Soy Cheese That Isn’t Hateful

Hormel Chili Meals

By: Hormel Foods

I Paid: $2.69 for a 10-ounce package (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 1stars


Marketing: 2stars

Hormel has done a good job building excitement with its shelf-stable, microwavable chili meals. The brightly colored containers feature big, shiny, glistening piles of meat; the titles of the dishes use n instead of and; and the packaging proudly proclaims “Ready in 90 Seconds.” So when you dig into Chili’n Mac, Chili’n Penne, or Chili’n Spuds, you’re in for a rude surprise.

I tasted Chili’n Penne with my wife, and her first words—spontaneous, impassioned, instantaneous—were: “It’s like eating dog food.” This wasn’t a situation where she was cracking wise, or going for shock value. The gelatinous texture, washed-out flavor, and horrible orange color of the foodlike substance in Hormel’s Chili’n Penne, in fact, far more resembles pet food than your worst fears imagined.

Chili’n Mac, by comparison, is good. Don’t misread that: The words by comparison are absolutely key. It’s a bowl of low-grade meat and short noodles that has been spiked with chili powder, on a par with or slightly below the typical Chef Boyardee offering in terms of quality and sophistication.

In conclusion: When lunchtime arrives and you only have 90 seconds in which to prepare your meal, consider eating a turkey sandwich.

Veggie Shreds

By: Galaxy Nutritional Foods

I Paid: $3.29 to $3.39 for a 7-ounce bag of shreds (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 4stars


Marketing: 3stars

Few gastronomic concepts could be more horrifying to a true cheese-lover than the prospect of bags of preshredded faux cheese (whose main ingredients include soy, oil, and starch) passing themselves off as the real thing. But for the lactose intolerant, the ability to enjoy the warm, melted goodness of a grilled cheese sandwich, nachos, or pizza must be an alluring thought.

Veggie Shreds are marketed as the gluten- and lactose-free stand-in for shredded cheese: same meltability, same flavor (the product comes in “cheddar” and “mozzarella” varieties), and similar calcium-providing benefits. It’s cheeky, but it’s also surprising how close these things come to their mark.

Make no mistake: Veggie Shreds are pale imitations. They lack the flavor and fullness of real cheese. The pieces melt a bit more slowly and not quite as completely. That said, they form a warm, gooey layer in a grilled cheese or on nachos that is a pleasant echo of the real stuff, and they provide a bit of that salty flavor you look for in a supermarket-grade melting cheese, without an unpleasant aftertaste. If Veggie Shreds fall short of the mark, they do so without committing any grave crimes.

The Cheddar Flavor doesn’t really echo actual cheddar’s sharp/funky umami taste, but neither does it resemble anything off-kilter; it is, in fact, a decent approximation of American cheese. Meanwhile, the Mozzarella Flavor has some trademark mozz stringiness. Veggie Shreds won’t be replacing real cheeses in the typical American kitchen anytime soon. But for what they are—a cheese-esque product—they’re surprisingly admirable.

James Norton edits the Upper Midwestern food journal Heavy Table. He's also the coauthor of a book on Wisconsin's master cheesemakers. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.