Our Favorite Food Products of 2007

Nov. 19, 2007
After 11 months of shopping, we reveal the 10 new products we buy ourselves and why we love them.

We Food Processing editors receive scores of new products each year. Each of us. Not only that, we are always on the lookout for products that slipped by us on the way to the supermarket shelves. Then there are the food and ingredient shows we attend. Altogether, this means we probably encounter more than 1,000 new food and beverage products each year.

Early in the fall, each editor and advisory board member submits up to 12 items that are deemed subjective "top" candidates. Our in-house editorial staff together winnows that number down, and we keep doing so until we end up with a total of about 10. We judge based on taste, packaging, practicality, availability and trendiness (organic, healthy etc.).

All-in-all, there are quite a few gauntlets for a new food or beverage to run through. In the end, though, if a product's taste doesn't bowl us over, all the other stuff counts for nothing. Following are the 10 new products that most impressed us over the past 12 months, that we are actually and actively buying ourselves.

Frito-Lay Flat Earth fruit and veggie crisps: Chips with half a serving of vegetables

Busy Americans typically snack four times a day. It has been the mantra of Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay North America, the world's largest producer of snack foods, to develop healthier snacks.

In 2002, the Frito-Lay div. of PepsiCo was one of the first major manufacturers to make healthier snacks by eliminating oils that create trans fats, even though solid fats -- created when hydrogen is added to liquid oil -- are easier to use in the manufacturing process. And, in 2004, PepsiCo jumpstarted its Smart Spot label, identifying healthier options in snacks and beverages.

Challenged to move beyond solving negatives to adding healthier attributes, Frito-Lay early this year rolled out Frito-Lay's Flat Earth fruit crisps and vegetable crisps, a line of baked fruit and vegetable "chips" (made of a base of rice and potatoes) with one-half serving of real vegetables in every ounce.

"More than half of us are struggling to get enough fruits and vegetables into our diets," according to Al Carey, the snack division's president and chief executive. "Fruit and vegetable chips are the next frontier."

They are available in six flavors: Farmland Cheddar (with pumpkin as the vegetable base); Garlic & Herb Field (also pumpkin); Tangy Tomato Ranch (pumpkin and tomato bases); Wild Berry Patch (dried apples, blueberries, cranberries and strawberries); Apple Cinnamon Grove (dried apples, blueberries, cranberries and strawberries); and Peach Mango Paradise (dried apples, peaches and mango).

"Flat Earth is an innovative snack product that builds on and expands Frito-Lay's health and wellness portfolio," says Joe Ennen, vice president of innovation. "Today's consumer demand for healthier options was our call to action to develop Flat Earth baked snacks."

Why the moniker Flat Earth? People once believed the world was flat, until someone set course to prove otherwise. Frito-Lay believed they too could change conventional thinking by creating convenient, great-tasting snack crisps made with real fruits and vegetables. This idea led to the development of the Flat Earth brand and its whimsical icon -- the Flying Pig, a fitting symbol for a snack that was once thought impossible ("when pigs fly").

- Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

Oreo Cakesters: A logical stretch for an icon

Not many food products debut in Walgreen's drug stores (if we can still call them drug stores). So when the cashier pointed out they were promoting a new product at the cash register, I was curious. As she pointed to the boxes of Oreo Cakesters, I uttered a lustful "Hmmmmm ..."

Somewhere amid the spinoff from Philip Morris and acquisition of Danone's biscuit business, what I consider the real Kraft news of the past summer was lost. The iconic Nabisco brand had been stretched into a new but logical category, and the product was deliciously well executed.

Oreo Cakesters are Little Debbie-like snack cakes that debuted this past August. "Experience the classic taste of Oreo in a soft snack cake - smooth, one-of-a-kind Oreo crème sandwiched between two luscious chocolate cakes," a company announcement entices. "So rich, so moist, your whole family will love them. This is BIG!"

At nearly three inches in diameter, these are big … for Oreos. They come in two varieties: Original and Chocolate Crème, each sandwiched between soft, devil's food-like cakes just a shade or two lighter in color than the Oreo cookie. But there's no mistaking them for Oreo cookies. Sure, the taste is chocolatey and the crème filling is white and sugary, but this is decidedly different from the original Oreo. And that's OK.

