts with nutritious American-grown almonds, peanuts, pistachios, pecans or walnuts. Nut Clusters are bite-sized nutty nuggets with a hint of sweetness, ideal when you want a tiny sweet fix. Nut Crunches are gently coated oven baked whole nuts for a heartier treat. Both are excellent, but my favorites are the peanut, almond, and pistachio nut crisps. These chip-crackers come in uneven shapes and have a slight puff to them. Both the peanut cracker and the almond cracker have an intense flavor, and you can see and taste the bits of pistachio in the pistachio chips, probably because pistachio is the first ingredient in the ingredient list.
Consumers will probably like the packaging – a beige background that is clean, simple and promises healthy contents inside. It also hints this is a snack for adults, not kids.
Each package, which retails at $3.29, contains six servings, according to Frito-Lay. But they are addictive, so you might not be able to put the bag down until it’s empty. Truly innovative, healthy and delicious – just what we want in our snacks.
- Diane Toops
These are too good for toddlers
A puffet is a word made up by Peas of Mind owner Jill Litwin. “The word ‘casserole’ just sounded hideous when applied to children’s food,” she says. But that’s what these are: little casseroles, warm and just the right size and texture for toddler hands, “made of the four food groups and organic ingredients,” Litwin continues.
They may be marketed to toddlers, but I could easily blow though an entire package of these delights in a sitting. The San Francisco company (www.peasofmind.com) is one of the best of the new boutique operations rewriting the rule book for starter foods. Puffets are real food, comforting and tasty, striking a perfect balance between flavorful and overpowering (why do so many kid foods overwhelm with garlic powder?) and with textures that work for the two-tooth crowd without feeling modified beyond identifiable.
Puffets are nutritionally balanced for their primary audience of the primary years, with not only protein and fiber but vitamins and minerals, especially iron. Some varieties are gluten- and/or dairy-free. They’re for “health-conscious parents who want to feed their growing kids delicious meals with organic ingredients, but don’t have the time to make them from scratch,” says Litwin.
I’m not the only adult to get hooked on these made-for-munchkin munchies. Litwin says lots of parents now toss some into their own backpacks and briefcases as a healthy snack to perk up the mid-day grind.
Peas of Mind also makes five other varieties: Mamma’s Pasta, Dalai Lentil, Black Bean Polenta, Eat Your Greens and Carrot Risotto. All are delicious, but the banana fritter-like ones are stunning. They’re frozen and can be made in a microwave or conventional oven.
- David Feder
Out to dinner in your dining room
In this tough economy, people are opting to eat more meals prepared at home. But penny-conscious consumers, who don’t know how or don’t have the time to cook from scratch increasingly demand the same taste and quality of ingredients in prepared foods that they get from a restaurant experience. So a great solution is Bertolli Premium Pasta Sauce from Unilever, Englewood Cliffs, N.J. These three restaurant-inspired sauces, portioned for two in a standup pouch, cook in only 90 seconds.
Each sauce, which debuted in June, features “hero” ingredients (like succulent olives, earthy mushrooms, and plump plum tomatoes) in a thick base of crushed tomatoes. They are finished off with sautéed onions and garlic, Bertolli olive oil and crushed tomatoes, rather than the tomato paste typically found in jarred sauce.
And they use the natural sweetness of carrot juice, so they contain no added sugar or artificial sweeteners. They also meet the FDA requirements for being low in saturated fat, with 1g or less of saturated fat per serving, and so also qualify for the Unilever Eat Smart designation.
Sensational-tasting varieties sure to appeal to discerning and sophisticated palates include: Champignon and Portobello Mushroom – a complimentary combination of earthy champignons and tender portobellos; Sun Ripened Tomato and Olive; and Summer Crushed Tomato and Basil. And they are a bargain at the suggested retail price of $2.15-2.89.
Chef Rocco DiSpirito, most recently of Dancing With the Stars fame, has developed recipes for Bertolli using the sauces as a base. “My passion for empowering the home chef has allowed me to appreciate and rely on shortcut foods such as Bertolli's new sauce pouch, to help encourage people to enjoy cooking at home with creative and fresh ingredients to add quality to any dish you prepare,” he says.
