Here They Are: Cooking Light’s 2018 Taste Test Award Winners
We tasted hundreds of products in five different categories—snacks, drinks, breakfast, sweets, and kids’ lunches—to find the healthiest and tastiest options you can buy for your family.
Every year, companies introduce hundreds of new food products to grocery store shelves. We taste many of these products, bringing you great options both in the magazine and online.
For our Annual Taste Test Awards, however, we sorted through thousands of entries and collected hundreds of products to find the best of the best—in terms of both flavor and healthfulness. And we divvied up the foods into five categories: Desk Drawer Snacks, Grab-and-Go Breakfasts, Kids’ Lunch Foods, Healthy Drinks, and End-of-Day Treats.
In order to be eligible for our initial tastings, foods had to meet our strict nutritional guidelines. We only included products that met our limits in sodium, sugar, and calories:
- Snacks: 180 calories (≤ 2.5 grams sat fat, ≤ 240 mg sodium)
- Cookies: 120-150 calories each (≤ 3 grams sat fat, < 18 grams sugar)
- Bar Cookies/Brownies/Dessert Squares: 240 calories each (≤ 5 grams sat fat, < 24 grams sugar)
- Beverages: 210 calories per cup
- Smoothies: 240 calories per serving (≤ 2.5 grams sat fat, ≤ 360 mg sodium, < 30 grams sugar)
- Breakfast entrees: 420 calories (≤ 7 grams sat fat, ≤ 720 mg sodium)
- Desserts: 360 calories per serving (≤ 6.5 grams sat fat, < 30 grams sugar)
Once products were selected for an initial taste test, each food was blind tasted by a panel of Cooking Light editors and staff. We ranked each item on a three-point scale (from .1 for terrible, to 2.9 for delicious), and totals were tallied and averaged. The winners you see here are snacks that are both healthy, and that most people agreed were delicious. We've also included occasional "Editor's Choice" picks, for options that our nutritionist felt deserved special attention.
Healthiest Desk Drawer Snacks
Editor's Choice - Simply 7 Giada De Laurentiis Parmesan Cheese Popcorn
$3.49, 140 calories, 8g fat, 190mg sodium
A virtuous take on the traffic-cone-orange cheddar-cheese classic, this savory, whole-grain snack is a low-cal way (a serving is a mere 140 calories) to satisfy your salty cravings. For a pre-popped popcorn option, our tasters were surprised how “tender, soft, and fresh” this whole-grain snack option is. “There’s no trace of sad sog like you sometimes get from packaged popcorn,” one taster wrote.
Sunchips Veggie Harvest Farmhouse Ranch
$2.98, 140 calories, 6g fat, 120mg sodium, 2g fiber
These rippled chips satisfy all sorts of snack cravings—they’re crunchy, salty, tangy, and nutty all at once. Sunchips already have a cult following because of their whole-grain base—typically whole corn, whole wheat, brown rice flour, and whole oat flour. In these chips, however, you’re getting a crispy addition of dried yellow peas (the number one ingredient). These chips are “super savory and satisfying like sour cream and onion meets cheddar and sour cream, but without the gross fingers,” one taster wrote. “I love chips, and this one is awesome,” another tester said, “I’d love to replace my Dorito obsession with these.”
Gold Emblem Abound Blueberry Pomegranate Trail Mix Bites
$3.99, 140 calories, 9g fat, 105mg sodium, 7g fiber (4g added)
Gold Emblem Abound, the house brand from CVS Pharmacy, was a surprising delight, with several snacks and foods that ranked high in our taste tests. These trail mix bites, however, were a genuine snack star—”I love the salty-sweet thing these have going on,” one taster wrote. The crunchy, dense squares of almonds, cashews, and pumpkin seeds are studded with dried blueberries and coated with a tart pomegranate juice powder. “This hits all kinds of pleasure centers—salty, sweet, and fruity. It satisfies a real need to crunch down!”
Lundberg Family Farms’ Organic Baked Grain Bites - Aged Parmesan
$3.49, 130 calories, 5g fat, 190mg sodium, 1g fiber
If we can get our whole grains in a crunchy snack, we’ll take it, please. These munchable puffs have at least 15g whole grains and a salty, buttery flavor that hits the chip-crunch pleasure centers. Too many whole-grain crackers suffer from the “taste of health”—a dry, cardboard-like bitterness that tells you immediately what you’re eating is probably healthy, if not that tasty. These grain bites, with brown rice flour and sorghum flour in the top ingredient spots, are “crunchy and airy” with “a slightly earthy, nutty flavor” that makes them incredibly poppable.
Quinn Extra Butter Microwave Popcorn?
