Thursday, June 12, 2014

Mind Over Matter | On the Road to Sweet Success

In the trenches of the No Sugar Challenge, one might think that there is nothing but survival as we muster the strength to forage for food not laden in the sweet stuff, however, the taste of sweet success is not served on a silver spoon. It is the taste of victory...

Meet Kristina, a new friend of mine. In mid April, she posted in a local running Facebook group that she was looking for a running buddy in my city. I NEVER respond to this sort of thing... call me shy, backward, whatever, but it is just not like me. I decided to comment and say that I was in the area, so we met at a local coffee shop the next day to get to know one another. From the first meeting, I could tell that Kristina was a fun-loving, super dedicated working momma. It wasn't hard to find common ground in our love for family and the all-too-real struggle to bounce-back-after baby (her second baby was born in October of 2013). She told me that she began running (and completed 3 5k's) before her recent pregnancy and was ready to jump back in. We wasted no time, and planned our first run the next day on April 15. 

Let's just face it, folks, runner's anxiety is real. "I wonder if they are the same pace as me. Will I be able to keep up? Will I die from lack of oxygen? What if I have to walk and they don't." Even my BFF, Darcy, says I make her anxious when we run, and I PROMISE, that is the last thing I am trying to do. This "runner's anxiety" has kept me a lone runner for the first 2 1/2 years of my running habit. It can keep you from really enjoying the company and safety of others, and create all sorts of unhealthy "comparison conversations" in your head. The truth of the matter is, everyone starts somewhere. If you start where you are now, just think of where you will be in 1 year, 2 years, 3 years!

If Kristina had any of these apprehensions, she surely hid it well. Our first run was an interval set, with a 16:39 min/mi pace. The greatest milestone of the day was for her to make the decision to get dressed, put her shoes on and drive to my house, and run with someone that she hardly even knew. It was that day that she clothed herself with determination, and now she is on her way. 

The following week, she moved and had to take a week off of running. That sort of thing could derail anyone's efforts in a new lifestyle change, but not Kristina! This gal works full time, has a 4 year old and an 8 month old, handled a move, spends the weekends living a full family life, and yet, her mind is set on accomplishing the goal of running and greater health. 

Each time we have met, we have stretched the running intervals a little longer. The first goal was to reach running a full 1 mile without stopping. Imagine my hysterical surprise when partway through our first full mile she turns into full coach mode, saying, "Tasha, keep going, don't stop, you better not slow down!"... lol... Boy, I'm glad she was there to keep me motivated! :-) Every time we talk about visualizing the progress for the future months, I tell her to imagine what her family Christmas pictures will look like, and her response is, "I'm going to rock those pictures, look at me now!" So much fun to see a go-get-it personality in action. 

This morning was a particularly monumental day for Kristina. We are almost halfway through the 30 day No Sugar Challenge, and she discovered that she is down 10 lbs! Whoop whoop! Not only that, but our last full run interval on Tuesday was 1.28 miles with an average of 13:33 min/mi pace, and today, she rocked out a full 2 mi run with a 13 min/mi pace! When we hit the 1.5 mi mark and she kept running, I had a feeling that she already had a goal in mind, and she did! For the most part, I have tried to give Kristina a couple options each running session as to how to reach the next goal level. Sometimes it is based on length of intervals, sometimes it is "run to the next stop sign." Almost always, she has exceeded the goal based on something she has made up in her own mind. Her motto, "Mind over Matter" presses her on to her next goal, despite what her body may fee like. I respect the fact that Kristina stretches her own abilities without setting the bar so high that it is unattainable. 

It is so exciting to see the transformation within Kristina and this is just the beginning! Share this and follow along as we watch this crazy girl in action!!

