Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Panda Traditional Soft Original Licorice (with High Fructose Corn Syrup)
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.
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