$4.33, 180 calories, 13g fat, 220mg sodium, and 3g fiber per serving (⅓ bag)
Quinn’s new line of organic, non-GMO popcorns is the first microwave popcorn to use grass-fed, clarified butter to flavor the kernels. Ingredients are added after the corn is popped, which means you can control how much (or how little) you want. “This is the best upgraded popcorn you will ever make,” a taster wrote. The freshly-popped kernels are “toothsome and chewy but have a just-right crunch and softness. It definitely has the feel of homemade popcorn.”
Healthiest Grab-and-Go Breakfasts
Editor's?Choice - KIND Protein from Real Food Crunchy Peanut Butter Bar
$6.39, 250 calories, 18g fat, 140mg sodium, 12g protein, 5g fiber, 8g sugar (6g added)
Not for the peanut-shy, this salty-sweet bar combines whole peanuts with a slightly sweetened peanut butter-dipped bottom and drizzle that delivers 12g hunger-fighting protein. “This has a good real roasted peanut flavor with occasional pockets of salty goodness,” a taster wrote. “It has a great chew factor,” another said. Several tasters appreciated that this bar isn’t filled with puffed rice or oats, so you know you’re getting something really filling.
Dr. Praeger’s Purely Sensible Foods Huevos Rancheros Breakfast Bowl
$5.00, 270 calories, 7g fat, 3g sat fat, 450mg sodium, 6g fiber, 3g sugar
Color us shocked that one of the highest-rated foods in all of our taste tests came from a frozen breakfast option. Indeed, the cage-free egg whites, potatoes, black beans, salsa, and cheese in a corn tortilla bowl were a true surprise for our tasting-jaded reviewers. But the “nice Southwestern spice” and “texture of components that hold up well despite being frozen” made this grab-and-go option a favorite. “The flavor is bold, not muted from freezing,” one taster wrote. “Light and fluffy eggs, toothsome black beans, and tender potatoes” were a hit, especially among those who prefer their breakfast on the savory side.
Naked Red Machine Fruit Nut & Veggie Bar
$2.29, 160 calories, 6g fat, 20mg sodium, 3g fiber, 14g sugar (2g added), 3g protein
“I find this bar weird and wonderful—bright, tart fruitiness with a mild spinach flavor on the finish,” one taster wrote. That review was pretty much a consensus among the tasters: unique but delightful. The fruit, nut, and veggie bar is an amalgamation of almonds, apple, pistachio, cranberries, carrot, cherries, and spinach—and you’ll know it because you can actually see everything you’re eating. “I’ve had plenty of nut bars, but this has a very different flavor profile that works—chewy, crunchy, and a touch sticky,” another reviewer wrote.
Muuna Lowfat Plain Cottage Cheese
$1.49, 120 calories, 3g fat, 2g sat fat, 19g protein
Cottage cheese is having a bit of a moment, and with quality grab-and-go options like the Muuna line, it’s not hard to see why. A 5.3-ounce serving has a whopping 19 grams of protein and plenty of good-gut probiotics. Mild, nutty, and a touch of tangy, “this would be divine over toast with sliced strawberries or bananas,” one reviewer wrote. Even tasters who are typically cold on cottage cheese thought this featured a wonderful texture and surprising flavor: “Honestly, I was not expecting to like this, but it’s actually delicious, perfect for piling with fruit.”
Purely Elizabeth Vibrant Oats Cup Coconut Turmeric
$2.99, 260 calories, 11g fat, 7g sat fat, 160mg sodium, 33g carb, 6g fiber, 6g sugar, 8g protein
If the idea of instant oatmeal elicits visions of sticky-sweet gruel-like goop, be prepared for a seriously surprising oatmeal experience. This slightly savory oatmeal manages to maintain a bit of the chew that’s so loved in stovetop oats, and a topping of toasted gluten-free oats adds crunch. However, the “very turmeric heavy” flavor “with light cinnamon flavor notes” received high marks for being a “super delicious and different” breakfast option. It’s unconventional, to be sure, but the “savory-spiced porridge is light, and the warming spices add heft to the turmeric flavor. If you like a bit of sweetness, you can add your own and control your total sugar count.
Healthiest Kids’ Lunch Options
Editor's Choice - Lorissa’s Kitchen Original Beef Stick
$1.99, 130 calories, 11g fat, 5g sat fat, 330mg sodium, 6g protein
For parents with an eye toward getting filling protein in a kid’s lunch without worrying over keeping deli meat cold, these grass-fed beef sticks may be just the answer with 6g of protein and a super snappy bite. They have just enough of a spice kick to pique your kid’s interest but aren’t too hot for younger palates. “This brings back memories of bus rides and band trips,” one reviewer wrote.