Passionate but busy foodies -- or consumers who wish to create a romantic dinner for two -- have an advocate in the kitchens of Bertolli. These Bertolli Premium Pasta Sauces look appetizing on the plate and taste as good (or better) as most homemade sauces. And it’s a great convenience that there’s no pan to wash.
- Diane Toops
I could have had a … full serving of vegetables
When you have a 75-year-old successful franchise with a trusted name like V8, it’s dangerous to mess with it and adding a bad extension could be suicidal. Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., didn’t make that mistake; it has over the years carefully nurtured its brand. In May, it extended its V8 brand in an unexpected way, with Campbell’s V8 soups, a category Campbell knows very well.
V8 soups provide a delicious new way for consumers to enjoy the benefits of vegetable nutrition and to bridge the vegetable consumption gap (seven out of 10 adults don’t consume the recommended daily servings of vegetables). The pureed soups, made from farm-fresh ingredients, offer a full serving of vegetables in every bowl, are low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol and contain no artificial flavors or preservatives. Some varieties also offer vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber.
Packaged in convenient green (a message in itself) 18.3-oz. aseptic boxes that retail at $2.99, varieties include: Golden Butternut Squash Soup, a blend of mellow-sweet butternut squash and savory herbs (140 calories); Garden Broccoli Soup, a blend of broccoli and seasonings (80 calories); Tomato Herb Soup, a combination of tomatoes, basil and a hint of garlic (90 calories); Southwestern Corn Soup, a balance of yellow corn and the spicy kick of roasted peppers (150 calories); and Sweet Red Pepper Soup, a blend of red pepper and tomatoes (150 calories).
Known for delivering vegetable nutrition, V8 was perfectly positioned to create excitement with consumers both wishing to eat more healthfully and those on a mission to lose weight. V8 juices have always been an easy way to help people get more vegetables into their diet; I think of them as the first nutraceutical product.
In 1997, Campbell cleverly extended the brand with V8 Splash, a fruit juice line that hit $100 million in sales in the first year. Delivering a serving of both fruit and vegetables plus antioxidants and vitamins A, C and E, V8 Fusion juice debuted in 2006 for consumers who don’t like the taste of vegetables. Kudos to Campbell’s for judiciously extending its V8 franchise. We’ll slurp to that!
- Diane Toops
Sesame Chicken, Vegetables & Pasta – in your desk drawer
This isn’t so much a new product as a relaunch of an old one. That previous one may have been ahead of its time.
Hormel Foods Corp. was a pioneer with shelf-stable entrees in 1987 when it launched the Top Shelf line. That may have been the first shelf stable/retorted product outside of a can. As the idea struggled for consumer acceptance, its name changed to Dinty Moore American Classics, then Hormel Microwavable meals and later simply Hormel Microwave Trays.
With a little reformulating and some new packaging, notably the replacement of the box with a simple cardboard sleeve, Compleats was launched in mid-2007. It was an immediate hit. Sales in 2007 grew by 40 percent over its predecessor products, making it the fastest growing product in the company’s grocery products segment.
There’s a lot of novel technology behind this. It was a little tricky to retort a product in a polypropylene tray with a film lid. The result is a product that needs no refrigeration … which means my lunch sat in a desk drawer, sometimes for several days, until I was ready for it.
Most important is it tastes great. They do, that is, all 25 varieties in both the main Compleats line and a green-tinted sub-line, which focuses on healthier formulations. That green line meets USDA guidelines for a “healthy lifestyle,” primarily less fat and sodium and more fiber and protein. All are 10 oz. and they cook in 90 seconds. The cooking is surprisingly consistent throughout the product, which also is the result of product redesign.
From standards like Beef Stew and Lasagna to more artful ones like Sesame Chicken with Vegetables & Pasta or Santa Fe Chicken with Beans & Rice, these provide a filling and quick lunch. They cost about $2.69 each and leave you with a modest 250-320 calories.
- Dave Fusaro
Chew to your heart’s content
Wellness in the confectionary category may seem like an oxymoron, but the two are not necessarily incompatible. Although your mom probably told you not to chew gum and you devised all sorts of ways to hide your stash, today’s mom is rethinking that advice as she worries about her overweight kids. Smokers trying to break the habit are also finding solace in chewing; in fact, it’s no longer politically incorrect to chew gum (discreetly).
