Justin's Nut Butter
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Lately as the artisanal, slow and local food movement has taken hold I’ve been seeing more wholesome candy bars coming to the market. It’s an interesting idea, to take the fantastic flavor and texture combinations made famous and delicious by the mass-manufacture candy companies and tweak them with better ingredients.
But what actually makes a candy bar great. After you get past the concept and the basics of the ratios, what sets a good candy bar apart from a great candy bar? Is it the quality of the ingredients? The freshness? Can the ethical repercussions of your purchase effect your enjoyment?
When I found out that Justin Gold of Justin’s Nut Butter was releasing a version of the classic Snickers bar, I figured if anyone was going to top Mars, it might be a guy who knew and loved peanuts. The new line of bars are called, simply, Milk Chocolate Peanut, Dark Chocolate Peanut and Milk Chocolate Almond.
The press release said “Justin’s All-Natural Candy Bars contain 25% less sugar, 50% more protein and 100% more fiber than the leading conventional candy bar, Snickers.” So I was prompted to take a look at what a Snickers actually had in it and what I’d get out of it nutritionally.
Snickers Stats: 2.07 ounces - 57 grams - 280 calories 130 calories from fat
Justin’s All Natural Milk Chocolate Peanut Bar Stats: 2 ounces - 57 grams - 270 calories - 130 calories from fat
So the ingredient list may look longer on Justin’s, but that’s just because they have to qualify so many of those items with organic. A Snickers bar isn’t really made with horrible things (no high fructose corn sweetener, no palm oil, real milk products and real milk chocolate). But a big selling point is that Justin’s attempts to use sustainable ingredients. But don’t go in thinking that there are fewer calories in Justin’s, just because there’s more protein and fiber, the calories are pretty darn close and the fat is identical.
The bars look great. The wrapper’s not bad either; it doesn’t look like some sort of dog-eared hippie candy bar. So no compromises there. The milk chocolate is quite sweet but the whole bar is about the peanuts and peanut butter. The caramel is chewy and has a nice pull to it, the nougat tastes like roasted peanut butter with a little note of salt. I was missing the crunch of big peanuts though. There were some, but not quite the same thing as a Snickers, which seems to have more distinction between the layers.
Still, a very satisfying experience. Sweet, crunchy, salty and toasty with a light creamy chocolate finish. Is it better than a Snickers? It’s hard to say, I’ve been raised on the ratios of the Snickers (just like I had the same problem with Justin’s Peanut Butter Cups not quite arriving at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup experience).
The package looks remarkably like the Milk Chocolate Peanut Bar, except the small print that says Dark Chocolate and the coloring of the illustration of the bar is a little darker. If I had one piece of advice about this bar it would be to make it easier to tell them apart.
The dark chocolate that Justin’s uses is quite dark, though has a smooth buttery melt and bitter, slightly astringent finish. Part of the time I actually got a green olive note from it. The peanut and caramel and nougat ratios are otherwise the same but seem a bit brighter by the bitter chocolate counterpoint. Of the two bars, I actually preferred the Milk Chocolate, which is a bit unusual for me. The dark chocolate is just too pronounced.
It features an almond butter nougat, caramel with almonds all covered in milk chocolate. The bar, like the others, is two ounces.
All of the bars are gluten free but contain eggs, soy, dairy and either peanuts or almonds plus may have traces of other nuts.
My experience with the Snickers Almond didn’t prepare me for this bar, but it’s quite different. It tastes like almonds. The roasted flavors of almonds, not amaretto, are throughout the bar. The nougat is lightly salted and chewy as is the caramel. The nougat has fantastic toasted flavors of almonds and the caramel holds the whole almonds and almond pieces. So there’s a great deal of crunch here along with the smoother chewy textures. The milk chocolate is silky smooth, sweet and has a strong powdered dairy note to it that ties the whole thing in a bow. Of the three, this one tastes like it beats the original in texture and flavor.
The only production note I had for all of the bars was that they had voids in them. Not huge, but enough in each one that I had to wonder about what might cause them during production and how they could avoid it. The other small issue I saw was that the bottom chocolate coating was thin. On the almond bar it was thin enough that I could see the nougat through it. This can let the nougat dry out and of course messes with the flavor ratios.
On the whole, these are great bars. They don’t taste like there’s a single compromise in there. Though the press release boasted about the improved nutrition, I’d say an extra gram of protein is not why you’d choose these bars. The bars are priced at about twice what you’d pay for Snickers. But for that you get ethically sourced, organic chocolate and other organic ingredients. Some of the other hand made bars are five times the price, so when compared to that, I was pleased. The preference between them without that would come down to personal taste. I think the Snickers are more consistent, but the Justin’s bars are new and I’ve only eaten four (two of the Milk Chocolate Peanut) plus the samples I had at the ExpoWest trade show so all were extremely fresh.
Update 9/17/2012: Either I misread something earlier this year or something change, but the Justin’s Candy Bars do not use fair-trade certified chocolate. The Peanut Butter Cups in both Dark and Milk do, but the Candy Bars do not at this time. I have edited the above review to reflect that information. I apologize if that was confusing to anyone in the interim (but please, always read the packages and/or websites of the candy companies, as they are more likely to have up-to-date information).
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
So could a company known for it’s amazingly fresh tasting peanut butter (and other nut butters) make something like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup even better? The new Justin’s Organic Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups and Justin’s Organic Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups have a lot going for them in their lists of specs. They’re all-natural, organic and gluten-free, they use fair-trade chocolate, contain no preservatives and are packaged in compostable wrappers.
