Wednesday, July 18, 2012
I saw some new packages of Panda Licorice on store shelves about six months ago. I thought it was cute and inventive. But I’ve already reviewed the Panda licorice line, for the most part, so there was no need for me to pick it up again.
What I didn’t realize is that this is actually a different line of licorice, with a different formula. The Panda Traditional Soft Original Licorice is part of the Panda “confections” line. It was formulated specifically to widen the Panda brand’s appeal and to be sold in more mass-market stores, instead of the narrow appeal of stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s which usually have rules about what sort of ingredients a product can have.
It doesn’t say much on the front of the package, beyond the brand name and the product but it’s quite clear: No artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.
So a quick flip to the back of the package where they talk more about the traditional soft licorice and the heritage of the company that dates back to 1927 in Finland and how meticulous they are and how they use traditional ingredients. Those ingredients?
Yes, Panda’s licorice that’s otherwise free of artificial flavors, preservatives and colors, suitable for vegans, fat free and Kosher ... it’s made with high fructose corn syrup.
The price for this product? It was $2.99 at Cost Plus World Market for a 7 ounce bag.
The pieces of the Traditional Soft Original Licorice has 87.75 calories per ounce and 1 gram of protein. The pieces are large, sticky and very sweet. The one inch nubs are doughy and a little more “wheat” flavored than the classic variety.
It’s downright wet. In fact that may account for the lower calories on this variety, the fact that they have more water in them.
The licorice flavor is bland, though distinctly natural. It tastes more like anise though the sweetness has that soft licorice note to it. What’s missing for me is the molasses, that earthy flavor that has lots of toffee, burnt sugar, charcoal, oak and beets in it.
It sticks to my teeth. It sticks to my ribs. It sticks to my fingers, it sticks to the package.
In the interest of fairness, I had to revisit the stuff that’s made Finland famous. The All Natural Soft Licorice is made from an even shorter list of ingredients: Molasses, wheat flour, licorice extract, natural flavor (aniseseed oil). It has 92.14 calories per ounce but 2 grams of protein per serving. The price? It was $2.99 for a 6 ounce bag.
So for the same price you get about 14% less. But what was in that 14%? I have to wonder if it’s just high fructose corn syrup, watering the whole thing down.
The classic pieces in the bag are 3/4” tall and just a little smaller in diameter. They’re also far less sticky. They feel lighter and stiffer than their doughy counterparts. Plus it has all those complex flavors of molasses and licorice and less of the wheat flour.
It’s just baffling to me, since Panda has spent at least 40 years marketing itself in the United States as the premiere natural licorice brand, and competing against all brands, they’re still the fourth largest seller in the US. Much of their marketing, either by their hand or through the efforts of the stores that sell them have specified that Panda contains no “bad stuff” including high fructose corn syrup. So this change not only makes the candy taste bad, I think it’s done to purposely confuse consumers. The package uses the words traditional and original and says lots about how they don’t use those other bad ingredients. (But they do use a dubious ingredient that no one else uses, not even the cheapest of the cheap licorices.)
Lisa Gawthorne, Panda Liquorice spokesperson comments:
I tried engaging Panda in a dialogue about this change. I tweeted to them in March (they’ve answered in the past) but didn’t hear anything back. Then I tweeted to them again in June and they responded (though one of their responses they’ve since deleted). Here’s the exchange as it stands now.
Here’s the thing, though all this battle over high fructose corn sweetener, even as a candy writer, I haven’t had much to say. There’s not much to say, because HFCS in candy is incredibly rare. I’ve seen it in probably about five candies I’ve reviewed, and often when it does appear in other candies, it’s part of a whole ingredient like crushed cookies or a jelly, not something the candy company actually made themselves. HFCS just doesn’t behave the same way as a pure glucose syrup would or actual full sucrose. Ordinarily I would just be baffled that someone would use HFCS, but in this case I’m angry because Panda has cultivated their brand so carefully, in many cases specifically saying that they don’t use HFCS, as if everyone else does. When in reality it’s just them, in this lower price point line.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Rowntree’s Tooty Frooties were introduced by the UK confectioner in 1963. They’re little rounded squares of tangy chews covered in a light candy shell. The standard flavor mix includes lemon, apple, orange, blackcurrant and strawberry. They’re made with real fruit juice and no artificial colors.
