Honest Kombucha Drinks. Lemon Ginger, Peach Mango and Berry Hibiscus. $3.49 per 16-ounce bottle.
Bonnie: Kombucha is fermented tea made by adding active cultures of bacteria and yeast to sugar in tea and allowing it to ferment, resulting in natural effervescence. Vinegar is made in a similar way, which is why Kombucha is sometimes called "vinegar tea." But is Kombucha safe, and can it live up to its purported health claims?
That's hard to say since to date, the Mayo Clinic says, no human trials with Kombucha have been reported in a major medical journal. This doesn't mean that Kombucha tea isn't safe and/or doesn't have health benefits — only that as yet there's no direct evidence of Kombucha's purported ability to stimulate the immune system, prevent cancer and improve digestion and liver function.
Personally, I don't like these teas' slightly tart, slightly sweet fermented taste. But even if I did, I'd still avoid Kombucha until I knew its actual risks and benefits.
Carolyn: I can understand why Bonnie would question this product's safety. Honest Kombucha tastes like drinks that have gone bad. The Peach Mango, in particular, reminds me of apple cider that's spent a few too many weeks in the back of the fridge.
Kombucha IS spoiled in the sense that it's made by fermenting tea and sugar with yeast and bacteria. But it's the safe and edible kind of spoilage also used to make cheese and yogurt. In fact, you could call these the yogurt of teas.
Nobody likes yogurt when they first try it, but then a lot of people get used to it and even grow to like it. Maybe the same thing could happen to me if I drank Kombucha as much as Cameron Diaz (the actress is supposedly a big fan), but I doubt it. (In fact, Kombucha's bad taste is to me the best evidence of its health benefits or people wouldn't have been drinking it since 221 B.C.)
Honest Tea drinkers who come to Kombucha with as little knowledge as I did should be warned that unlike other Honest Teas, these must be refrigerated and are carbonated, and so must not be shaken lest you end up wearing as much of it as you drink.
Stacy's Pita Chips. Garden Veggie Medley, and Italian Harvest. $3.29 per 7.33-ounce bag.
Bonnie: Like Stacy's regular chips, these new Garden Veggie Medley and Italian Harvest chips are baked from all-natural pita bread. I liked the Garden Veggie's flavor more than the Italian Harvest's, but both had a chemical aftertaste. I scoured the ingredient panel for the culprit and found baker's yeast extract, a flavor enhancer used in many all-natural foods.
Yeast extract often contains glutamic acid and its salts, just as MSG does. Yet the government currently allows products containing yeast extracts to say "no added MSG."
Wish I could recommend these, but I can't. I also can't seem to get rid of the awful aftertaste.
Carolyn: Yes, Virginia, there is a Stacy. In the late 1990s, she owned a pita wrap sandwich cart in downtown Boston that attracted such long lunchtime lines that she began giving away leftover baked pita pieces with flavorings as a way to keep the crowds happy where they waited. Eventually the snack chips became more popular than the sandwiches and the basis of a snack food company so successful that in 2006 it was gobbled up by Frito-Lay.
One bite of her new Garden Veggie Medley chip — now making its way into supermarkets around the country with its sister Italian Harvest flavor — is all you need to understand Stacy's success. It has a simple, classy herbal taste dominated by rosemary, a satisfying crunch and just enough salt to be addictive on its own (though it would also make a great base for soft nonflavored cheese). The Italian is Italian-tasting but not as distinctive and too salty.
Ore-Ida Steam 'n Mash Cut Red Potatoes. $3.69 per 24-ounce bag.
Bonnie: I've long been a fan of Ore-Ida Steam 'n Mash Potatoes, especially the Sweet Potato variety. So I looked forward to testing this new red one.
Steam 'n Mash Red Potatoes contain only potatoes, salt and disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate, an ingredient generally recognized as safe, which is used here to keep the potatoes from darkening. As with the others in this line, you steam the frozen potatoes in the microwave, add the optional butter and milk, and mash.
Without the optional ingredients, a three-quarter-cup serving provides 70 calories, no fat and 270 milligrams of sodium — or a tad too much sodium nutritionally speaking and for my taste. I still recommend Steam 'n Mash Cut Red Potatoes, but if you dress them with butter, be sure it's unsalted.
Carolyn: I agreed to awarding Ore-Ida's Steam 'n Mash our Golden Shopping Cart Award for best new product of 2008 in large part because it saves me from the drudgery of peeling potatoes. But Ore-Ida's latest Steam 'n Mash variety features cut red potatoes with their skins still on.
Could that odious peeling job even be getting to Ore-Ida?
I don't think so. First, because I'm sure Ore-Ida has machines to do the peeling. Second, because leaving red potatoes' thin skins on gives these microwaved, mashed potatoes more color, flavor and texture. Yes, Cut Red Potatoes are another Steam 'n Mash winner.
Bonnie Tandy Leblang is a registered dietitian and professional speaker. She has an interactive site (www.biteofthebest.com) about products she recommends. Follow her on Twitter: BonnieBOTB. Carolyn Wyman is a junk-food fanatic and author of "The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book" (Running Press). Each week, they critique three new food items.