As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Breakfast Tacos | Day 5 No Sugar Challenge

I absolutely LOVE having fresh ingredients on hand to assemble quick and healthy meals. I am a firm believer that we should include vegetables in our breakfast, and it makes eating healthy all day very natural. Last night, we made tacos, so I had whole wheat tortillas on hand for breakfast (check brand ingredients for added sugar: La Tortilla low carb whole wheat seemed to be good). So when I came home from running with my friend Kristina, I quickly cooked:
 1 whole egg and 1 egg white in a pan with a small amount of olive oil spray
Grabbed a hand full of baby greens
Layered them on the whole wheat tortilla 
Topped with the below salsa
and 1 tbsp of plain Greek Chobani yogurt

Yes, you should come over :-)

Yesterday, on The Brick House Facebook page, I shared this super easy Ninja-made salsa.

18 Roma tomatoes
1 green pepper
1 red pepper
2 jalapeƱos
2 garlic cloves (grated finely)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 1/2 tsp lime juice
1/4 tsp cumin
Salt to taste

Using Ninja Mega Kitchen System (BL771) food processing attachment (you can cut by hand if needed), I processed the tomatoes, pulsing for only about 15 seconds, then drained excess liquid. Process all the peppers to desired chunkiness, and combine ingredients. Eat. Yum.

Happy Day 5 of the No Sugar Challenge!


*affiliate links to keep The Brick House lights on :-)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

National Running Day | June 4th, 2014

I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Phil 3:14

Running. It is either loved or despised. And sometimes both. At the same time. Four or five years ago, if you told me that I would run, on purpose, and not because someone was chasing me, I would have told you to check your meds. When I began trying to shed some weight, I could not dedicate enough time to walking in order for it to begin to rev my metabolism. Since I was a teenager I often used at home workout videos, but that was not doing it for me either. It seemed like everywhere I turned, someone was talking about running, or using a couch-to-5k program to get started. I read where people who were much bigger body frame than myself were getting out there and trying to run. Out of nowhere it was like something inside me said, "Tasha, you are going to conquer this thing you said you would never do."

You may have read a previous post about this, so just humor me. When I set out to do the first day of the couch-2-5k training, it appeared that I would almost die for lack of oxygen. However, I survived. It was during a time of personal/family economical struggle, which threatened to crush me emotionally. Every time I laced up my shoes, it was like I was slapping my situation in the face. "You cannot beat me," was my heart's cry. I would literally pray during the run intervals that God would lengthen my endurance, no matter what the trial was, that I would be able to persevere and come out on the other end. Those very prayers are what kept me from stopping my run intervals before the timer dinged. It was a test of my physical and emotional ability. Rev. Joe Hanthorn said, " Faith is not faith until you have had a good chance to quit." Running was my opportunity to build my faith. In God's strength and in my own. 

1 Corinthians 9:24 says: 
24Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.
25And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.
 26I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air:
 27But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.

Everytime I ran a little further, I felt weakness leave my body. Physical and emotional weakness. It was bringing my unruly, spoiled, don't-like-to-be-uncomfortable flesh back in check. Life is hard, but we, powered by the Spirit of God, are equipped to be stronger than we ever thought we could be.

And running made me a stronger person. 

What will you conquer today, on this National Running Day?


Monday, June 2, 2014

Coffee Talk | Day 2 | No Sugar Challenge

Did you survive day 1? Are you still speaking to me? The first week is the most challenging. For one thing, EVERYTHING seems to have sugar in it. And, just when you have bravely made up your mind to stay away from sugar, something crazy happens like you have to decorate 140 cupcakes and remember not to lick the frosting off your fingers (spoken from experience). Just keep on trucking. If you hit a snag, pick yourself up off the floor and move on. 

The biggest concern that I heard about yesterday was the fear of losing your sweet date with Mr. Joe. You know, that tall, dark, and yummy, make-your-heart-beat-faster, coffee date. I hear your concern. I agree, this was my toughest battle! The coffee is not the problem. It is what we put in it that is the real issue. We are aiming to stay away from sugar & artificial sweeteners and it would seem that life just simply will not be the same without coffee just the way we like it. I encourage you to open your mind to the possibility of learning a new way to enjoy your coffee. 

