Supertaster’s Five Best and Worst Foods of 2011

BEST

As a human lab rat working on the front lines of mass-marketed meals and new fast food, I've had to choke down some rather unpleasant suppers in the name of journalism. The happy flip side is that there's a lot out there that's better than it looks, and some good-looking stuff that even fulfills its promise. What follows are five of the best new products I sampled this year.

Orangerie
The Scotch whisky purist in me recoiled at the first sight of this blended Scotch-meets-orange-meets-cassia-meets-clove abomination, but the design aficionado in me was intrigued by the screamingly classy art nouveau packaging and bottle design. Against all odds, this beverage tastes like a sophisticated whisky cocktail, with perfect balance and pure, natural flavors. Among the most unusual new liquors on the market and also among the best.

So Delicious Coconut Milk Creamer
One of the real marks of a great product is how it changes the way you live everyday life. So Delicious Coconut Milk Creamer is part of that rare group that make a serious impact. When pitted against conventional half-and-half, So Delicious has zero fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and fewer calories. It's a bit sweet, making additional sugar redundant. In other words, 365 splashes of half-and-half and pours of sugar could be replaced by 365 splashes of something considerably healthier, without any marked decrease in coffee-experience quality. It's a trivial product with a major impact for dedicated coffee drinkers.

Regal Vegan Faux Gras
One of the many challenges inherent in living better is doing without, minus the burden of feeling as though you're doing without. Faux Gras, a vegan spread of toasted walnuts and lentils, enhanced by onions, miso, tamari, and ume plum vinegar, is a brilliant step forward on that front. It tastes luscious, funky, and filling without either the health or animal-rights concerns of good ol' foie gras, and it's cleverly marketed to boot.

KonaRed
If you, food consumer, sometimes feel a bit bored by the same old flavors and concepts, consider the plight of the mass-market food reviewer, whose spelunking through hundreds of different fast-food and grocery-store options turns up hundreds of variations on tired themes. It's a real pleasure to taste something totally new, something like KonaRed, a beverage made from coffee fruit, the fleshy bits of plant material surrounding coffee beans. KonaRed is refreshing and tropical thanks to its pineapple juice component, but it's also funky and a bit herbal thanks to the blueberry taste of the coffee fruit itself.

Cascal Fermented Natural Soda
There are plenty of good reasons not to drink. Despite this, teetotalers, pregnant women, and designated drivers tend to get punished with the same old oppressive choices: soda, bad iced tea, watery lemonade, or water. With exotic names and pleasant flavors, Cascal Fermented Natural Sodas represent an entirely different direction—they evoke the complexity and balance of decent wines without the alcohol or fussiness. Cascal is part of the future of nonalcoholic beverages, a future that can't come too soon for those of us who occasionally (or always) pass up the hard stuff.

WORST

It's an honor and a pleasure to taste and evaluate the output of corporate America's sprawling food-industrial complex so that my readers need not suffer the numerous disasters that emerge from the belly of the beast. What follows are five total flavor grenades that you would be wise to dodge.

Hot Rose Spicy Cinnamon Cream Liqueur
Hot Rose is one of the worst products made by anyone in the history of the human race. This tequila-spiked liqueur is poorly conceived, poorly packaged, and so poorly flavored it suggests it was never meant to be potable in the first place. With a pinkish-red color and a taste like chemicals and cayenne, this viscous liquid has nothing in the way of pleasant (or even natural) flavors to moderate the experience. The fact that it costs $18 a bottle and comes in packaging appropriate to a low-end novelty marital aid puts it in contention for all-time-worst status. Sometimes a product is so terrible I actually have to bow in respect. Hot Rose, I salute you.

Reese's Dessert Bar Mix
This joyless, messy, lousy-tasting product has most of the work and toil of making your own baked goods with none of the payoff—the final product is just sugar, sugar, and more sugar, with little in the way of flavor or charm. This product manages to capture the glum, demoralizing dark side of home baking, the exact opposite of the heartwarming and cheerful feeling you get from making scratch cookies. If you're going to surrender to the evil forces of mass-market desserts, eating an Oreo is a lot quicker and more pleasurable.

Guayakí Yerba Mate Organic Energy Shots
There are two possibly good things that could take place when you drink an energy shot. The first is that you might enjoy the flavor. The second, slightly more likely outcome is that you'll feel a productivity-enhancing surge of energy. These "organic" energy shots taste "rank, vegetal, and pungent" (to quote my own review) and produced absolutely nothing in the way of energy when compared to a conventional, nonorganic 5-Hour Energy shot. If you want to spend a lot of money per ounce to drink something that tastes bad and has little or no effect, these suckers are your drink of choice.

Allergaroo Spyglass Noodles
The misery that is food allergies and/or gluten intolerance is neatly summed up by Allergaroo Spyglass Noodles. This shelf-stable wheat-, milk-, soy-, peanut-, tree nut–, egg-, fish-, and shellfish-free penne and sauce product would be a godsend for sensitive eaters were it not the slimy, borderline spoiled-tasting mess of a meal it turns out to be. Like Reese's Dessert Bar Mix (see below), this is a product that radiates a melancholy sense of failure and loneliness.

Jack Daniel's Seasoned and Cooked Pulled Pork
How hard can it be to mix pulled pork, Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey, and barbecue sauce to create a tasty, refrigerated supermarket sandwich solution? Harder than it looks, apparently, because this beautifully packaged product turned into a total (figurative) turkey somewhere along the way—maybe when the manufacturer added brown sugar, dark brown sugar, sugar, molasses, corn syrup, molasses, corn syrup, and yet more sugar. When a serving of pulled pork has as much sugar as a Hershey's bar, you've overdone the sweet stuff and turned your slam-dunk into an embarrassing whiff.