Rowntree’s was founded in 1862 and introduced some of the most popular confectionery brands in the world, like KitKat, Aero, Smarties and Fruit Pastilles. They were taken over by Nestle in 1988, which has only increased their international reach. But some of the candies they make are still just locally available in the United Kingdom. A coworker picked up this bag in Amsterdam (for 2.50 Euro).
It’s interesting to note that these came out a full decade before Skittles and though they do resemble them in concept, they’re not quite the same.
The pieces are a bit rustic, like artisan chiclets. Most are about a half an inch in diameter, though some are a bit smaller or a bit flatter. They’re softly rounded and have a rather thin shell with a slightly uneven looking colored coating.
They also stick together. The shell isn’t quite as thick or crispy as Skittles or Mentos, so sometimes they get chipped, then the center gets soft and oozes a little. I sense that they don’t travel as well as Skittles either.
The flavors are nice, though not as intense or distinctive as Skittles.
Red is apple, which is all about the sweet apple juice and very little artificial green apple flavor to it.
Purple is currant. I didn’t seem to get many of these. Again, very sweet at first and later a little bit of tartness, like black raspberry.
Yellow is lemon. They’re softly lemony, not quite zesty.
Orange is orange. Like the lemon, more about the juice and less about the orange peel.
Pink is strawberry. It’s summery and sweet, less floral than I’d hoped but also a little on the creamy sweet side.
The flavor variety was completely standard and classic. On the whole, a great candy. This particular bag though was messy as pieces were stuck together. I liked that there were no artificial colors, however, carminic acid was listed so strict vegetarians will have to strike these from their lists.
Friday, July 6, 2012
I’ve tried a few items in the Grandessa line from Aldi over the years and found them to be passable, but not their highest quality brand.
It’s a simple package, a matte plastic bag, rather small but dense. At only 7.5 inches by 4.5 inches it holds nearly a half a pound of soft licorice twists.
The licorice fingers are pretty big, they’re about 1.5 to 1.75 inches long (just a little shy of the size of my pinky finger, but I have very small pinkies).
They’re soft and a bit sticky on the outside. The chewy is doughy and soft and does get stuck on the teeth. The flavor profile is overwhelmingly earthy. There’s a lot of molasses and dark sugars (treacle, brown sugar and molasses are all ingredients). The flavor notes are anise, a light tangy note as some molasses can have, sweet licorice, black pepper, beets, pipe tobacco and coriander. The thick chew is less appealing to me though, because it does have a note of raw wheat flour.
Compared to Panda, it’s has more mineral and earthy flavors. It reminds me a lot of Kookabura Australian Liquorice, and may well be made under contract for Aldi’s Grandessa house brand by Kookabura. The ingredients are similar, though not exactly the same.
They’re made in Australia in a facility that processes peanuts and tree nuts. The ingredients list mono and diglycerides, so I can’t say that these are vegan.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
Starburst come in a myriad of flavor packs these days. I picked up a few of the less common flavors at some convenience stores recently. The Starburst Sweet Fiesta has been out for a few years. At first I thought it was a limited edition version, but it appears to be a regular item.
The package contains four different flavors, each is a combo flavor all based on a sort of tropical and sub-tropical flavors. It has Cherry mango, peach guava, strawberry pineapple and melon berry, with three of each flavor in the 2.07 ounce pack.
Strawberry Pineapple is pink and delightful. It’s sweet and tangy with floral notes that are close to honey and then something a little deeper and more heady.