In May, Cadbury Adams USA, Parsippany, N.J., took chewing gum to the next level with Trident Xtra Care with Recaldent. This gum is clinically proven to actively protect, strengthen and rebuild tooth enamel while you chew. Cadbury Adams holds the exclusive rights in the U.S. to use Recaldent -- a unique form of calcium derived from milk -- in gum, and Trident is the only gum brand that contains this ingredient.
Recaldent provides calcium and phosphate (the building blocks of tooth enamel) in a bioavailable form to help remineralize the enamel in teeth for up to three hours after chewing. It helps make teeth stronger and protects them from decay and erosion.
At $1.49 for a single pack and $3.29 for a multi-pack, Trident Xtra Care is available in two flavors -- Peppermint and Cool Mint. It builds upon the success of other recent innovations from Cadbury Adams that have helped fuel the growth of the global chewing gum industry including Trident Splash in 2005 (now a $394 million brand globally) and Stride gum in 2006 (which enjoys a 7.1 percent market share).
“Cadbury Adams has an extensive history of developing innovations in chewing gums, and Trident Xtra Care represents a significant advance in the chewing gum category,” says Doris Tancredi, vice president regulatory and emerging science for Cadbury Schweppes Americas Confectionary. “Recaldent is a powerful ingredient that actually replenishes calcium and phosphate to remineralize and protect teeth by filling in the tiny crevices where cavities can form. The result is that teeth become stronger and less vulnerable to future damage.”
So, when you’re not chewing, you can smile and show off those beautiful and healthy teeth.
- Diane Toops
So this is how yogurt is supposed to taste
By Zeus, this stuff is amazing! Each rich, thick yogurt from The Greek Gods LLC. (www.greekgodsyogurt.com), Mountlake Terrace, Wash., shows off centuries of tradition. Let’s face it: As yogurt grew in popularity, good yogurt became harder to come by. Display cases are jammed with yogurt anomalies such as mocha-chocolate chip and kiwi with rainbow sprinkles or superindustrialized pastel-colored yogurts in peach, blueberry, raspberry and strawberry chalk flavors. Live cultures are added after the fact, and the final products are more additives than yogurt.
With Greek Gods, there’s something authentic going on. In addition to Plain, Non-Fat Plain and Vanilla there’s Fig, Honey and Pomegranate. And from first taste, instant body rush. The flavors are real; they’re there to complement, not hide, the yogurt. The texture is, well, godly: dense and creamy, without being, slippery, cloying or gummy — and, most especially, without being chalky.
Also, the Greek Gods team knows there’s such a thing as healthful fat, that fat from real dairy can bring satiety and satisfy hunger. As a result, these yogurts are between 9 and 10 percent fat vs. the usual 3-4 percent. Besides, what good is a 100-calorie yogurt if you have to shore it up an hour later with a 200-calorie candy bar?
This is one of the few food products that still knocks me out every time I get one and dive in. So much so, I’ve developed the habit of leaving some in the refrigerators of friends and family members whenever I visit.
- David Feder
Is it a pretzel or a cracker? Yes
Pretzel lovers long have suffered with over dipping their pretzels in a spread or dip, necessitating careful maneuvering in order not to spill the contents in their laps. Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co. and the Keebler Elves solved that problem by combining the taste of pretzels (on one side) and a buttery cracker (on the other side) in Town House Flipsides.
Yes, now you can enjoy the versatility of an oval cracker with the taste of a pretzel. Salty enough to taste like an indulgent chip, they are super crunchy and flavorful. Town House Flipside varieties, which sell for $3.59, include Original and Cheddar. You can eat them right out of the box or as a snack topped with cheese, spreads or dips at a party. Drizzle on an artistic design or dip them in chocolate for a triple treat. Five crackers total only 70 calories, but stopping at five will certainly be a problem since they are addictive.
“Pretzels and crackers are two great snacks to serve when entertaining; however, pretzels are hard to top and crackers do not have the taste that pretzel lovers enjoy,” says Raj Joshi, senior director. “Town House Flipsides address both needs. They give consumers a truly revolutionary snacking experience.”
Town House Flipsides really are a fun and unique snack. Take a bite with the cracker side up and it tastes slightly more buttery like a cracker, or bite the pretzel side up and it tastes more like a pretzel. It’s like getting two great-tasting snacks for the price of one.
- Diane Toops