In The No Sugar Challenge post, I talked about how, in effort to eliminate the use of Splenda, I opted to brew flavored coffee, and add a splash of half & half. Please recognize, that flavored coffee beans are very different than going to a coffee shop and ordering a flavored coffee (French Vanilla, Irish Cream, etc.). The baristas use flavored syrups that are sugar or sugar alternative based. This will not help you on your No Sugar Challenge.
In the case of flavored coffee beans (grounds), the beans have been flavored during the drying process with a very small amount of oil (somewhere around 3%) that allows the flavor to penetrate the porous exterior of the bean. This translates to a negligible amount of nutrient difference, but it offers a great flavor boost. Some great brands to try are New England Coffee (hazelnut, blueberry, French vanilla), Eight o'Clock (French vanilla, caramel macchiato, hazelnut). Additionally, Panera Bread restaurant serves hazelnut coffee in brew form (not a flavored syrup), however, the other flavors are via syrup. It is important that you ask the barista/restaurant if their flavored coffee is brewed flavor or syrup based. 

The next thing to consider is your cream choice. Some folks are good with straight up black coffee. They are my heroes. :-) For the rest of us, cream or some form of milk is used to round out the sharp, bitter flavor that straight brewed coffee has. The Virginia Cooperative Extension did a side by side comparison of non-dairy creamers, half & half and skim milk. Hands down, nutritionally speaking, skim milk won, due to the decreased fat and calories, however, for most people that will not offer enough body to make their coffee experience enjoyable. Let's go back to the non-dairy creamer for a moment. Both the liquid and the powdered form have some concerning ingredients that put them on our "no-no" list.

Liquid Non-Dairy Creamer has Water, Corn Syrup, Soybean & Cottonseed Oil, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Sodium Caseinate (A Milk Derivative), Dipotassium Phosphate, Mon-& Diglycerides, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate. Not A Source Of Lactose

Powdered Non-Dairy Creamer has Corn Syrup SolidsPartially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Sodium Caseinate (A Milk Derivative), Dipotassium Phosphate, Mono- And Diglycerides, Silicon Dioxide, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Soy Lecithin, Artificial Flavor, Artificial Color. Allergy Warning: Contains Milk And Soy.

So you can see the trouble that this could cause, as one of the main ingredients is corn syrup (or solids), and in the case of the powdered, partially hydrogenated soybean oil is a nasty form of trans fat that we need to avoid like the plague.

Another option you may want to consider is unsweetened vanilla almond milk, however, it is important to read labels, as some varieties contain added thickeners and hidden sugar. Silk brand unsweetened vanilla is the most clean variety, so give it a go. 

A final thought on half & half. If you are eating mostly vegetables, fruit, lean protein and healthy carbs, the added fat from a tablespoon or 2 of half & half will not be too dangerous to your weight loss/ health goals. That being said, carefully monitoring all other areas, and keeping your consumption within recommended serving size should be a safe way to enjoy your morning coffee date. 

If you are adventurous, try adding a shake of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg or a dash of vanilla extract directly to your coffee grinds for brewing. It will give a warm, yummy aroma with added flavor. If you simply cannot handle zero sweetener, you may want to drop a dried, pitted, unsweetened date in the bottom of your coffee cup, allow it to sit for 2-3 min and remove it (it begins to break up). Dates have a caramel flavor that is very yummy, totally natural, and may add just the right amount of sweetener for you!

So, you and Mr. Joe are happily reunited, on to a more healthy future, and will be off to conquer the world...


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Crockpot Apple Cinnamon Steel Cut Oats | Day 1 No Sugar Challenge

So, I have been challenged to share a "no sugar" recipe each day of June. I am going to do my best to keep you stocked full of ideas.

While it is summertime, this crockpot oats recipe is good to make ahead for the week, and doesn't heat up your whole kitchen. Let me point out a few things about the ingredients.