Melon Berry is bright green. It’s quite melon, a cross between watermelon and musk melon, but there’s a strong sort of papaya note to it. It’s too musky for me, to tropical.
Peach Guava is peachy. It smells like coconut and has a peachy, apricot note at first. The guava is not terribly strong, which is fine with me because I’m not that keen on guava, it’s almost like passion fruit.
Cherry Mango is red. It smelled like the regular Cherry Starburst at first, but the flavor is quite a bit better. It’s cherry, with all those woodsy flavors, but there’s a pine and peach note to it that’s quite good. I’m not usually a fan of cherry, but I like how Starburst does them for the most part, and this is a good example.
Overall, this flavor set is different enough from the standard Starbust Fruits but I don’t feel like it completely breaks out of the show of the perfection of the original. If you’re the type of candy fan that hates citrus, this is a good mix, as it has none, which is pretty rare. I love the pineapple, but I’m not big on melon, so I’d probably give this a pass in the future as a whole pack, but if I can just pick out the Strawberry Pineapple and share the rest, it’s all systems go.
Thursday, June 7, 2012
Lately I’ve been feeling the need for novelty in candy. I want to try new fruits, new combinations of flavors. So when I was browsing around on eBay and saw Mentos Lemon Squash I thought that fit the bill.
Of course when ordering candy to be shipped from another country, it’s good to order a lot. So I got plenty of HiCHEW flavors and all the Mentos I could find in the webstore that I hadn’t tried before. It was expensive and took a while to arrive, but anticipation is part of the fun with foreign novelty flavors.
As far as the exotic flavors, by far the Mentos Ume wins, mostly because it’s so ubiquitous in Japan but nearly unheard of in North America outside of population centers with a lot of Asians.
Plum as a flavor is rare in American candies. It’s hard to explain why. We have plenty of peach, nectarine and other stone fruits like apricots. But Plum is, well, plums become prunes. And prune are just not appealing to the Mentos demographic, no matter how much Worf extolled their virtues as a warrior drink.
In this case the Ume is a sour plum, a different variety than the American type like Santa Rosa or Blackamber, the Ume is more closely related to the Apricot. I’ve had salted dried plums before but found them, well, salty, tangy and bitter. The Ume Mentos are rather like that, though not salty, they’re intense and distilled. There’s a tartness that taste more fresh than prunes or raisins. There’s also a peppery hint of spice, like the peel of a plum and maybe a hint of spice like clove. Then there’s an overriding floral quality, like roses.
They’re quite different, though I didn’t find it appealing. It could be the complexity of it, it could by the sort of grassy note that’s also there that I found unpleasant. But it’s definitely unique and I’m glad I spent the bucks to get it.
The Mentos Honeyed Apple was a flavor I hadn’t heard of before, but did notice a trend of honey flavored candies becoming more popular in Japanese candy I saw available in the United States and online. As with this flavor, it’s often combined with other fruits.
The general flavor profile is soft, the apple notes are more like applesauce than tangy green apples. The honey isn’t very apparent, except that the sweetness is much more subdued and syrupy than regular apple Mentos. Japanese candy, and even Mentos, have always taken pains to create authentic fruit flavors. This tastes like real apples, not that chemical invention called “green apple” that seems to have spread around the world. (That’s a good flavor too, but not the same.)
The Mentos Lemon Squash really made no sense to me at all. At first I thought it was about the game squash (like racquetball), that it was a particular sports drink. But then I looked it up and found out that squash is really just a spritzer or fruit soda. There were no gourds associated with this. The flavor, with that in perspective, is exactly what I’d expect for a citrus soda. It’s tangy and has a lemony flavor, but not a lot of herbal or zesty notes. There’s a strange calcium sort of note to it, like key lime juice can have. It was pleasant but nothing I’d pay oodles of money for in the future.
