Today, we tip our hat to the Taster's Choice judges, who since 2004 have gathered each month to eat the strangest combinations of food, all in the name of helping consumers pick from the 30,000-plus products at the grocery store. Consider what they put in their mouths the morning of Sept. 27:
4 brands of thin breads
5 varieties of whole wheat rotini pasta
5 new gluten-free products, including mixes for chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cake, banana bread and vanilla frosting
5 microwave pot roasts
6 types of hummus
7 samples of deli-sliced honey ham
8 frozen family-style lasagnas
Plus Wheat Thin Stix (good), Chef Boyardee whole grain Beefaroni (so-so), cherry Raisinets (waxy) and cinnamon streusel coffee cake made from a Martha White mix (fantastic!), all new products.
They certainly took the bullet — without antacids — for six Taster's Choice columns in this section and two in the Personal Best section that publishes every other Saturday in the St. Petersburg Times. That's not to say there haven't been times when the judges have left a session with upset stomachs. You won't be surprised to learn that they don't eat much for the rest of the day.
The volunteer panel is a game bunch, and though there's joking around, they take the job seriously. Three panelists — Bob Devin Jones, Jim Yockey and Nan Jensen — have been on board since the beginning. So have Julie Overton and Kay Hodnett-Bell, who help with food preparation and fill-in tasting. John Hehn and Jeff Jensen joined the panel a few years ago. Occasionally, a guest judge joins in. We have a few more than we need in case someone can't make it.
Since Taster's Choice first appeared in Taste, it has received more reader response than any other regular feature in the section. Some suggestions have been incorporated into the column, including the store where each product is purchased and how many points each garners, even if they don't make it into the top three.
As we tweak the column again — adding much-requested nutritional information today — it's a good time to go behind the scenes to explain the purpose of the column and to show the judges at work.
The purpose of the Taster's Choice panel is to taste-test grocery store products. It's that simple. We think readers want to know the differences in taste among frozen cheese pizzas or canned vegetable soups. We don't offer health evaluations about whether you should be eating them or not; we leave that to the individual.
The foods featured in Personal Best are more healthful in general, and last month we began letting Taste readers know what's coming up there. (The next Personal Best is Oct. 23 and you'll read the results of the hummus tasting.) Taster's Choice also reflects changing eating habits and has included more whole wheat, whole-grain and organic products in recent years.
Still, we know people love their sweets, salty snacks and convenience products. Those are in heavy rotation, just as they are in the stores.
Over the years, I've been asked why we don't taste produce and compare it from store to store. Judges' experience with fresh produce cannot be duplicated by consumers. A snappy Red Delicious apple from the produce bin today is unique; next week's might be mushy.
Correspondent Kathy Saunders, a former Times news reporter, is the organizer and writer of Taster's Choice. She shops no earlier than three days before a tasting, so that the food is as fresh as possible. On her regular route are Publix, Winn-Dixie, Sweetbay, Walmart and occasionally Target and GFS Marketplace. She does not normally buy from specialty shops, because the goal is to find products that are widely available in the Tampa Bay area. That leads her to the large chains.
Food is prepared according to package instructions, and some things, such as gravies and salad dressings, are tasted alone and then with something. The judges do not see the labels, so they are not swayed by preconceived notions.
The judges gather at Saunders' house once a month, and the results from those tastings are used for several columns. That's why the samplings don't particularly make sense when looked at as a whole. We want the topics to be varied from week to week. To accomplish that, the judges suffer.
You'll often hear at a tasting, "This is so gross. You've got to try it." Surprisingly, when foods are tasted without benefit of seeing the label, they often do not fare well, which is why scores are routinely low. It's common that foods marked as "vanilla" don't have much vanilla flavor. A slightly chemical aftertaste is often noted with low-fat foods.
Among the most memorable tastings were 23 brands of natural eggs, scrambled without salt, butter or oil. Nearly 2 1/2 years after that session, judges still wrinkle their noses and remember that many tasted more like fish than eggs. The 17 varieties of soy milk and 11 types of sliced cheddar cheese also make the top 10 cruelest tastings. Artificial sweeteners rank down there, too.
The best? Store-bought birthday cakes and chocolate Cheerios. Not exactly the most healthy foods on the planet. Yummy nonetheless.
Saunders keeps careful watch of the grocery store shelves. When she notices several varieties of a product, she pounces. She was surprised recently to see five brands of microwave pot roast. "Really? Five? Do that many people eat microwave pot roast?" she asks. Look for those tasting results soon.
In six years, the panel has tasted more than 350 products, and Saunders is starting to revisit some as new varieties come to the market.
In the tasting of deli-sliced honey ham, which was published on Oct. 6, the winning brand was Taste of Inspiration from Sweetbay. Only two of four judges would buy the winner, while all four would buy the second- and third-place hams. Several readers asked, "How does that happen?"
Saunders explains that two of the judges gave the Taste of Inspiration a perfect score (25 points each), while the other two ranked it much lower. Those two judges wouldn't buy it because they didn't think it had much honey taste, even though they thought it was fine. So the numbers gave it the win, but not everyone loved it.
The biggest surprise to judges is how well store brands fare. Most were brand buyers before joining the panel but have given up that habit. Twice, Publix won the frozen waffle category, and routinely a store brand ranks in the top three.
The biggest disappointment? Frozen pizza. "We've tasted them several times and haven't really found any good ones," Saunders says.
To reward good behavior in bad situations, Saunders throws the judges a bone at the end of the tasting, albeit a sugar-coated one. "I try to end every tasting with a dessert so that they leave on a happy note," she says. And a strangely full stomach.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.