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Review: How snack subscription boxes NatureBox, Graze, Love with Food and Treatsie stack up

Call it the Amazon Effect, this idea that you can order anything online and it will show up at your doorstep a few days later. We're used to it for things like toilet paper and electronics. But mail delivery services have by now fully taken over the world of food, too, for everything from fast food to groceries to home cooking.

And now snacks.

Like recipe delivery services Blue Apron, HelloFresh and the rest were a year or so ago, snack delivery services are on the rise.

These are even more straightforward than the home cooking-oriented boxes that show up with prepackaged ingredients and directions that make whipping up a meal relatively easy. Snack services like NatureBox, and more niche ones like Treatsie, merely send boxes of prepackaged snacks to you monthly or even weekly. We tried four of them — NatureBox, Graze, Treatsie and Love With Food — to see what they're all about.

Some, like NatureBox and its closest counterpart Graze, develop their own snacks, making it a point to advertise their products as more carefully crafted than something you may pick up at the grocery store. Others, like Love With Food, just send a curated collection of snacks from brands you've seen on the shelf.

If this all sounds a bit silly, well, yes, the idea can seem odd. Why do I need someone to mail me snacks, arguably the most useless of all food items?

These services play into a larger food trend: eating around the clock, instead of just at mealtime. As nutrition experts continue to push smaller meals throughout the day, the idea of reaching for a snack 10 times a day — a granola bar for breakfast, a banana a few hours later, some trail mix an hour after that — seems more and more common.

If you eat like that, snack boxes offer a smarter way to do it than chowing down on a bag of Lay's.

For the most part, the snacks offered in these services are snacks in the most basic, satisfying sense: salty pretzels and trail mix, candy-coated nuts, fruit chews, cookies, granola bars. But there are low-calorie options, like dried fruit or raw nut mixes, and NatureBox in particular is smart about dividing its snacks into categories like "low sodium" and "less than 150 calories."

Plus, all of the boxes we tried were conscious about their ingredients, and tried to keep things clean. NatureBox promises "no artificial junk (colors, flavors or sweeteners), no high fructose corn syrup, no MSG" in its snacks. Love With Food sends items you're more likely to find in health food stores, snacks that are organic or all-natural and, again, "free of artificial junk." Overall, each snack's ingredient list seems more friendly than the chemicals and color dyes in Doritos.

These services' most redeemable quality is convenience. It was nice to have a box delivered to my workplace, the one place I am often desperate for snacks. And most of the boxes deliver preportioned treats that are easy to transport, eat and dispose of.

That's what you're really paying for with these services, which can seem pricey. The cheapest one we tried was Graze, which sells eight-snack boxes for $11.99 each. (Snacks range from just less than an ounce to just more than an ounce, so they're small.) The rest start at around $20 a box. It doesn't feel like a ripoff, especially when compared to how many high-quality snacks you can buy in the grocery store for the same amount, but you're definitely paying a premium for convenience.

For the average person, these services seem most appropriate as gifts — to a college freshman who's probably living off snacks anyway, to a chocolate lover celebrating a birthday, to a kid away at camp — instead of weekly or monthly subscriptions.

Contact Michelle Stark at mstark@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.

We tried four subscription boxes. Here's what we thought.

 

NatureBox

The gist: NatureBox, a startup that raised $30 million in 2015 to sell its snacks, is the strongest brand of this bunch.

Like all of these services, you sign up on a website and either choose which snacks go into your box or select food preferences that help the service determine what to send you. NatureBox is big on the former, supplying a digital "pantry" you can keep fully stocked with snack options that will go directly into each box. You can also opt to be surprised, and let NatureBox choose for you.

The site is helpfully broken down into many snack categories, including chips, pretzels, dips; dried fruit, chews; granola, oatmeal; fruit and nut bars, clusters; nuts, seeds, nut mixes; popcorn; and baked treats. There also are vegan options and "premium add-ons" like Teriyaki Turkey Jerky. In the boxes we tried, NatureBox even sent single servings of oatmeal, and quinoa bowls perfect for dinner. Snacks can be broken down by nutrition categories like "less than 150 calories," "good source of fiber," "low sodium" and "no sugar added."