Oreo Cakesters are packed two to a single-serve pouch, six pouches to a carton. One can only assume the size and shape would also do well in vending machines and convenience stores. At 250 calories (that's for two cakes), 12g of total fat and 3g of saturated fat - no trans fat - they're not too bad for you. This may not have been their intended use, but they are my favorite in-the-car breakfast.

- Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

Choctál Inc.Ice Creams: Fair trade, culturally identified and, most importantly, delicious

I am not a chocoholic. Yet when I first tasted Pasadena, Calif.-based Choctál Inc.'s ice creams, made with fair-trade, organic chocolates from developing nations, I thought I would die. You see, I am an ice cream-a-holic, and it's no secret the quality of ice cream has slid markedly over the past half dozen years. Even the premium brands have been inching up on the overrun (the amount of air) and substituted more milk and half-and-half for the real thing - heavy cream.

My first clue that I was in the presence of the pinnacle of ice cream was not the flavor but the heft. Pick up a pint of Choctál and the density and weight impress you instantly. It had been a long time since I needed to do warm-ups before lifting a pint of ice cream. But the Pure Costa Rican Chocolate, Pure Ghana Chocolate, Pure San Dominican Chocolate and the Borneo-sourced Pure Kalimantan Chocolate are exactly what chocolate ice cream should be -- sultry as Angelina Jolie, rich as Donald Trump, dense as (insert your favorite celebrity name) yet smooth and only just sweet.
Choctál's also introduced a Pure Madagascar Vanilla. But be prepared: This is a real vanilla, and lots of it. Not only is Choctál generous with the beans, the care they put into preserving the deep, floral quality is front and center, with vanilla's identity as an orchid in full bloom. Some might find this one too intoxicating, but that would be a reflection on how unfamiliar our palates have become to the real deal. This vanilla ice cream is as near to flawless as can be.

All five Choctál products were released in spring and are, in my opinion, underpriced at a suggested $5.99 per pint.

- David Feder, Managing Editor & Editor-Wellness Foods

Kraft Grate-It-Fresh Parmesan Cheese: A taste of the old world, without the work

After returning from a visit to Italy a few years ago, I immediately began to miss the great wines, pastas and cheeses - especially the grated cheeses that topped practically every dish, from appetizers to salads to the main course. When Kraft Foods released Kraft Grate-It-Fresh Parmesan Cheese this past February, I was elated.

The fresh Parmesan cheese comes in a convenient built-in-grater that brings the fresh taste of Italy or your favorite restaurant home. Forget the scraped knuckles and hard-to-clean grater or micro plane, Kraft Grate-It-Fresh brings old-world taste and modern-day convenience home to your refrigerator.

With a few twists of the wrist, you can add fresh, Parmesan cheese to your most-savored dishes. The block package features a mechanism that keeps the cheese in place during grating, and secures it where you left off until you're ready to grate the next time. No searching for the grater or fumbling with peeling the packaging back, this cheese is ready to go out of the refrigerator. The built-in grater provides the perfect grated cheesy "gooeyness" to any dish.

- Jill Russell, Digital Managing Editor

Promise activ SuperShots: Taking a shot at bad cholesterol

Nearly 76 million Americans are living with high or elevated LDL, otherwise known as "bad" cholesterol, and many others are concerned about their cholesterol levels.
Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based Unilever North America rolled out Promise activ SuperShots, the first fruit and yogurt mini-drink (3 oz.) with added natural plant sterols, ingredients clinically proven to help actively remove cholesterol as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol. In fact, some 150 clinical studies show that 2g of plant sterols a day can lead to a 15 percent reduction in cholesterol.

Plant sterol-containing foods should be used twice a day with meals. That may sound like a lot but, put into perspective, Supershots contain about 5 to 10 times the average plant sterol content of a regular diet. You would need to consume 425 tomatoes, 150 apples or 70 slices of whole-grain bread to get an equivalent level of plant sterols. Unilever is betting concerned consumers would rather opt for a 3-oz. shot of yogurt with 70 calories, 3.5g fat (zero saturated fat) and fiber.

According to a survey by St. Petersburg, Fla.-based HealthFocus Intl., 30 percent of shoppers say they are more likely to choose foods and beverages because they are fortified with extra vitamins, minerals or other nutrients, up from 24 percent in 2002 - so this is a good gamble.

Available in three flavors - Strawberry, Peach, and Raspberry - the mini-drink also contains heart health essentials omega-3 alpha linolenic acid and omega-6 and it is a good source of vitamin E.