  1. Steel cut oats are a more whole form of oats that are heartier and retain their shape better in cooking. They take longer to cook, but the result is a almost nutty texture. The best brand (or most widely recognized) is Bob's Red Mill Oats Steel Cut. I order them from Amazon, or Big Lots has been carrying them as well. 
  2. Almond milk is all the rage, but many varieties contain sugar, especially the flavored ones. Silk brand unsweetened almond milk is the cleanest variety out there. You can use regular skim milk if you would like.
  3. Be sure that the raisins and dates that you choose are not coated in sugar, dextrose, or the like. Look at the ingredients and it should only read "raisins" and "dates". No brainer.
  4. When buying coconut oil, it is really important to choose extra virgin, cold pressed. It is the highest quality with the most nutrients available. The cheapest place that I have found it is Sam's Club. 
Just yesterday I  made a different variety of this using ripe bananas, cinnamon, cloves, raisins and walnuts. It was like banana bread in a bowl. You will be so surprised at how the fruit can sweeten oatmeal without added sweetener. And you get the benefit of fiber, to boot!

Happy first day!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sweet Summertime No Sugar Challenge

This is a challenge that you may HATE at the beginning, but grow to LOVE! In the spring of 2012, I was taking a biology class that was designed for non-science majors (because I originally went back to school for business). My professor, Dr. Fernandez-Nunez, seemed to be there on special assignment to convince non-science majors to become science majors. Well, I worked. He really flipped the switch on my nutrition education path. By that point, I had been running and watching my diet fairly closely for about 7 months. Weight loss had hit a plateau and I wondered if I would ever reach a normal BMI. Since that time, I have not only been able to blast pass the plateau, but have reached a healthy BMI, reduced fatigue, strengthened my immune system and I can attribute it to the 30 day no sugar challenge (that I loved so much I stuck with for over 6 months, and still work hard to limit added sugar)!

During one of his lectures, he began to describe the impact of sugar on our cells, and the inflammation that occurs when the body has to process large quantities of sugar. He also discussed the chemical effects of sugar alternatives in the biofeedback mechanism between the stomach and the brain. A good bit of what he discussed can be seen in this video:

While the video is lengthy, and some of the science may make your brain swim, the meat and bones is the fact that our human body was not meant to process the quantity of sugar nor chemical alternatives that we offer it on a daily basis. In areas of the world with low incidents of diabetes, cancer and heart disease, the people gain their nutrition from whole fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains. Fruit is used as the sweetener, with the occasional addition of natural sweeteners such as honey.

That is where the no sugar challenge comes in. There are several things that this "fast" does for us. It cleanses our system of additional sugar and toxic alternatives. During the time of the fast, there is a rejuvenation of the taste sensation that has becomes dull and desensitized to the sweetness in fruit and even in some vegetables. Somewhere around the second week, you may discover that foods have much more flavor and you will begin to enjoy good, whole foods.

As you shop, you will want to become an avid label reader. It would be easy to assume certain foods, such as canned beans would not have sugar in them, but don't be fooled! I have seen kidney beans packed in high fructose corn syrup (a chemically modified form of sugar), pasta sauce with huge amounts of added sugar and high fructose corn syrup, standard peanut butter has loads of sugar, and you would be astonished to realized that pretty much any loaf of bread on the shelf has sugar, honey or high fructose corn syrup.

During the challenge (and even afterwards), I recommend these whole wheat pitas (or something similar).

Carefully read the labels, folks! The ingredient list is your friend. Know what is in your food. This label indicates that there is less than 2% of a few ingredients, sugar being one of them. This is about as clean eating bread product as you can find. If you find something else, message me!

As I mentioned before, pasta sauce, peanut butter, and condiments will most likely contain sugar. If you live in "Publix" land, their deli peanut butter is just plain ol' peanuts and it is FANTASTIC! As far as sauces are concerned, Hunts Garlic and Herb contains no sugar or high fructose corn syrup (but it is a little thin), and there are some other varieties that do not add sugar, but you need to read your label. 
By and large, focus your meals around the veggies, lean protein, fruits and whole grains. Season with herbs, and dress your salads with different varieties of vinegar, mustards (check for sugar content), and some extra virgin olive oil. 

If you are weaning yourself from soda, consider seltzer water with orange, lemon or lime slices. Years ago, I was a diet Sprite lover, so when I was weaning myself off of artificial sweeteners, I began occasionally having this and it satisfied my desire for a fizzy drink. Another idea is to add fruit and mint to water.
My absolute favorite is pineapple and mint. This is a great use for those pineapple cores that tend to just be thrown in the trash! During Thanksgiving time, I bought several bags of fresh cranberries and threw them in the freezer. Other combinations to try are strawberry and kiwi, lemon & lime, cucumber and melon. You will benefit from the added water, and from the increased vitamins from the fruit!

