It never hurts to ask…

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A while back, Pa B. suggested I write to natural food companies and ask for samples. In exchange for free organic goodies, I would provide press and objective reviews for the products, a win-win situation if there ever was one.

I liked the idea (who doesn’t like free stuff??), although I don’t see “Grubfirst” as a food blog and don’t want it to be dominated by product reviews or a discussion of the merits of Cookie A versus Cookie B. I was also in the midst of my Abnormal Psych. class at the time, and otherwise occupied by grad. school applications and studying for the GRE’s. Before I shelved any plans to contact food companies, however, I shot off a quick e-mail to Zevia, the makers of the orange soda I reviewed earlier in the summer. Not expecting much of anything in response, I received an e-mail just hours later from a Zevia rep. informing me that the company would love (!) to send me a mixed case of the soda in exchange for a review. The rep. even offered to send a second case towards the beginning of the school year that I could share with Active Minds, the mental health advocacy and education group I chair at Smith.

Free soda? And “healthy” at that? Of course I said yes!

Below are my reviews for the six flavors Zevia sent me– Dr. Zevia, Cola, Ginger Ale, Black Cherry, Lemon-Lime Twist and Ginger Root Beer.

Dr. Zevia: Dr. Zevia is the first imitation Dr. Pepper I know of/have tasted, and it certainly does not suffer for lack of high-fructose corn syrup. The Stevia-sweetened soda is properly peppery, and, while not as sweet as its caloric counterpart, is just as delicious as a nice cold can of Herr Doktor Pfeffer.

Cola: In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I prefaced my consumption of Zevia’s Cola with a glass of (gasp!) aspartame-y Diet Coke, which may have altered my perception of the sodie’s taste.

Zevia’s Cola is not as sweet as Diet Coke, but it ain’t bad for a diet sodie. And I imagine that it would have registered as sweeter on my palate had I not drank a cup of artificially-sweetened soda beforehand. Diet Coke addicts (Adina, I’m talking to you!), please give Zevia’s Cola a try!

Ginger Ale: I’ve never been much of a Ginger Ale fan, and did not expect to like this flavor as a result. I found the Ginger Ale to be refreshing and quite delicious, however, and would recommend that those with a penchant for the gingery stuff try Zevia’s version. Don’t forget to serve the Ale over ice in a frosty glass!

Black Cherry: Black Cherry was probably my least favorite of the Zevia flavors. It just didn’t have enough “punch” for me, and would have been much better with an extra dose (or two) of cherry flavor.

Lemon-Lime Twist: I also found this flavor lacking on the “punch” front, at least compared to something like Fresca. More citric acid needed, perhaps?

Ginger Root Beer: My undisputed favorite. Loved the gingery brew so much I forced some on my soda-wary housemate, who also found it to her liking. I imagine that even my soda-phobic mother would take to Zevia’s Ginger Root Beer.

The verdict? Zevia bills itself as “nature’s answer to diet soda,” and I would have to agree with the Seattle-based company. Some flavors may not have seemed sweet “enough” for me, but I would guess that the sodies would begin to taste just as delicious as a frosty Diet Coke once you get used to the blend of Stevia and erythritol the Zevia team uses to sweeten their wares.

For more information about Zevia, read their Frequently Asked Questions here, or browse their site. And try the Ginger Root Beer, ya hear?

P.S. Another Examiner piece for the reading here!

No soy, no lactose, no problem

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Imma be pretty tired right now (biking 22+ miles roundtrip will do that to you), but I’d like to address a question that my friend Susan had regarding my cherry cinnamon yoghurt parfait.

Susan is looking for a dairy- and lactose-free alternative to the Greek yoghurt I used in the recipe, but finds the taste of soy yoghurt too chalky. I couldn’t think of anything offhand, but I did a little research online and came across a nutrition blog titled “What I’m Eating Now.” In one post, author Tamara discussed two of her favorite yoghurts for the “lactose- and soy-challenged.”

I would encourage you to read the post in full, but as far as quick summaries go, one of the yoghurts she recommends is coincidentally a Vermont product called “True Yogurt.” True is an organic cow’s milk yogurt made with low-fat lactose-free milk (how’s that for a mouthful!) which Tamara describes as tasting “way better than any conventional yoghurt I remember having.”

Before I get you too excited, however, I must tell you that the company folded in early 2010. Despite this disappointing news, it is heartening to know that such a product can theoretically be made, and to taste good at that! While True didn’t make it through the hard times, I imagine that similar products are being made elsewhere, and that it is only a matter of time before such deliciousness finds its way back to Vermont again.

