Low-carbing is the diet craze that will not die. And while the rules can be rigid -- restricting the intake of white sugar, wheat, pasta and bread, and in some cases, fresh fruit -- an ever-growing number of Americans are jumping on the Atkins train, convinced they've found the answer to their weight troubles. Suddenly, orange juice is the enemy and rump steak is looking pretty good. Fast-food giants like Burger King are even offering low-carb substitute meals (a steakburger wrapped in lettuce!).
But man cannot live on rump steak alone; occasionally, he may also want corn chips. And these days, thanks to the wizards in the prepackaged-food industry and their new faux-carb substitutes (including unlikely products like low-carb ketchup, ice cream bars and milk), he might be able to have a few. Instead of using the delicious but deadly white flour and sugar, these products use alternative staples: spelt, soy, nut flour, etc. (The good news? They are all made with fat, the bane of the '80s dieter's existence.)
But whether those replacement corn chips will resemble the actual goods is a different story. Salon decided to hold a taste test for some of the prepackaged and from-a-mix food products designed to replace the wheaty goodness of regularly carbed diets. Four guinea pigs showed up on a recent sunny Thursday morning to try out our selection of dishes, ranging from fettuccine to snickerdoodles: Mark Bittman, the "Minimalist" columnist for the New York Times and the author of "How to Cook Everything"; former Saveur editor Liza Schoenfein, now a freelance writer for Budget Living, Organic Style and Elle; Josh Friedland, the editor and owner of The Food Section blog, and Salon's own Laura Miller.
All were dubious about the task at hand; Bittman went so far as to suggest that we'd chosen the wrong sample group. "I had a full dinner with pasta and bread last night, so how good could this taste to me?" he asked. "You should have people in here who haven't eaten a muffin in six weeks."
He had a point: To understand the true appeal of dehydrated low-carb mashed potatoes, perhaps it's necessary to first survive on bunless hamburgers for six months. But we were unrelenting: why should low-carb dieters get treatment as second-class citizens whose tastebuds are set at a lower frequency than the gourmands among us? Let the food that promises good taste be tested as such.
Keto Ketato Potato Mix
Ingredients: Oat fiber, soy protein isolate, dehydrated potatoes, calcium caseinate, dried cream powder, whey protein concentrate, milk protein isolate, natural flavor, salt. 90 calories, 11 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat.
Miller: This looks like mashed potatoes...
Bittman: I thought it was hummus.
Schoenfein: [Takes a bite.] This is very gluey -- it tastes grainy, like it has powder in it.
Miller: It's sort of like what you would imagine plaster would taste like. Salted plaster ... with a vitamin-like aftertaste.
Bittman: It bears no relationship to potatoes. Is it an adequate substitute for potatoes? No. Is it an adequate substitute for potatoes from a box mix? I don't know.
Miller: You know, on the South Beach diet, they tell you to eat puréed cauliflower, which I like better than potatoes anyway.
Schoenfein: Yeah, or puréed parsnips, with butter. They're great.
Bittman: But parsnips have a lot of carbs.
Schoenfein: Oh, yeah. I forgot.
Keto Macaroni & Cheese Dinner
Ingredients: Macaroni product (soy protein isolate, wheat gluten, durum wheat semolina, egg albumin, carrageenan gum, salt, potassium sorbate and sodium citrate), cheese sauce mix (dehydrated cheddar cheese, whey disodium phosphate, enzymes and sodium citrate). 130 calories, 7 g carbohydrates, 1 g fat.
Miller: That is nasty!
Schoenfein: Instead of doing Kraft for my 6-year-old, I sometimes make Amy's Organic or Annie's from a box. This is not the same.
Bittman: I like the noodles. They're not noodles, but there's something I like about them. And the sauce is actually like that regular boxed cheese sauce.
Schoenfein: [Leans toward the reporter conspiratorially.] They're hard to chew.
