Like many shoppers, our taste panelists plead guilty when it comes to picking certain brands at the grocery store out of habit or familiarity. That's one reason we spent several weeks this year sampling products we tend to take for granted. We stirred nine packets of taco seasoning mix into sizzling ground beef, we prepared several boxes of stuffing, and we finished the year tasting canned black-eyed peas.
Since the Taster's Choice column made its debut 11 years ago, judges have always been pleasantly surprised to discover how well store brands often do among the competition. Our years of gastronomical research have made it clear that grocery shoppers do not have to pay more to get good quality staples.
Each week, we shop at all of the local grocery stores, including Publix, Winn-Dixie, Walmart, Fresh Market and Trader Joe's. Sometimes we check for products at GFS Marketplace. Our goal is to help shoppers make informed choices.
Our panelists taste as many brands of each product as we can find. We look for foods with enough choices for a proper comparison. Each season, we also try look for healthy options, although that quest becomes increasingly challenging as food manufacturers roll out snack foods as fast as we can devour a bag of chips.
Twice a year, we publish a list of the foods our judges favored in the tastings of the past six months. We love to get suggestions from readers, so feel free to send those to firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, though, we are comparing the same foods. Readers often ask us to sample fresh fruit, for example. But an apple purchased at a store one day would not taste the same as an apple purchased at another store. It depends on when it was picked, how it was shipped and the ripeness of the fruit.
Our judges rank the foods on a scale of 1 to 100. We try to taste at least five of every food. If we have more than 12 of one item, we sometimes split the tasting into two sessions to make it easier on our palates. If we taste only four items, we list all four scoring results. Below is a list of the top three picks from our samplings for the last six months of 2015.
Kathy Saunders, Times correspondent