As for Tamara’s other pick, she recommends So Delicious yoghurt, a product made from coconut milk. Lactose- and casein- (milk protein) free, the yoghurt would be suitable for vegans and the dairy-challenged. Tamara notes that the yoghurt is fortified with calcium (25% of your daily value in one serving!) and vitamin B12, a vitamin that is notoriously difficult for non-meat eaters to get adequate amounts of. Tamara gave the dairy-free delights with their “subtle coconut flavor in the background” a thumbs up.

Photo credit: http://www.turtlemountain.com/images/product_images/coconut_yogurt_pinacolada.jpg

On another note, my second Examiner article is up. I made a couple of spacing and other errors, and am gnashing my teeth as a result. Please forgive me, Saint Perfection, for I have sinned. Lamentations aside, I hope you enjoy the article.

Manna for the Subaru set

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Hey y’all. Had my first summer school class today. The course is Abnormal Psych., something I’ve always wanted to take but haven’t yet had a chance to because of scheduling conflicts. The instructor was very enthusiastic and requests lots of audience participation, which is great. The workload seems pretty manageable, but a heads up that posts may become more infrequent as the weeks go on. In any case, it is so wonderful to be in Northampton again. I really do love this town!

And now, on the blogging front, a review:

Dreuxmanna Maple Multi-grain Crackers

“Dreuxmanna is a love story,” the product insert begins. The Vermont-based brand proudly makes spelt crackers, cookies and other goodies that are free of wheat, dairy, soy and other common allergens. The wholesome treats were born as a labor of love for the longtime chef and brand creator, whose wife had been diagnosed with a wide swathe of allergies. And that love and dedication is reflected in the company’s products.

No wheat, dairy or soy? What does that leave, you might ask? Plenty of flavor, that’s for sure. The company’s crackers are the best I’ve ever tasted, and make me wonder why I ever bothered with Wheat Thins or Triscuits. With just a touch of sweetness from Vermont Maple Syrup, the crackers would make a fine accompaniment to Vermont cheddar cheese (Grafton is a personal favorite), a fresh spread like guacamole, or even some homemade raspberry jam. The possibilities are endless with Dreuxmanna.

Being the committed localvore that I am (okay, minus the chocolate, coffee and bananas), I would urge non-Vermonters to find similar products within their own states. If you can’t find something comparable, however, drop me a line and we’ll work something out. These babies are worth the price of shipping 🙂

Fake sugar, part 2: Zevia soda

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Having almost completely weaned myself of aspartame-sweetened sodies (my friend Jam. calls soda “sodies,” so I’ll borrow her term from now on), I still get the occasional hankering for a sweet and health-neutral drink. I use “health-neutral” because sodas and, to a lesser extent juices, can never match the health benefits of the fruits and vegetables from which they are derived. Even wholesome-sounding V-8 lacks the fiber and nutrient punch that fresh tomatoes and veggies would pack.

That said, a craving for sweetness is practically wired into us Homo sapiens. Who am I to fight nature?

The challenge in selecting a sodie today is two-fold– one, a desire to keep calorie counts “in check,” and two, to avoid potentially harmful artificial sweeteners. Sorry Adina, I had to say it!

A Boylan’s Cream Soda tastes too fine to be rejected entirely from one’s diet, but few Americans can afford on a regular basis the additional sugar a frosty glass o’ Boylan’s supplies.

Many of us sweet-seeking health nuts turn to diet sodas, but as I blogged several days ago, the unknown in the realm of aspartame and co. is cause for alarm for many health professionals and otherwise interested consumers.

Picking up some flavored coffee the other night at the supermarket (Starbucks’ naturally-flavored caramel… I can’t wait to try it!), I was hit by a craving for a sweet sodie. Our health food store has a few such products to offer, and so I snagged a 6-pack of Zevia, a non-caloric soda I had spotted a week or so ago at Whole Foods.

Zevia’s ingredient list is blessedly short– triple filtered carbonated water, the (safe) sugar alcohol erythritol, citric acid, orange oil for flavor, stevia and annatto, a natural food coloring agent. The brand, which calls itself “nature’s answer to diet soda,” comes in seven flavors– Dr. Zevia, Cola, Ginger ale, Orange, Black Cherry, Twist and Ginger Root Beer. All seven are calorie-free.

Because any drink tastes better out of fancy glassware, I poured my first can of Zevia Orange into a red wine glass filled halfway with ice, and got to sippin’.

The verdict? A delicious medium between a flavored seltzer and sugar-sweetened sodie, Zevia’s orange-flavored concoction hit the spot.

‘Twas a perfect summer day, and perfect at that for a Zevia natural sodie! The 6-pack retailed for $5.99 at my local food co-op.