"Promise activ SuperShots provide two grams of plant sterols in each 3-oz. drink," says Douglas Balentine, director of nutrition and health. "Plant sterols can help reduce LDL cholesterol for most people, when used daily as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol. This new product is an example of Unilever's commitment to helping people maintain a healthy heart and to stay healthy for longer."

- Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

Bumble Bee Prime Fillet Chicken Breasts: Chicken in 30 seconds? Is that for real?

Two years ago in this space, we marveled at the arrival of tuna fillets in shelf-stable pouches from all three of the top tuna companies. Once feared by many home cooks, this seafood was of prime quality, already marinated and ready in 15-30 microwave seconds. This year saw the arrival of "America's favorite protein" in apparently the same pouch from one of those same tuna companies.

Bumble Bee in January launched Prime Fillet Chicken Breasts: 4-oz. of skinless, boneless, grilled chicken, fully cooked and kept fresh, even shelf stable, in that vacuum-sealed pouch. Varieties are Garlic & Herb, Southwest Seasonings and Barbecue Sauce.

Chicken may be a familiar and simple dish, but it's one of those animal proteins that needs to be cooked for a long time. And unless it's breaded and fried (and that's unhealthy!), it's not the most flavorful meat. So imagine the taste of a chicken fillet that's been sitting in its marinade for months (don't let that frighten you!) at ambient temperatures. Further imagine it cooking in 30 seconds.

The packaging may have been familiar for the company, but the protein was not. This is Bumble Bee's first venture outside of seafood. In announcing this stretch for his company, Christopher Lischewski, Bumble Bee CEO, said research indicated more people would buy poultry if it were easier to prepare.

Why didn't Tyson think of this? In all fairness, Tyson and other poultry companies have quick-fix, fully cooked products, but they take 2-3 minutes. That's not an eternity, admittedly, but it's a lot more than 30 seconds, and they're not shelf stable.

At $2.99 a pack, it's simultaneously a reasonably economical entrée and an amazing $12 a pound up-sell for chicken. As a guy who often gets home late but tires of cold meals or the typical microwave oven fare, this is a delicious and elegant item for the center of the plate. Now, the slow part is waiting for the Minute Rice to catch up.

- Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

Minute Maid Multi-Vitamin and Minute Maid Active juices: Personalized products to meet specific needs

Some 70 percent of U.S. households start the day with chilled orange juice primarily for their daily dose of vitamin C. But health-conscious shoppers, particularly aging baby boomers, would like to piggy-back other healthy attributes with their OJ.

So Coca-Cola Co.'s Minute Maid unit, Houston, launched Minute Maid Enhanced Juice in two new varieties: Minute Maid Multi-Vitamin and Minute Maid Active. They create a triumvirate with Minute Maid Heart Wise juice, which contains 1g of naturally sourced plant sterols (Cargill Inc.'s Corowise), clinically proven to help reduce cholesterol.

These 100 percent orange juice products are a customized choice for consumers who want to zero in on specific health problems. Multi-Vitamin contains 16 essential vitamins and minerals including antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, zinc, selenium, calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid and B6) and chromium. Active contains 750mg of glucosamine HCI, derived from a vegetarian source, per 8-oz. serving to help support healthy joints.

Incidentally, brain health is the next frontier for the company. Minute Maid Enhanced Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored 100% Juice Blend has just been rolled out. It's a blend of five fruit juices and contains 50mg of omega-3 DHA per 8-oz. serving.

"Health and wellness beverages are clearly a trend [and] consumers are looking for personalized products to meet their specific needs," says Ray Crockett, spokesman for parent company Coca-Cola. Heart Wise, released late in 2006, became one of the company's top 10 sellers within a year, notes Crockett.

Targeting specific health concerns is a winning strategy.

- Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

Murray's Chicken Pot Pie: A pot pie even the Brits would love

Anyone who's ever eaten a hot meat pie in the U.K. knows what an authentic one should taste like. Finding such authenticity on this side of the Atlantic is nearly impossible. Which is why Murray's Chicken, South Fallsburg, N.Y., Baked Chicken Pot Pie got our attention.

This is an authentic meat pie, with a perfectly flaky puff-pastry crust, balance of meat to veggies and sauce and overall freshness almost unheard of in a processed pie. Released for national distribution in spring, the product marks the first in the company's new, "no-hassle, meals under 5 minutes line": Chicken Express. Unlike other offerings, the organic, white-meat chicken is in moist and juicy chunks and makes up the predominant flavor note versus the dehydrated onion and garlic that is so common in competing products - and virtually all savory processed foods, for that matter.

