Now serving: our signature taste test. Unsponsored. Unbiased. Unapologetic. We hit the grocery aisle to make mincemeat of marketing mystique and separate the delicious dazzlers from foodborne face plants. On today’s menu: selections from the Oprah-branded O, That’s Good! collection.
THE PROMISE: TASTY WITH A TWIST
Oprah Winfrey is front and center in this line of refrigerated prepared foods launched by Kraft Heinz in August, 2017. It’s an alliance of mega-star and mega-corporation that claims a commitment to creating mouth-watering comfort food with a nutritious twist. According to effusive on-package testimonial from Oprah herself: “This tastes like home. That’s how good it is. It’s real, delicious nutritiousness you can share with your family.”
Given a choice, most consumers would love to have their cake and eat it too. Such potent wishful thinking, even partially realized, can hold sway over buying decisions. Accordingly, there’s big profit potential in nixing the bad stuff that gives indulgent treats a black eye. Successful reformulations reduce dietary downside without sacrificing the taste of the original. O, That’s Good! promises that kind of table ready win-win in lofty promotional prose. Unfortunately, the products we tested failed to deliver.
THE PRODUCT: SOUPS AND SIDES
The line consists of four soups and four side dishes. The soups offered are baked potato, creamy butternut squash, broccoli cheddar and creamy tomato basil. Sides include two mashed potato options (original and garlic) and two pastas (three cheese and creamy parmesan). An O, That’s Good! “twist” replaces a portion of the least nutritionally sound ingredient in each product (i.e. cheese, cream or potato) with a healthier vegetable alternative. We’re told this veggie vaccination has no unsavory side effects. As it turns out, that’s a tall tale.
For our taste test, we went with the pair of pasta sides. One is a variation on traditional mac and cheese while the other is a downsized alfredo, sans fettuccine.
THE PRICE: BUDGET FRIENDLY
O, That’s Good! products retail for less than $5 each. As accompaniment to a lunch or dinner meal, the 20 oz. sides are large enough to serve two adults. Either of the pastas would also make a suitable main dish for a single diner. The soups come in 16 oz tubs. For most, this is a single-serve appetizer portion.
TEST ONE: CREAMY PARMESAN PASTA
Of the two sides tested, this is the better option. Regrettably, that damns it with faint praise. Pasta and microwaves have always made odd bedfellows, so there was no expectation of perfection here. Even by lowered standards, the penne in this dish is a bland disappointment. It’s forgettable, fork-friendly ephemera there for the cheesy stuff to cling to. Texture is inoffensive, with firm mouthfeel running just a bit softer than al-dente.
Inert and lifeless pasta makes the imperfections of a glitchy sauce even more apparent. Here, the twist substitutes white bean paste for some of the cream in a parmesan-based sauce. The result is an uninspired alfredo also-ran that’s still pretty high in sodium and saturated fat.
Out of the microwave, it’s already too gummy to qualify as creamy, with viscosity more akin to thickened Elmer’s School Glue. The sauce congeals rapidly as the dish cools, turning into a mealy slog long before most people will be able to finish eating. The sub-in of white bean paste ends up tipping the balance in favor of unpleasant grit and grain.
There’s also little to crow about in the flavor department. The cheese used is parmesan in name only, offering barely perceptible hints of the complex nuttiness and pungent bite this Italian favorite is known for. Instead, we’re clobbered with a tangy brine. The downmarket mix of saline and savory is overbearing and quickly wears out its welcome. It all adds up to a forgettable helping of edible humdrum.
TEST GRADE: C-
TEST TWO: THREE CHEESE PASTA
While the parmesan pastiche is harmless sustenance, three cheese pasta is a different beast. It’s a macaroni and cheddar monstrosity that deserves to go straight from table top to trash bin without ever passing the lips. Yes, the dish is that bad.
Fatal flaws are visible as soon as serving tray leaves microwave. The sauce is a watery orange slurry of component parts. Blame for this aesthetic wipeout falls squarely on the twist. Some of the cheese has been replaced by butternut squash puree. Worse still, in the list of ingredients, it appears before “cheddars” and “colby,” meaning there’s more butternut batter in the mix than any of the cheeses.
While the tweak might not harm flavor, adding plant pudding made from a gourd with 85% water content isn’t savvy food science. The tinkering turns this side into a woeful tableau. Already problematic because we eat with our eyes first, pick up a fork and things go from bad to much worse.
Sauce may be a disaster, but pasta is the real supervillain in this mess. It’s a wholly detestable and unyielding fusilli. At once wax-like and chalky, the weird texture has a synthetic quality that gave us the creeps. Something is definitely wrong when a mouthful of pasta zaps the palate with a jolt of the heebie-jeebies. We called it quits after only a few tentative forkfuls.
Because the negatives here were so extreme, there was concern that we might have gotten a bad batch of the three cheese pasta. To be safe, we prepared a second package of the product which was purchased from a different grocery store. Results were identical to the first taste test.
TEST GRADE: F