NatureBox has more than 100 snacks to choose from, and adds more each month. It also has a policy in which you can send back any snacks you don't like, for free. The company offers discounts and coupon codes often on its website, and via advertising on podcasts and social media; your first box is usually half off.

Nutrition: NatureBox says all of its snacks contain less than 200 calories per serving. They are divided into three categories that give a clue as to their healthfulness: Healthy (dried fruit, oatmeal), Crave (cookies) and Smart. Healthy snacks contain less than 3 grams of fat per serving, so there is a lot of opportunity to keep these snacks as healthy as you want. There also is an "ingredients glossary" on the website that explains some of the more foreign-sounding items in the snacks, like soy lecithin.

Must try: I cannot quit the Honey Dijon Pretzels after one serving, ever. And the oatmeals are flavorful but not too sweet; my favorite is the Blueberry, Apple & Sunflower Seed Oatmeal. As far as nut mixes go, you can't go wrong with the Pistachio Power Clusters or the Dark Cocoa Almonds. The Aged Cheddar Lentil Loops are strangely addicting.

Frequency: Weekly, every two weeks or monthly.

Amount of snacks per box: Five to 10. Snacks are generally between 3 and 6 ounces.

Cost: $19.95 per box for five snacks, or $32.95 for 10.

 

Graze

The gist: If NatureBox is the king of snack delivery services, Graze is like its hippie little sister. This was the most whimsical option we tried, with very appealing packaging and small, uniform snack containers that are easy to carry around in a bag. The preportioned nature of the snacks is nice, because even when the individual items contain more fat or sugar than you'd like, you're only eating one portion.

The fun spirit cultivated behind the scenes at Graze comes through in each box. The company was started by seven friends "sick of chips and candy, who wanted a better way to snack. We quit our jobs and camped out in a friend's spare room for months and after a lot of hard work, graze.com was born." Certain snacks, like the signature flapjacks, come from the "original family recipe" of a family called the Whites.

The company also boasts around 100 snacks to choose from, though it selects them for you, after asking you to rank certain flavors and snack items based on how much you like them.

Graze appears to be a bit more planet-conscious than the rest of the companies, going to great lengths on its website to encourage customers to recycle all of the packaging their snacks come in. The cardboard boxes are totally recyclable, as are the plastic snack containers, which are "made with recycled material that can be recycled again." Graze even suggests turning the box, which is divided neatly into eight compartments, into a planter for an herb garden. See? Lots of whimsy.

Nutrition: Each snack is "approved" by a nutritionist, and similarly to NatureBox the snacks contain no artificial flavors or colors, and no high fructose corn syrup or trans fat. The preportioned nature of the snacks means you're not gorging yourself, though a few servings easily topped 200 calories. This service seems to add less junk to its snacks than the others, and offers more options for raw and unadorned nuts and fruits.

Must try: Overall, these snacks tasted more complex and were a bit more satisfying than the other services' options. Some of the Graze snacks were items I had never actually tasted anywhere, like the sweet-salty pumpkin and sunflowers seeds in Natural Vanilla Seeds. Carb lovers must try the New York Everything Bagel (small bread sticks coated with the signature seasoning) and Herby Bread Basket. Peachy Orchard is a nice, naturally sweet healthier option, and the Roasted Chili Honey Peanuts and Almonds are divine. Graze is also big on bags of microwavable popcorn and those flapjacks, which are like chewy granola bars (and which I found hit-or-miss in terms of flavor).

Frequency: Weekly, every two weeks or monthly.

Amount of snacks per box: Eight. Most snacks hover around the 1-ounce size.

Cost: $11.99 per box

 

Love with Food

The gist: Love With Food is different from options like Graze and NatureBox because it does not create its own snacks. This service collects a certain type of snack from different brands, packages it and sends it to you. For the most part, these are items you can find at the grocery store — or at least a specialty health food store.