Let's talk about something real important. Coffee. :-)

Without a doubt, I love my coffee. Prior to my "no sugar awakening," I took my coffee with half & half and Splenda or some sort of flavored creamer. During the fast, I knew this would be the toughest spot for me. While I always wanted to be one of those "I'll take it black" gals, I just could not hack it. Here was my strategy: flavored coffee (coffee that has flavored grounds, such as hazelnut, French Vanilla, etc.) with a splash of half & half. The first few days were a bit rough, but honestly, by the second week it was just fine, and to this day, I can easily take my coffee with a small splash of half & half, and be happy about it :-). 

So, here lies your June Summertime No Sugar Challenge! Tomorrow is the big day! I know that you are going to make it! Do this for your health, you have nothing to lose, and whole lot to gain! See some SWEET SUCCESS this SUMMERTIME! - Besides, I'm doing it with you... so message me if you have any questions or concerns...


Friday, May 30, 2014

Fresh vs. Dried Herbs | Herbed Polenta Showdown

If you ever want to find out my crazy rambling interests, just take a peak at my Pinterest board along the right side of the blog... 


Learning about the uses of herbs have come as a slow integration of the cooking experience. However, I cannot say that I have fully experienced the eye-opening opportunity of tasting several herbs individually, both dried and fresh in order to contemplate their impact on the flavors of our dishes. So, today's lab was a great experiment! I highly recommend anyone who wants to punch up their meals in a healthy way to open your spice drawer and pick up their fresh counterparts to do a little side by side comparison... these are my findings:

Dried Herb

Small, stick-like, light green
Stiff, sharp ends, not as easily crumbled
Woody, clean
Italian (Flat leaf) Parsley
Papery, darker green, lightweight
Mellow, with high notes towards the end
Crisp, lightweight, thin, crumbly
Fine, small whole leaves, light green-to-yellow
Bitter and soapy, very astringent towards the end
Light, stiff, crumbly
Ground fine, powder, green with a touch of grey color
Musky, deep
Slight mustard smell

Fresh Herb

Long, evergreen type leaves,
Slightly bitter, with a little pepper taste, a fresh citrus-like note
Firm, shiny leaves with a thick stem
Bright aroma, similar to citrus
Italian (Flat leaf) Parsley
Light, airy leaves, flexible stems
Somewhat bitter, when bitten into, sharp flavor
Lightweight, easily chewed thin leaves
Very little smell
Petite green leaves on stiff stick-like stem
Sharp, peppery
Fragrant, sharp
Soft leaves, green with fuzzy surface
Astringent, pungent, like the pith of a citrus fruit
Soft, pliable leaves with a velvety texture
High notes of freshness


Ground cloves
Dark brown, powder
Deep, spicy, with pepper flavor towards the end
Rich, full, spicy

Putting it to the test...

To make things more interesting, we were asked to prepare a recipe containing herbs two ways: one with fresh herbs and one with dried herbs. I found this recipe at the American Institute for Cancer Research. The original recipe calls to be served with grilled portobello mushrooms, but because my focus was on the herbs, I omitted them.

Herbed Polenta

2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 cup non-instant polenta or cornmeal
4 cups boiling water
1 small garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley (or 2 Tbsp dried)
1 tsp. crumbled fresh thyme leaves, or 1/4 tsp. dried
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary, or 1/4tsp. dried
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup (1 oz.) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Canola oil spray
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In deep, heavy pot, combine oil and polenta. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until polenta smells toasty, about 2 minutes. Remove pot from heat. Add boiling water carefully to avoid spatters. Stir until polenta is smooth. Mix in garlic, parsley, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper.

Bake polenta, uncovered 20 minutes. Stir well. Bake additional 20 minutes, or until polenta is creamy. Divide among 4 dinner plates. Sprinkle each with a quarter of the cheese.