Friedland: I think this is actually edible. Compared to boxed, anyway. This is not horrible.
Bittman: What are we saying? It's not going to make you puke? That's our highest praise: If it's four in the afternoon and you haven't had anything to eat all day and you're plotzing, you would eat this!
Ingredients: Soy protein isolate, wheat gluten, durum wheat semolina, egg albumin, carrageenan gum, natural flavor, folic acid and salt. 130 calories, 7 g carbohydrates, 1 g fat.
Keto Tomato Sauce -- Vodka
Ingredients: Tomato purée (water, tomato paste), imported San Marzano Italian tomatoes, heavy cream, extra virgin olive oil, imported Pecorino Romano cheese (sheep's milk, culture, rennet, salt), vodka, fruit juice for color, microcrystalline cellulose, fresh garlic, salt, carrageenan gum, locust bean gum, xanthan gum, fresh basil, onion, citric acid and spices. 120 calories, 7 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat.
Keto Tomato Sauce-- Meat Flavor
Ingredients: Tomato purée (water, tomato paste), imported San Marzano Italian tomatoes, ground beef, extra virgin olive oil, fruit juice for color, microcrystalline cellulose, fresh garlic, salt, carrageenan gum, locust bean gum, fresh basil, xanthan gum, onion, citric acid, sucralose and spices. 70 calories, 7 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat.
Miller: The meat sauce reminds me of airplane food.
Bittman: I like the second sauce. What is that called? [Grabs jar.] "Meat flavor"? Why is it called meat "flavor"?
Friedland: They're both pretty nasty.
Miller: These noodles are slightly less weird than the mac and cheese noodles.
Bittman: Again, high praise: You could choke them down. Yuck, the fettuccine noodles are bad.
Miller: Well, there's no gluten!
Friedland: They're not toothsome.
Schoenfein: And with the sauces: I don't taste garlic, or spices, or olive oil.
Bittman: What is this brand, Keto? It sounds like it's made in a lab, which it undoubtedly is.
CarbSense Soy Tortilla Chips -- Original flavor (lightly salted)
Ingredients: Masa corn flour, soy protein concentrate (non-GMO), safflower oil, black beans, oat bran, rice flour, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, salt. 140 calories, 12 g carbohydrate, 8 g fat.
CarbSense Soy Tortilla Chips -- Pico de Gallo flavor
Ingredients: Masa corn flour, soy protein concentrate (non-GMO), safflower oil, black beans, oat bran, rice flour, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, seasonings (salt, torula yeast, chili peppers, onion, garlic, tomato powder, lemon powder, spices, cultured whey, celery, natural smoke flavor). 140 calories, 12 g carbohydrate, 8 g fat.
CarbSense Soy Tortilla Chips -- Habanero flavor
Ingredients: Masa corn flour, soy protein concentrate (non-GMO), safflower oil, rice flour, black beans, oat bran, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, seasonings (salt, spices, chili peppers, onion, garlic, autolyzed yeast extract, lactic acid, extractives of paprika, citric acid). 140 calories, 12 g carbohydrate, 8 g fat.
Schoenfein: [Takes an "original"-flavored chip.] They taste brown. Like cardboard.
Bittman: Yes, like sawdust glued together. [Takes a pico de gallo chip.] You know, if you put these flavors on it, it actually masks the sawdust.
Miller: [Takes an "original"-flavored chip.] This is horrible. [Munches thoughtfully.] Unless ... you think of it as some sort of health snack. Like some hippie side dish. They just shouldn't make it in the shape of a chip.
Bittman: As a health cracker, it's excellent. As a chip it's a failure.
Schoenfein: There's a toasted sesame flavor that's actually kind of nice.
Miller: It's just the damn soy aftertaste that lingers.
Keto Classic Corn Tortilla Chips
Ingredients: Soy protein isolate, soybean oil, soy protein concentrate, soy fiber, corn meal, soy lecithin, salt. 150 calories, 8 g carbohydrate, 8 g fat.
