Chili Mac

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One’s taste-buds will never be the same as another’s. Still, taste-tests are an age-old technique used in test kitchens everywhere. Besides, I thought it would be a fun way to test some of the more staple outdoor food varieties (feel free to replace “staple” with “tired and boring”, but that is a story for another day).

I conducted taste-tests on (1) Chili Mac and Beef, and (2) Beef Stroganoff. I invited eight willing and hungry tasters to participate in my experiment. Of the eight adults, two were experienced outdoorsmen and very regular backpackers, four were otherwise very sporty and active people who engaged in outdoor activities quite regularly and the remaining two did not participate in outdoor activities at all (one of which was a French Culinary Institute trained chef). Food was prepared to package directives in a corner of my kitchen behind the refrigerator and where packages were out of sight to my guests. I designated a sample name to each sample (for instance, Wise’s Beef Stroganoff was designated as “Sample A”). Samples were served out quickly to preserve temperature in unidentified plastic cups and placed on a prearranged table under their designated “Sample” name. All samples of Chili Mac and Beef were served at once and when the taste test was completed and my notes recorded, I prepared the samples of the Beef Stroganoff and followed the same process. My guests were instructed to tell me which of each category they liked best and were free to share comments as they pleased without restriction (or filter, which made things much more entertaining.

WISE Chili Mac with Beef (5 oz, 2 servings), $7.09
MOUTAIN HOUSE Chili Mac with Beef (4.8 oz, about 2.5 servings), $6.79
NATURAL HIGH Chili Mac with Beef (5.62 oz, 2 servings), $6.50
BACKPACKER’S PANTRY Chili Macaroni & Beef (5.2 oz, 2 servings), $8.50

The Verdict: Everyone, including the author, strongly preferred the taste of Mountain House’s Chili Mac.

 

100 Point Scale:

MOUNTAIN HOUSE Chili Mac with Beef = 70 (Good)
NATURAL HIGH Chili Mac with Beef = 50 (No Man’s Land)
WISE Chili Mac with Beef = 44 (Poor)
BACKPACKER’S PANTRY Chili Macaroni & Beef  = 30 (Not Recommended)

The Taste Test

The far and away favorite of all eight tasters (and the author) was Mountain House, all of whom found it most flavorful. Its sauce was richer, not only in color, but certainly in flavor, seemingly by the addition of some tomato and cayenne and kidney beans, adding that anticipated “chili” punch that delivered on customer expectations. It is the only one of the four brands that seemed to offer anything close to “chili.” Ground beef does not a chili make, right?

One of eight people judged Backpacker’s Pantry “better” than her least favorite and otherwise it was a clear loser by all remaining tasters (and the author). I’m not sure what the BP product developers were thinking when they decided to form their beef into perfectly miniaturized cubes, but that decision might have been the direct result of several tasters’ use of the term “dog food” to describe what I had fed them. Other notable adjectives used to describe this mess were “playdough-like” and “gamey” (I have nothing against gamey; in fact, I love it. But chili mac and BEEF should not yield gamey under any circumstances).

While a few of my guests indicated they thought Wise was “better” than Natural High, it was generally a toss up as to which was most bland. Frankly, that type of fight is a lose-lose in my book. Natural High also chose to use a short “spaghetti”-like noodle that just didn’t hold up to the meat and other ingredients. Wise had a weird taste that a majority of tasters found bland (and I found downright unpleasant). It was hard to pinpoint what the problem was but I do note that Wise is the only one of the four brands that injected textured vegetable protein (“TVP”) into its recipe (note also that Mountain House uses hydrolyzed soy protein, a form of hydrolyzed vegetable protein or “HVP”). Both TVP and HVPs are recognized as MSG (monosodium glutamate) and are used as flavor enhancers. Much has been written about MSGs and it is food industry standard to use TVP and HVPs as a way to “clean label;” they add MSG without having to say they’ve added MSG. More on this topic another day.

Nutrition

While Backpacker’s Pantry advertises that it makes two 12-ounce servings, cooking that product to specifications resulted in a meal closer to soup than solid so the advertisement is somewhat disingenuous. Perhaps the best way to assess the size of the meal (other than trying them all to find out which one fills you up best) is to check nutritional content with a glance at the serving size. For instance, Wise’s 680-calorie package (340 calories per serving times two servings) is higher than the 540 calories yielded by two servings of Backpacker’s Pantry.

Natural High advertises “Lower Sodium” and it delivers on this promise with a significantly lower sodium level than the other brands (and for commercial freeze-dried / dehydrated meals generally). The USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest reducing daily sodium intake to 2300 mg, and 1500 mg for those ages 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. Wise and Backpacker’ Pantry sodium levels will do a quick job of getting their customers to the USDA’s daily maximum in only one meal (because you know that no one is going to limit themselves to one serving … and if you are, you probably aren’t doing much exercise out in the woods).

Wise is the only product with trans fats. Backpacker’s Pantry notably has no saturated or trans fats and Natural High only a small amount of saturated fat. As for the ratio of carbohydrates to protein, Natural High is highest at 3.71 with Backpacker’s Pantry at 3.42, Wise at 2.76 and Mountain House at 2.58.

 

MH

Wise

BP

Natural High

Calories

240

340

270

270

Calories from Fat

60

80

20

20

Total Fat (g)

7

9

2

2.5

  Sat Fat (g)

2.5

3.5

0

.5

  Trans  Fat (g)

0

1

0

0

Cholesterol (g)

30

15

20

15

Sodium (mg)

650

1210

1330

280

Potassium (mg)

400

Carbohydrates

31g

47

48

52

  Fiber (g)

3

6

3

6

  Sugars (g)

3

9

4

7

Protein

12

17

14

14

Vitamin A (%)

20

15

15

35

Vitamin C (%)

15

15

8

40

Calcium (%)

4

8

4

6

Iron (%)

15

25

20

25