Friday, April 27, 2012
I have learned more about the fruits of the world through candy than all of my trips to grocery stores and farmers markets. Japanese confectionery, in particular, includes a lot of these lesser known fruits and flavors. HiCHEW from Morinaga have been particularly good at introducing me to new fruits through their limited edition regional flavors.
The Haskap Berry is native to Hokkaido, the large northern island of Japan. The berries grew wild and were an important source of vitamin C for the locals but were only domesticated and more widely cultivated starting in the late 1960. Relatives of the Haskap, known commonly as honey berries, are grown in Russia, Northern Europe, Canada and the United States. The berries themselves are shaped kind of like bullets, long and sometimes with a flat bottom. The Haskap, from the photos and descriptions I’ve seen, is more football shaped. The great selling point with the Haskap variety is that after being frozen, the skin melts away, so making sauces or ice creams means there’s no bitter skin or unattractive flecks in the resulting sweet.
The flavor of the fresh berry is said to be similar to blueberries, but more tart. It’s too sour for some people that they prefer to use the berries in jams, preserves or within baked good. Basically, they’re not for eating fresh off the bush.
The Haskap Berry HiCHEW look a little bland out of the wrapper. They’re a sort of grayish purple. The flavor is also less distinctive than I’d hoped. It tastes like a cross between black raspberry and cranberry with a little note of concord grape skin. It’s tart and has a good floral flavor to it with some grassy notes of blueberry seeds. They’re good HiCHEW, but the flavor isn’t really any better or distinct enough to warrant me forking over $4 again plus shipping from Japan to get this taste again.
However, if you were from Hokkaido and remember the berries fondly or perhaps you’ve had Haskap Berry ice cream, this is a portable and inexpensive way to get your fix.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Luckily I found this little package in Amsterdam last year made by Perfetti Van Melle (makers of Mentos) called Lakritz Toffee. The black and silver package stopped me in my tracks, the topography, especially on the inner wrappers is also compelling and completely set my expectations of the morsels within. The only thing missing from the package was the warning that this was salted licorice.
For the uninitiated, some licorice from Northern Europe bears the descriptor of salted licorice, which in the time of sea salt caramels sounds enticing, but in reality it’s not sodium chloride, it’s ammonium chloride that’s added as a flavor enhancer. A little reading about ammonium chloride reveals that it has some medicinal properties, such irritating the gastric mucosa to initiate vomiting.
But I paid less than a buck for this little package, and I’m actually game for learning to love salted licorice, so I gave it my best shot.
The little pieces are wrapped and shaped just like a Starburst fruit chew. The color is great, like the creme on a fresh espresso. They’re barely soft but have a satisfying stiff chew. The licorice flavor is mild at first and has a lot of molasses and toasted flavors to it. The salted flavors come out more as a tangy and metallic bite. All is well, until I allow anything to aerate. I suspect that adding air causes the ammonia in the salt to vaporize into the actual gas, which is, you know, caustic.
The nice part of these toffee pieces, when I manged to eat them correctly, was how the “toffee” part, the creamy note, really brought it all together. It was a smooth chew, not quite buttery, but had a good mouthfeel and never became gritty or grainy. The licorice flavors were authentic, more on the root and herb side than the anise that’s more popular in boiled sugar licorice candies. As long as I only ate one or two, my licorice cravings were quelled. Any more than that and the ammonia notes were too strong.
Unfortunately these can’t be legally imported into the United States because they use a food color that’s banned here. But they’re still widely available in places like the Netherlands and Germany in my experience and sometimes folks will pop up on eBay or other online sweet shops. It contains gelatin as well, so is not suitable for vegetarians.
My go-to licorice toffee still has to be the Krema Batna and maybe the second runner up is Walkers Nonsuch Licorice Toffee (both of which are also banned for import) but if you’re looking for a salted version, this might be it.
Friday, April 13, 2012
A few years ago I reviewed Twizzlers Chocolate Twists. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Hershey’s had changed the recipe and even the shape. There were many comments from fans of the classic version of the Chocolate Twizzlers who petitioned Hershey’s to return to that version.