This company promises that its snacks are "either organic or all-natural, GMO-free, gluten-free or free of artificial junk." It's an admirable calling card, but let's be real. Those terms are becoming increasingly muddled (what exactly does "natural" mean?), and these are still snacks. Which means you get things like Cosmos Creation's Cheddar and Pepper Premium Puffed Corn, which look and taste like fancy Cheetos (and contain 10 grams of fat per bag). That said, this snack subscription box also came with very clean options like fruit leather. Love With Food also offers beverages (like tea bags), condiments, chocolate and lunch and dinner items (like Lotus Foods rice ramen).

To order, you choose from three different boxes. (The site says that, with a purchase of any of these boxes, it donates at least one meal to "hungry children in America.") There is less control over which items you are sent than with the NatureBox and Graze options. If you choose a tasting box, you'll be sent whatever is in that month's box. It's often a wide sampling of snacks. March's box contains Fruit Snacks by Horizon Organic, Rosemary & Sea Salt Pork Clouds by Bacon's Heir, Lemon Wafer Bites by Dolcetto, Original Naan Crisps by Stonefire Authentic Flatbreads, Pitted Greek Olive Mix by Olympos and more. It feels like you get a lot for the price with this one.

Nutrition: It's more difficult to judge this category because these aren't specially crafted snacks, and they vary more widely. But for the most part, these are organic options that strive for clean ingredients.

Frequency: Monthly, every three months, every six months or annually.

Amount of snacks per box: It varies depending on which of three boxes you order.

Tasting Box: At least eight snacks.

Deluxe Box: At least 16 snacks.

Gluten-free Box: At least 10 celiac disease-friendly mostly dairy-free snacks.

Cost: This also varies.

Tasting Box: Starts at $7.99 per month. To get a box for $7.99, you have to sign up for the annual plan, which means you pay $95.88 for a year of snack boxes. There are also six-month options ($8.50 per box) and three-month options ($8.99 per box). If you go month to month, you'll pay $9.99 each month.

Deluxe Box: Starts at $16.50 per month. The annual plan is $16.50 per month. The six-month plan is $17.99 per month, and the three-month plan is $18.99 per month. If you go month to month, you'll pay $19.99 each month.

Gluten-free Box: Starts at $19.99 per month. The annual plan is $19.99 per month. The six-month plan is $21.99 per month; and the three-month plan is $22.99 per month. If you go month to month, you'll pay $24.99 per month.

 

Treatsie

The gist: Like the name implies, this box is a treat. It's part of a trend of services that focus on more specific indulgences, like the meats in Carnivore Club or the Japanese snacks in Japan Crate. This one offers gourmet sweets. The treats come from a couple of different vendors each month, or "ever-changing confectioners all over the country," and can be anything from Carla Hall Mexican Chocolate Chip Cookies to Newfangled Confections Frittle to Laurie and Sons Milk Chocolate Toffee. This stuff is decadent. And so more than the others, this is probably not a box you buy for yourself each month. It would make a fun gift for those hard to shop for: bosses, father-in-laws, picky nieces or nephews. The handcrafted artisanal treats in these boxes are not things you're likely to pick up at the grocery store.

The boxes are a surprise each time, but the site does ask you to rate the flavors of milk chocolate, dark chocolate and coffee/espresso with a thumbs up or down, so it can get to know what you like. Though if you don't like chocolate, this is probably not the box for you.

Nutrition: This service delivers mostly chocolate and other sugar-laden confections. We don't need to talk about nutrition.

Frequency: Monthly, every three months or annually.

Amount of snacks per box: It varies, but usually at least four.

Cost: The annual plan is $16.92 per month. The quarterly plan is $18.95 per month, and the monthly plan is $19.95 per month.

Review: How snack subscription boxes NatureBox, Graze, Love with Food and Treatsie stack up 03/14/16 [Last modified: Thursday, March 17, 2016 10:29am]
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