KIND Kids Chewy Chocolate Chip
$3.00, 90 calories, 3g fat, 0.5g sat fat, 65mg sodium, 1g fiber, 5g sugar (5g added), 1g protein
Let your kid’s lunch sweet pull double duty with a bit of filling fiber from the whole-grain oats in this chocolate chip bar. “My kids will beg for these,” a reviewer wrote. “Does it matter that I don’t have kids and want these?” another commented. Their petite size makes them great for little ones because they’re more likely to be finish it up in one sitting.
$3.29, 150 calories, 8g fat, 220mg sodium, 1g fiber
Thanks to the whopping serving size—30 pieces—this geometric nibble is as much fun to eat as it is filling. “The salty, savory chips feel so indulgent and satisfying,” one taster tasted. They’re “salty in all the right ways, and starchy like the ultimate potato chip,” another taster said. Thirty crisps likely won’t fit in a zip-top bag, but your little one won’t realize they’re getting fewer crisps than normal because they’re just so darn fun to eat.
Simple Mills Fine Ground Sea Salt Almond Flour Crackers
$5.99, 120 calories, 6g fat, 140mg sodium, 2g fiber, 2g protein
Thanks to a blend of nut and seed flours, these crackers deliver two grams of fiber and protein in a well-seasoned cracker that’s buttery and crispy. “This is a great replacement for the standard cracker,” one reviewer wrote “because it’s healthier and gluten-free but tastes just as good as traditional varieties.” Notes of onion, garlic, and rosemary extract make these crackers more “robust, savory, and almost cheese-like but perfectly salty as well.”
Dave’s Killer Bread 21 Grains and Seeds
$4.99, 120 calories, 180mg sodium, 5g fiber, 5g protein
For a sliced bread to receive the most three-star rankings of all the foods we tasted, you know there must be something magical about it—and there is. A single slice of this “fluffy-soft, sweet, and nutty” bread has five grams of both fiber and protein with a “whole grain goodness, hearty, but not bitter at all” flavor. “The seeds, oats, and more give this crust a nice texture. The bread is chewy, but not mushy,” another reviewer wrote. Your youngest eaters may only need a slide for a half sandwich because the bread is extra filling. Older kids will certainly fill up, as a two-slice sandwich has as much protein as some yogurts.
Honorable Mention: Bare Snacks Fuji & Reds Apple Chips
$4.29, 110 calories, 4g fiber, 21g sugar (0g added)
We tested a good number of heat-dried and freeze-dried fruits, and this one gets our recommendation for kids and adults alike. The all-natural texture—chewy and toothsome with a bit of baked crispness—is “perfect for busy kid’s lunchbox because it can be lunch or snack,” one reviewer wrote. “The apple pieces have a good crunch without the hassle of cutting up fresh apple, plus no browning while the apples sit in the lunch box.”
Editor's?Choice - Farmhouse Culture Garlic Dill Pickle Gut Shot
$5.99, 10 calories, 120mg sodium
This is not a drink to sip, but in the “healthy” drinks category, it doesn’t get much “healthier” than this. Gut shots deliver up potassium-rich doses of probiotics and electrolytes. “There’s nothing like this for rehydrating on a hot day,” one reviewer wrote. Indeed, pickle juice is a popular ways athletes alleviate muscle cramps. Sans cramps, it’s a “fizzy, refreshing, bracing” way to replenish. “It’s briny, intense, but balanced. I’m not in the pickle juice camp, but this could totally convert me,” another taster wrote.
GT's Living Foods Gingerade Kombucha
$4.99, 30 calories, 8g sugar
A gateway flavor for newbie fermented tea drinkers, this “perfectly-balanced, crisp, and refreshing kombucha is spicy, gingery, and tart. I’d sip on this on a hot day for sure,” one reviewer said. This kombucha’s ginger flavor manages to be “a touch spicy but not too sweet” so ginger beer admirers may find comfort in the spiced sip. The primary benefit of kombucha is the probiotic-rich environment; the “crisp and refreshing flavor” is just a bonus for the taste buds.
REBBL Maca Cold Brew
$3.99, 160 calories, 11g fat, 9g fiber,1g sugar
Enhanced beverages are big priorities for beverage makers right now, and REBBL has several wonderful options available. We picked their Maca Cold Brew as the favorite for the low-sugar sip’s “creamy, milk, and smooth mocha flavor.” The nutrition profile on this is quite unusual for a beverage—loads of fat from organic coconut milk and added fiber from acacia—so account for the totals in your daily goals. “This is like an elevated cold-brew coffee drink,” another reviewer said, “rounded out by milky sweetness.”