Here is the Tasha review: 

During the herb analysis, I determined that the flavor of the dried thyme leaves were very bitter and somewhat soapy tasting, but the fresh version was crisp and peppery. As I suspected, when the dishes were complete, the polenta with the dried herbs had a stronger, more bitter flavor than the polenta with the fresh herbs. The polenta with the fresh herbs smelled brighter, with high notes from the fresh herbs, while the polenta with the dried herbs had a more deep, earthy aroma. Visually, the polenta with the fresh herbs had more of a “garden fresh” look because of the brighter green herbs, which made it more appealing. 

All of this makes me very happy that I have recently expanded my herb garden and hope to gain much more experience in introducing fresh herbs to our happy, healthy plates.... 

Green is the new black...


Sunday, May 11, 2014

My Mother's Day Gift to My Children

My very first Mother's Day was March 1st 1995. Well, not actually Mother's Day, but that was the day that my firstborn was laid upon my chest to nuzzle into my heartbeat and become my external purpose for living. From the moment that I laid eyes on him, there was a shift in my world. Somehow, it was now up to me to create an environment that would give him the best opportunity to thrive. Through prayer, books, teaching, his well-being was the center of my focus. With the addition of my sweet girl and second son, it was a full time job to ensure their growth. I do not regret a single second that I have enjoyed watching them grow.

Just a month after my daughter was born (I was 21), I suddenly and unexpectedly lost my mother to lung cancer. In the whirlwind of a toddler and a newborn, it took a while for her death to sink in. When I finally came up for air, I realized that she would never meet my second son. Ever. The hole that left in my heart was wider than I could wrap my mind around. I turned to the Lord for comfort, to ease the sorrow. I was not angry over the loss, but it did feel like somehow I was going to have to do motherhood without the help of my very own mother. I felt cheated.

Fortunately, the Lord heard my heart and brought a swarm of wonderful examples into my life to love and direct my path. I do not know where I would be without these precious ladies.

I do have to say, the thought of my children feeling that same sorrow is even heavier than the loss of my own mother. If it is vaguely in my power to prevent them from experiencing loss that deep before they need to, it is my mission to accomplish. On Mother's Day 2011, I resolved to put my health in focus. Not to be selfish, but to be here. Here when they graduate. Here when they become engaged. Here when they say "I do." Here when they welcome their first child. And when my future grandchildren graduate, for as many good long years that the Lord allows for me to walk on this Earth.

So, contrary to tradition, on Mother's Day, I hope to give my children a gift. Hugs, pictures, meals. A bike ride, a stroll on the beach. The ability to call me on the phone, or tag me in a status. We are worth it.

To your health...and Happy Mother's Day!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Compare Foods for Appearance, Texture and Flavor

This week's food lab required the sampling and evaluating 3 brands of 3 different types of food. It was a useful exercise in putting each of my senses to work as I assessed the different attribute of these items. You may find some of the information helpful as you make your future purchases.

First, I evaluated 3 brands of Strawberry all-fruit (no sugar) spread.

Food Product
Strawberry Spread-
Polaner All Fruit, Strawberry
Slightly red (under ripe strawberry), glossy, translucent
Clarified, loose gelled, smooth, almost no seeds, spreads easy
Sweet then tart, strong strawberry smell, bright contrast with peanut butter on toast
Strawberry Spread-
St. Dalfour Strawberry 100% Fruit Spread
Deep red, less glossy, fruit fibers are noticeable, clumpy
Sticky, fruit clung to itself, seedy, with pulp texture, clumps when spread
Tart then sweet, can taste grape flavor, faint fruit smell, mellow when paired with peanut butter on toast
Strawberry Spread-
Smuckers Strawberry Simply Fruit Spread
Fully red, slightly translucent, glossy
Less clarified, smooth, gelled, slimy with very few seeds, spreads smooth
Tart then sweet, strawberry flavor present, mild sweet smell, tart when paired with peanut butter on toast