The pies contain no trans fats, are all natural with no nitrates, nitrites or preservatives. Combining tradition and flavor with convenience, two minutes in the microwave are enough to evenly heat the filling - amazingly, without affecting the crunch of the pie crust. All Murray's products carry the Certified Humane label.

Suggested retail price is $3.99-4.99 per 10-oz. pie.

- David Feder, Managing Editor & Editor-Wellness Foods

Stouffer's Corner Bistro Flatbreads: Restaurant quality and loaded with toppings

Flatbread, which is made from flattened dough to highlight the flavor of ingredients placed in -- or on -- it, is emerging as the hottest thing since sliced bread. According to Mintel Intl., the number of new flatbread products more than tripled to 66 in 2006, compared with 20 in 2005.

Combining the taste of a restaurant-inspired meal with at-home convenience, Solon, Ohio-based Stouffer's, a Nestle brand, rolled out Corner Bistro Flatbreads, a line of frozen crispy, seasoned flatbreads topped with a variety of gourmet ingredients. They follow the great success of last year's Panini introduction.

Tempting even the most discerning restaurant-lover's palate, they take only a few minutes to prepare in the microwave, or unlike Panini, one has the option to cook them in the oven for a crispier crust.

Bistro Flatbreads are available in four varieties: Chicken, Bacon & Spinach on a Basil and Garlic Seasoned Flatbread (grilled chicken, bacon, spinach and red onions with an Alfredo sauce, topped with a blend of Italian cheeses); Steak Fajita on a Smoked Chipotle Seasoned Flatbread (grilled steak fajita strips with sweet peppers and onions in a smoked Cheddar sauce, covered in mozzarella and Cheddar cheeses); Shrimp and Roasted Garlic on an Herb Seasoned Flatbread (shrimp and roasted garlic topped with mozzarella, Parmesan and Romano cheeses over roasted garlic sauce); and Margherita on a Basil Parmesan Seasoned Flatbread (diced garden tomatoes, basil, garlic, and red onions in a tomato olive oil sauce, topped with mozzarella cheese).

"The increasing popularity of Corner Bistro Entrees and Panini compelled us to offer even more casual-eating options for consumers," says Christine Dahm, director of marketing. "Like the rest of our line, the new Flatbreads are inspired by dishes offered in today's most popular restaurants."

- Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

Mighty Leaf Tea Chocolate Truffle Teas: You read that right - chocolate in a tea

The high antioxidant levels in dark chocolate have raised interest in and sales of dark chocolate. Yet against all the trends for healthier foods, consumers maintain a healthy interest in measured indulgence.

Against these backdrops, Mighty Leaf Tea, San Rafael, Calif., maker of artisan-crafted tea blends, introduced its new Chocolate Truffle Teas in May. The new products are a collection of whole leaf loose teas infused with chocolate chips and cacao nibs. The teas consist of two premium black teas, large-leaf pu-erh (an exotic tea) and three herbal infusions.

Chocolate Chip Truffle is a confection of deep black tea leaves with cacao nibs and chocolate chips offering an indulgent rich body with moderate sweetness.

Chocolate Orange Truffle blends full-bodied black tea leaves with vanilla, citrus peel and cacao nibs. Smooth and savory combine in the Mocha Pu-Erh Truffle, a blend of rare golden buds of earthy Pu-Erh tea leaves with cacao nibs and the notes of citrus designed to stimulate the palate and aid digestion. Chocolate Mint Truffle soothes with mineral-rich rooibos leaves, mint leaves and chocolate. The company's entire line of tea pouches are made from biodegradable materials.

"The rich history of the commodities of tea and chocolate intertwine like a mosaic with the wonderful compatibility of flavors that fuse together," says CEO Gary Shinner. But the question has always been whether or not the flavors can fuse. I've tasted chocolate-infused tea products before. They tasted like chocolate tea. Mighty Leaf, however, hit the target dead center.

The aromatic infusions immediately remind your senses of the intricacy of flavors, floral and earthy, inherent in pure cocoa beans   before they've been separated, blended, conched, processed and turned into candy. These teas are not candy; they are robust yet subtle and each marries its bridging flavor note (citrus, mint, etc.) perfectly to the cocoa and the premium tea.

- David Feder, Managing Editor & Editor-Wellness Foods