On an entirely unrelated note, I’ve decided to include the evidence of a minor animal rights violation my father and I committed en route to work the other day:

In our defense, Sophie the Dog didn’t seem to mind, but really… for shame! I guess we finally have conclusive evidence that our family is completely meshuggeneh1.

For more information on Zevia sodas, click here.

1 Yiddish for ‘crazy’ or ‘senseless’

Fake sugar, part 1

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My parents, bless their leftist souls, never kept any soda in the house. Coca-Cola was a treat for my mother on airplane rides, or for my father as a beverage at a friend’s barbeque, but not once did a two-liter bottle of Coke cross our doorstep. Young Sarah didn’t feel deprived, however, because, with the exception of the occasional Orange Crush, I didn’t much enjoy the taste nor sensation of drinking soda.

Enter the summer after my high school graduation, just weeks before I was to begin my first year at Smith. Volunteering for a week at a camp for emotionally- and mentally-challenged young Vermonters, I readily joined my fellow staffers for an evening nightcap– a frosty can of soda.

While we camp counselors weren’t paid for the week, the powers that be seemed to sympathize with the always-trying behavior we dealt with as staff members, and offered us an evening treat of Coke or Fresca in return.

I was at the time a soda virgin, never having experienced the joys of downing a cold can of artificially-sweetened nirvana. Scanning the back of a can of Diet Coke, I was genuinely surprised to read that the drink contained zero calories. In the midst of a zealous campaign to eliminate calories and sugary foods in particular, I was only too happy to welcome Diet Coke and its noncaloric contemporaries into my life.

Adjusting weeks later to my beautiful but overwhelming new home in Western Massachusetts, I was cheered to see Diet Coke in the college dining halls. The sweet beverage was the perfect endnote to meals that grew increasingly spartan, and drinking several servings of the stuff effectively killed any hunger I might have had.

I soon began to expand my usage of artificial sweeteners, using Equal to sweeten mugs of hot peppermint tea or black coffee. Trolling the supermarket with a fellow eating disordered-friend, we were thrilled to discover a variety of low-carbohydrate hot chocolate with no added sugar. With only 25 calories per serving, we could finally have our dessert and drink it too.

As the weight and my ability to keep myself warm declined, I was rarely to be seen without a mug of Equal-heavy tea or coffee. Cold diet soda was for the dining halls, made warm and cozy by the sheer number of bodies milling about.

In treatment for my compulsive exercising and undereating several months later, diet sodas became more or less verboten. They filled a stomach that desired calories and nutrients, and so proved an obstacle to weight gain. It was not until I had gained the requisite twenty-some pounds that I would, slowly and cautiously, re-introduce noncaloric sodas into my diet.

I have relapsed multiple times in the past three years, but have only recently made the decision to drop diet sodas all together. While some scientific evidence suggests that diet beverages and foods trick the body into craving more sweets, I have not found this to be the case. Rather, my decision to eliminate artificial sweeteners is one borne of a different concern– that for a toxin-free diet and body.

While evidence does vary on the subject of aspartame et al., the overarching conclusion seems to one of inconclusion; there is simply not enough long-term evidence to condone or condemn the use of such sweeteners, and it is this lack of knowledge that frightens me.

To be sure, aspartame and acesulfame K are no thalidomide1, but I am wary, in the tradition of the great Michael Pollan, of treating such “frankenfoods” as if they are no different than a freshly-picked peach or pear.

Wholesomer-than-thou rant aside, I recognize the common need and desire for a noncaloric sugar substitute. For anyone watching their blood sugar, the introduction of sucralose-based Splenda has been a happy boon. For the small minority of folks who cannot consume sugar because of allergies, such faux sweeteners have also been celebrated.

There exist a variety of noncaloric and presumably “safe” sweeteners (Stevia, for example), and it is my intention in a series of posts to come to review such products. I will post such reviews as they come up; that is to say, as I experiment with and taste the various options for a sugar- and risk-free beverage.

To begin with, I’ll review Sun Crystals®, a product that combines stevia and sugar cane to create a “100% natural sweetener that’s deliciously low in calories.” At 5 calories a packet (a packet of sugar has 10 to 20), Sun Crystals do save the consumer a little bit calorie-wise, but what of the taste?

Photo credit: sizzlingsamples.com

Photo credit: thethriftydivas.com

Unfortunately, I found Sun Crystals to be overly-sweet, which, as any soda drinker knows, just ain’t no fun.

While I felt somewhat reassured that the sicky-sweet crystals contained no artificial ingredients, I would not recommend the product to anyone looking for a sugar-like taste. If you want to try Sun Crystals out, however, head on over to https://www.suncrystals.com/shop/free-sun-crystals/ to order your free sample.

Better luck next time, folks!

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thalidomide