Schoenfein: Huh! [Chews hopefully.]
Miller: When you first bite into these it's plausible. But then again in the finish...
Bittman: These are so bad that I actually want one of these... [Reaches for a tortilla chip from the previous round.]
MiniCarb Soy Thins
Ingredients: Soy protein concentrate, tapioca, expeller-pressed safflower oil, sunflower oil, salt, potassium chloride, defatted soy flour. 120 calories, 8 g carbohydrate, 4.5 g fat.
Schoenfein: That wins. It wins on crunch. No graininess.
Miller: I agree. It's like a wonton.
Friedland: There's a gross aftertaste.
Bittman: [To Schoenfein.] I defy you to eat 20 of them. For 50 bucks!
Schoenfein: I would.
Bittman: For $25!
Schoenfein: No, you said $50.
Bittman: [Turns to reporter.] Please note that she would eat them for $50, but not for $25.
Miller: There's still that soy aftertaste. Why do they have that when tofu is good?
Bittman: If you eat soy protein powder -- and I do -- there is a bitter aftertaste. Maybe tofu has the carbs that have been sucked out of this stuff? I don't know.
Schoenfein: But tofu is yummy when we put sesame oil and chili oil and all those wonderful flavors on it.
Bittman: Maybe that's the problem. It's with the seasoning -- whatever it is, it's not counteracting the bitterness.
Keto Frosted Flakes cereal
Ingredients: Soy protein isolate, wheat gluten, almond flour, maltitol, corn bran, corn meal, potato starch, natural flavors, salt, and sucralose. 110 calories, 9 g carbohydrates, 1 g fat.
Atkins Morning Start Banana Nut Harvest cereal
Ingredients: Soy protein concentrate, soy grits, wheat gluten, corn bran, corn starch, maltodextrin, rice flour, walnuts, banana flakes, inulin, canola oil, natural flavor, sucralose (Splenda brand non-nutritive sweetener), caramel color, salt and vitamin E (mixed tocopherols) as natural antioxidants, and folic acid. 100 calories, 11 g carbohydrate, 2.5 g fat.
MiniCarb Apple Cinnamon Low-Carb Granola
Ingredients: Soybeans, almonds, oat fiber, polydextrose (fiber), soybean oil, cinnamon, natural flavors, sucralose (Splenda brand). 285 calories, 29 g carbohydrate, 15 g fat.
Keto Reconstituted Low-Carb Milk ("Enjoy the creamy-rich taste and texture of whole cow's milk without all the carbs!")
Ingredients: Water, cream, milk protein isolate, cellulose gel, carrageenan gum, tricalcium phosphate, potassium chloride, dipotassium phosphate, salt, soya lecithin, acesulfame potassium, vitamins A and D. 120 calories, 1 g carbohydrate, 8 g fat.
Schoenfein: The cereal I eat normally is as cardboard-y as any of this. It's kashi -- cardboard and twigs.
Miller: I like kashi. [Looks at Banana Nut Harvest box.] I love the cereals that this is an imitation of. They have tons of sugar in them but the ones with dried cranberries and almonds -- they're so good.
Schoenfein: [Tries the Frosted Flakes.] Kashi wins. This is awful. You know, these manage to get soggy even without milk.
Friedland: These Frosted Flakes have that dried-urine-in-the-subway smell.
Bittman is the first to experiment with the milk.
Schoenfein: Oh my God -- did you see how thick that milk was?
Bittman: There's a lot of shit in this milk. Can you look up "sucralose" on Google?
Friedland: Sugar works better as a cover for the soy taste.
Bittman: Banana Nut Harvest tastes like sugarless gum.
Schoenfein: [Tastes the granola.] Ooh, I like this one! [Takes another chew.] Oh! No! Oh no! Oh, it's awful! I thought this was one where graininess might work in its favor, but no!
Bittman: I think it's one of the least horrible things so far.