They’re also about $2 per package of two cups. Premium has a premium price. But I was on board, I wanted to see if eco-awareness would make the actual candy tastier (and possibly limit my other candy consumption because of the pricetag.) So after I got them home and took a few pictures I turned over the package to see some serious trash talk from Justin himself:
I don’t mind a little puffery in sales copy, but I don’t like it when my preferences are insulted. Why would Justin start out our relationship by exhibiting such contempt for my predilections? (For the record, my problems with Reese’s have never involved the peanut butter, it’s about the lackluster chocolate.) It took me a while to shrug this off, but I think I managed to center myself back to zero on the predisposed opinion scale.
Justin’s Organic Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups
There are two cups in the package, which weighs 1.4 ounces (Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are 1.5 ounces per two cup package). Each cup is exactly 100 calories.
I picked these up at Whole Foods within a week or so of them being placed on store shelves (I frequent the one near my office for lunch and I always cruise by the chocolate shelf). The “best by” date was 5/11, so they’re are definitely fresh. Yet there was a slight bloom on all of the cups. This is the opposite of the issue I usually have with peanut butter cups, which tend to get a greasy sheen as the peanut butter oils migrate into the chocolate.
They smell wonderful, mostly like grassy, fresh peanuts but with a light note of milk and cocoa.
What I noticed first when biting into the cup was how sandy and dry the center was. Most peanut butter cups will bend first, this crumbled and broke into chunks. Not a bad thing, just different. The chocolate is silky smooth and like a silky not-to-sweet chocolate butter. The peanut butter center is salty and sweet with strong roasted peanut notes. The texture is odd, it’s not pasty or buttery, it’s crumbly. It’s not grainy either, it’s a very fine sort of powdery texture. The chocolate really makes up for a lot of that with its silken texture and consistent melt.
The other thing I noticed, as the photo shows is that it’s not a coherent block of peanut butter filling. It has some swirls of milk chocolate in it and a rather thick chocolate reservoir on the top. This was the same with all of the cups that I got (see the dark chocolate one below as well).
The Justin’s Organic Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups are also gluten free, organic, use fair trade chocolate, Kosher and packaged in biodegradable wrappers. They’re also vegan. I consider this a pretty big deal, lots of dark chocolate bars are considered vegan but very few “candy” bars are. (But note that they are processed on shared equipment that has been used for dairy ingredients, so they’re not for folks with dairy allergies.)
Many all natural products have brief ingredients lists, but Justin’s is quite elaborate, mostly because each ingredient needs a qualification:
* denotes Rainforest Alliance Certified products
I don’t know what the status of Palm Fruit Oil is on the list of palm oils these days. Palm plantations displace rainforest, but then again this is organic. Maybe some free range, wild-foraged palm fruit oil would be preferable.
The chocolate is silky smooth, just as the milk chocolate version was, but much more intense. In this case the chocolate flavors overpower the peanut butter flavors in many bites (mostly because of the inconsistent distribution of the chocolate, both of my cups had a full chocolate center). The cocoa flavors are woodsy with a slight acidic burn and tannic, bitter bite. It balanced well with the lightly sweet peanut butter center.
I liked the chocolate but I bought these because I thought they were peanut butter cups. Where’s my peanut butter!
I like that the peanut butter is less sweet than many other peanut butter confections, but I wanted it to be more buttery, it was like they used peanut flour instead of actual ground peanuts with all their glorious native oils. For this price I need a cup that delivers consistent ratios of peanut butter and chocolate. It’s a new product and maybe they don’t have things worked out, but the fact that the same swirling and high chocolate ratio occurred in both versions leads me to believe that this is either intended or permitted. Some folks might prefer it that way, so there’s a unique selling proposition for Justin’s. But it doesn’t rise to the level of Peanut Butter Cup Perfection.
Justin’s Nut Butters makes a variety of nut butters, like Honey Almond (which I love) and also a Hazelnut Chocolate (which I haven’t tried yet) ... so once they get their inconsistencies settled, I think that should be their next product developed. An Organic, Fair Trade Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Butter Cup. Then we’ll talk about chocolate nut cup perfection.
I picked up some new samples of Justin’s Organic Peanut Butter Cups at ExpoWest. They were given to me directly by Justin himself. The packaging is identical, but the cups are greatly improved.
My main complaints about the cups were that the peanut butter was too dry and there was too much chocolate. New versions hitting store shelves addressed this. As you can see from the photo above, the peanut butter is more consistently distributed in the center and appears less crumbly and dry. The chocolate shell still has a crisp, well tempered bite to it, but the peanut butter portion is well defined and flavorful. It tastes like a little darker roast as well and perhaps even a little saltier.
On the milk chocolate version I have to update my rating to 9 out of 10. Justin really did rise up to the challenge he made on the wrapper, this is better than a Reese’s.
The dark chocolate version also gets an upgrade, but only to 8 out of 10. It’s vegan, so that’s a huge thing, but the chocolate is still bitter and has a strong olive and grassy taste to it that overpowers the peanut flavors. The textures were excellent and the ratios dead on perfect.
My last hesitation on this product line is still the price though, but they’re definitely worth it now.
I was a bit overwhelmed when talking to Justin that I forgot to mention my desire for the Hazelnut Cup (though he said he’d read the review). Instead of pitching that I told him I wanted someone to make an all-natural peanut butter that had an additional bit of cocoa butter in it instead of hydrogenated tropical oils to keep it emulsified. The cocoa butter would keep it from separating but also add that inimitable texture, (and if you used un-deodorized) a light malty taste and keep it spreadable.
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