It does have a touch of Stevia. While we tend to be averse to sugar alternatives (real is always better!) we have found that occasional minimal consumption probably isn't a big deal when it comes to this particular sweetener.
Siggi’s Vanilla Whole-Milk Drinkable Yogurt
$1.69, 120 calories, 17g sugar, 8g protein
Even on your best day, getting organized enough for a pre-work meal may be a step too difficult. That’s where this “subtle vanilla sippable yogurt with the perfect amount of tang and sweetness” can be a real life-saver. The eight-ounce bottle of thick and creamy Icelandic yogurt is easy to toss back at your desk or during your commute, and it’ll serve up a heaping amount of live active cultures and probiotics. Pasteurized skim milk ups the protein to eight whopping grams but keeps the calories manageable. “This is a really easy-drinking yogurt drink,” one reviewer said.
Sipp Sparkling Organics Ruby Rose
$34.88/pack of 6, 88 calories, 19g sugar
If you love the fizz of sparkling water but crave a bit more flavor, this “fruity and floral soda has a delicate balance of sweet and citrus flavor,” one reviewer said. “It’s a little on the sweet side, so I’d probably add it to some sparkling water to make it stretch a bit more,” a taster suggested. The ingredient list is remarkably clean—carbonated water, natural sweeteners and flavors, and floral honey. The rose color and honey-berry flavor makes is a great addition for entertaining, too, and a smaller serving size—the can is just 10.5 ounces—helps you keep your calories and sugar low when you splurge on sweetened sipper.
Editor's?Choice - Miss Jones Baking Co. Brownie in a Cup
$4.98 for a 2-pack, 250 calories, 1g fat, 90mg sodium, 20g sugar
Add water and oil to the brownie mix in the cup, stir, microwave briefly and—voila!—you have a gooey, chocolaty treat in a calorie-controlled portion. It’s sweet without being cloying and it’s dense and moist, but doesn’t stick to the roof of your mouth. You could add a small scoop of ice cream, or a hit of whipped cream, or pair it with a glass of milk, but none are must-haves as it’s delicious on its own. Keep them in your pantry for a quick and easy semi-homemade dessert.
Outshine Non-Dairy Scoops - Berry Blend
$4.39, 80 calories,18g sugar
Non-dairy ice creams aren’t just for the lactose-intolerant, as this banana-based frozen treat is a fruity delight that manages to be every bit as creamy as any dairy-loaded dessert. “It’s tart and fruity with a nice banana-berry flavor,” one taster said. “You’d never guess there wasn’t any dairy because it’s so creamy,” another reviewer wrote. Plus, a half-cup serving is half the calories of most lightened ice creams and one-third that of regular versions, so if you indulge a little extra, there’s no harm done.
Angie’s Boom Chicka Pop Sweet and Salty Kettle Corn
$4,49, 140 calories, 8g fat, 110mg sodium, 8g sugar, 2g fiber
If your ideal end-of-day treat is more salty than cloying, this light take on kettle corn will hit the spot. “This has a decadent balance of salty and sweet,” one reviewer wrote. “The kernels are crispy, light, and fluffy with a wonderful coating that easily shatters on the palate,” another wrote. Bonus: popcorn is a whole-grain food, so you can sneak in a bit more filling fiber while you put a nightcap on your day of healthy eating.
Ben & Jerry’s Moo-Phoria Light Ice Cream - PB Dough
$4.89, 160 calories, 5g fat, 2.5g sat fat, 16g sugar, 4g protein
This wonderfully rich, creamy chocolate ice cream with gobs of peanut butter-chocolate chip cookie dough swirled throughout is as decadent as it comes—but it’s lighter than you’d ever imagine. With just 160 calories per half up, this ice cream received enthusiastic thumbs up from our panel of tasters. “This is reminiscent of my favorite ice cream flavor—rich, indulgent, sweet—but to know it has half the calories and sugar is surprising,” one reviewer wrote. “You mean I can get my Ben & Jerry’s fix without blowing my calorie goals? Sign me up!” another wrote.
Honorable Mention: Chocodate?Dark With Almond
$11, 45 calories, 1.2g fat, 3.9g sugar (1g added)
If you’re truly one of those people who just needs “a single bite of something sweet” to end your date, these tender almond-stuffed dates wrapped in a crispy shell of dark chocolate will be your new go-to. With less than four grams of sugar per bite, you get a treat that is “not too sweet, a little nutty, and a nice richness from the dark chocolate,” one taster wrote. “It’s the perfect one-bite sweet after dinner. It’s got everything necessary to satisfy a sugar craving, and you really only need one,” another taster concluded.