Schoenfein: We are doing a real disservice to these products by serving them with this milk. It's sad to eat this way.
Bittman: Especially for no fucking reason. Because in three years, nobody's going to care about this anyway.
Miller: I enjoyed the South Beach diet. But it's not like this. For dessert, they tell you to have ricotta cheese with vanilla and some Equal. It's not bad, because the cheese itself is good. And it's all lean protein and fish.
Keto Italian Style Biscotti -- Chocolate Chip flavor
Ingredients: Protein blend (soy protein isolate, fresh whole eggs), butter, almond meal, enriched wheat flour, chocolate chips (maltitol, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, lecithin, vanilla and sucralose), baking powder, polydextrose, natural flavors, acesulfame potassium and sucralose. 160 calories, 6 g carbohydrate, 9 g fat.
Schoenfein: This is fine.
Bittman: Chew and swallow before you say anything! Haven't you learned your lesson yet?
Schoenfein: No, I think this is a passable substitute for biscotti.
Miller: If you had a cup of coffee to dip it into...
Friedland: [Dips it in his coffee.] It's actually holding together!
Ketogenics Blueberry Muffin Mix
Ingredients: Blueberries canned in water, soy protein, whey protein, gluten flour, resistant starch, sour cream, guar gum, polydextrose, lecithin, baking powder, natural and artificial flavors, salt, sucralose (Splenda brand), acesulfame potassium. Prepared: 215 calories, 7 g carbohydrate, 2 g fat.
Friedland: It's holding together more in my mouth than I thought it would.
Schoenfein: It tastes raw, like it hasn't been baked properly. I'm sure it has been; that's just the taste.
Bittman: It's sandy, powdery. But you should really be feeding this to people who haven't had a muffin in three weeks. I had bread last night. Bread and pasta!
Miller: It doesn't have too much of an aftertaste.
Bittman: It has 90 percent less carbs than other boxed muffin mixes.
Schoenfein: If it were fresh out of the oven or split and toasted and you put fresh butter on it...
Miller: Nothing made from soy flour tastes good.
Bittman: They need another base. I wonder if they've actually tried sawdust.
Ingredients: Almond flour, inulin, cornstarch (low-glycemic), vital wheat gluten, whey protein concentrate, natural flavors, spices, guar gum, baking soda, sucralose (Splenda brand). Prepared: 110 calories, 7 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat.
Bittman: What is a snickerdoodle?
Schoenfein: It's a Midwest thing. This tastes a little bit like a swimming pool. Almost chlorine-y. I guess that's the artificial sweetener.
Bittman: I wonder if years from now when we all die they'll figure out we were all in this room together once. I can see the headlines: "Deaths all over the country from a previously unknown form of cancer. Doctors have only been able to discover that they were once in the same room together." [Chews contemplatively on a snickerdoodle.] That shit is nasty! There's butter and cream, and it's still bad!
Atkins Quick Quisine Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix
Ingredients: Maltitol, cornstarch (low glycemic), chocolate drops (maltitol, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin and vanilla), maltodextrin, wheat gluten, polydextrose, whey protein, casein protein, potassium bicarbonate, baking soda, xanthan gum, natural and artificial flavor, salt, sucralose (Splenda brand non-nutritive sweetener), caramel color. Prepared: 70 calories, 16 g carbohydrates, 1 g fat.
Schoenfein: It tastes like Play-Doh.
Bittman: Play-Doh has carbs. This tastes like cardboard.
Miller: I feel like I've just had nine Diet Cokes.
When the taste test was over, all four testers were rubbing their bellies with some unhappiness, and a few were opening and closing their mouths, as if trying to remove a sticky substance from their tongues. "We've determined that low-carb food tastes worse than low-fat food," Miller said.
After a pause, she reconsidered: "I think this is actually unfair to low-carb diets, because you don't need to eat this stuff to be on one. You can eat fresh, lean foods that have nothing in common with these mixes."