I went into this experiment only having tried Polaner, so I assumed that every "all-fruit" spread would be exactly alike. Wrong! Polaner and Smuckers were very clarified, strained, and allowed only very little seeds in the spread. Polaner smelled the strongest of strawberry, but almost like strawberry candy, instead of a real strawberry (which may be from the "natural flavoring" that they add). St. Dalfour looked more like rich, ripe strawberries, stewed down with gelatin added, however, it is sweetened with grape juice and dates, so the strawberry flavor was much more subtle, and the grape flavor shown through. Smuckers was sort of the middle of the road, not overly pungent, with a light strawberry smell. The label says it uses fruit syrup, which leaves a gaping whole for wondering what types of fruit. Polaner was the least expensive at $2.39, Smuckers was $2.49 and St. Dalfour was actually on sale at $3.69. 

My pick? I actually liked St. Dalfours. Maybe it is because I could actually see strawberries in it. Perhaps because it was very mellow, yet sweet.

Next, Salsa...

Food Product
Newman’s Own Medium All Natural
Dark red, fiberous, chunky, speckled with spices, thinner liquid base
Scoopable, gritty, fiberous, chunky in liquid base with softer vegetables
Spicy, tangy, slight burning, umami smell and flavoring robust
Chi-Chi’s Medium Thick & Chunky
Bright red, more visual texture of vegetable chunks, no runny liquid base
Thick, firm vegetables, scoopable
Predominant tomato taste with heat that enters after a few seconds, strong tomato/pepper/onion smell
Casa Mamita Medium Chunky
Glossier finish, bright red, thicker base with chunks of vegetables
Medium amount of base vs. vegetable chunks, tomato fiber noticeable, scoopable
Strong tomato with very little heat towards the end, most bland variety with a sharp acidic smell

In all honesty, I prefer fresh salsa. Cooked salsa seems to lose some crispness. Anyhoo, of the three that I tested, Chi-Chi's is the only one that does not contain any sugar in the ingredients, although it did seem a bit sweet (they also show "natural flavoring" on the label). Newman's Own had a more robust, earthy taste, but the vegetables were very soft (not my cup of salsa). Casa Mamita is Aldi's brand, and I tend to pick this up for my kids to munch on with rice or on baked potatoes, but when comparing it to the other brands, it really does not have any nice heat that the other "medium" varieties have. Newman's and Casa both have a small amount of sugar (it is lower on the ingredient label), but I really prefer the varieties that contain no sugar.

My pick for best flavor? Newman's. Best Texture? Chi-chi's.

Finally, Pasta Sauce...

Food Product
Traditional Pasta Sauce-
Bright red, blended, smooth, liquefied, herb speckled
Soupy texture, slightly grainy, pureed texture, left thin coating on pasta
Lightly herbed flavor, smooth tomato flavor, slightly sweet, sharp contrast to pasta
Traditional Pasta Sauce-
Deeper red, more green herbs present, more concentrated, most texture of all
Bits of onion and tomato, thicker tomato base, left thick coating on pasta
More herb taste to compliment the tomato, some sweetness, rich umami flavor when paired with pasta
Traditional Pasta Sauce-
Bright red, gritty appearance, very few herbs present
Medium thinness, onion bits, slightly gritty
Strong onion (perhaps onion powder) flavor, pungent onion flavor when paired with pasta

This was a great item for to test. In a perfect world, I would make my own sauce. In reality, my very busy teenage boys eat their weight in pasta each week. The best I can do is find the brands that have the highest quality possible, because, after all, tomatoes are a vegetable.

I was most disappointed in Hunt's traditional pasta sauce. The consistency was that of tomato soup or maybe even thin ketchup. When added to pasta, it only lightly coated. Even more disappointing, high fructose corn syrup was a leading ingredient in the sauce. This was certainly a no-go for me. (Note: the Hunt's Garlic and Herb contains NO HFCS, however, the consistency is still very thin).  Classico surprised me, because, frankly, I rarely purchase it. It was the best in flavor and richest in consistency which coated pasta well. Barilla, a common sauce in my house, simply did not compare well with Classico. I had not noticed just how pungent the onion flavor was in their sauce until I compared it with the others. Certainly not a great pick.

So, you have now been on a food lab field trip... now wasn't that fun, kids?!