So here it is, nearly four years later, and Hershey’s has heard the requests and responded with the new improved Now in the Classic Twist version.
We’re at a crossover period at the moment, where both versions are on store shelves, so I poked around and picked up both at different stores at different times. I also dug out the wrapper from my 2008 review so I could do a full comparison between the versions. The packages differ in very small ways. But if you’re looking for the return to the classic twist, look for the little blue dot that says Now in the Classic Twist.
First, the packages are virtually identical. The top is the Twizzler red with the blue outlined white Twizzlers logo. The clear center bit of the package shows the candy, which is the best way to tell them apart, as is the image at the top. The “Classic” Twizzlers have crimped ends. The revised formula, which is on its way out, has an open end.
The little diagram at the top of the package shows this and points to them with the text “totally twisted” with an arrow next to it. The thing of special note is that the 2012 version has a (r) mark next to it.
So I’ll start just with a straight review of the Classic Twist Chocolate Twizzlers. The expiration date is November 2012. Actually, nowhere on the package does this say that they’re Chocolate Twizzlers. It just says on the lower right of the front that it’s made with real Hershey’s chocolate. Otherwise, they’re just Twizzlers Twists. It’s as if Hershey’s thinks that saying “made with chocolate” is a flavor.
The twists are nicely made, glossy and consistent. There were exactly 20 twists in my package. They’re slightly flattened on one end, but otherwise a soft of oval tube with set of six twisted ribs.
The scent is mildly cocoa, a little on the woodsy side. They’re stiff but flexible. The bite is soft enough to cleave off easily without much pull. The base of the recipe is wheat flour (the second ingredient after corn syrup), so it’s a sort of doughy chew. The flavor is very clean, again it’s quite woodsy and not terribly deep. It’s like weak cocoa or slightly warm chocolate milk.
I found it pleasant enough though not satisfying as a chocolate candy, and not really compelling enough for a snack either texture-wise or with enough flavor intensity to hold my interest.
Now, I was on the fence about re-reviewing the rejected formula for Chocolate Twizzlers. But as I mentioned, I found the wrapper from the review from 2008. (Please don’t get the impression that I hoard my wrappers, I was cleaning out my studio because my roof was leaking and just happened to find it stuck in with some nice tins and boxes that I have been keeping.)
Inside this package there were only 15 twists, even though the packages weighed the same. They’re actually shorter, so I can only assume that they’re simply beefier than the other version.
They look just the same as the 2008 version. No crimped ends, slightly milkier color than the crimped end Classic.They’re soft, much softer than the other version.
They smell sweet but not much like chocolate or really much else. The chew is doughy and soft, the texture is kind of sticky but smooth overall. The chocolate flavor is bland and lacks the slightly bitter edge of the Classic.
Mostly it’s the texture that’s different here, globs of it would stick to the edge of my molars and gums. Probably a dental nightmare.
There are 20 twists in the new bag, 15 in the old bag. So the new twists are 25% lighter. But the portion size on the package is still the same. It says on all three that 4 twists weigh 38 grams and provide 130 calories. But how could that be? If Hershey’s is providing information that’s off by 25%, isn’t that causing problems with portion control? And which one is correct?
The ingredients from the version I reviewed in 2008, which were uncrimped, look more like the current crimped version than they do with the uncrimped 2012 version. How can that be explained?
Basically, it’s not like you have a choice. The people spoke, consumers said they preferred the old crimped twists ... whatever the ingredients happen to be ...with or without palm oil, with or without soy lecithin.
Given the choice between both versions ... I choose neither. I stick by my 4 out of 10 rating from four years ago. It’s a middling candy. If you want a cocoa-rich flour based product, have an Oreo. If you want a chewy strip of candy, have a real Twizzler. The chocolate versions are just lacking zing. The new ones are prettier, that’s about all I can say.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.