If life gives you parsnips, you make parsnip chips. This is another Trader Joe’s product that, like Avacado’s Number Guacamole, I can’t help but feel existed as a clever name first, and only a product as an after thought. A rhyming snack food that uses an obscure vegetable? How could anyone at TJ’s say no to that? Certainly it’s what I’m always on the look out for.
|What it is:||“Potato” chips made from a different root vegetable.|
|Price:||$2.99 for a 5.2 oz. bag|
|Worth it:||Yes – sweet and crunchy.|
But if a product exists only to serve novelty, can it really be all that good? In this case, the answer is a surprising “Yes!”. Trader Joe’s Parsnip Chips are a wonderfully flavorful, surprisingly sweet, crunch alternative to run-of-the-mill potato chips. It’s a classic case of “Try it, you’ll like it.” But what exactly is a parsnip anyway?
In the wild, the parsnip looks, to the untrained eye, exactly like a big, white carrot. In fact, the parsnip is a close relative to the carrot. Originally native to Eurasia, the parsnip was imported to the Americas by early European settlers in the 1600’s. By the 1800’s, the root vegetable – firmly ensconced in three continents and with a long history of use that extends back to the Roman Empire – was basically forgotten, sidelined as modern agricultural and shipping practices replaced it with other vegetables on an industrial scale. Nowadays, the parsnip is really only encountered by most people in certain niche applications or as the basis of regional traditions.
While the parsnip may not be as popular today as it was in ages past, these parsnip chips make a good case for a comeback. You might not expect a colorless root vegetable to be sweet and flavorful, but these chips are exactly that. Inside the bag, the chips themselves are small, thin and brittle with a tendency to bunch up in clusters – definitely unsuited for dips, but good for general snacking. The frying process has made the parsnip slices curl and brown, more like a plantain chip than a potato chip. However, as soon as you take find that they pack an over-sized taste – long sweet and mellow, with a vaguely carrot-y aftertaste.
I’ve written before about the surprising sweetness of carrots – well it turns out that parsnips are naturally sweeter than even its own close cousin. In fact, in ancient times, before sugar canes or sugar beets were grown, it was parsnips that were used to sweeten meals. It’s this sweetness that is the most notable feature of the parsnip chip, but a very mild sort of sweetness that satisfies without overloading you on sugar. That sweetness, combined with the nuanced, earthy, root vegetable taste, is a real delight.
I was expecting something dry and bland from these chips, but instead I found a wonderful substitution for other “naturally sweet” type chips – in fact I liked these parsnip chip so much better than, for instance, the sweet potato chips you find around. However these chips are far from a healthy alternative – due to the fact that these parsnips have been fried up in a serious amount of oil. With a rather surprising 12 grams of fat per 12 chip serving, these are some very oily chips. Expect some greasy fingers after polishing off a bag.
To my taste, I found these parsnip chips more than just a novelty. For a list of ingredients that is nothing more than “parnsips, oil, salt” I was completely surprised by the fullness of flavor – a world away from the one note starchiness of potato chips. If they were healthier I’d be eating them all the time. As it is, I’ll enjoy picking them up a few times a year for an interesting snack that has stands out from a pack of monochrome competitors.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes – these are worth a taste.
Would I Buy Them Again: Not often, but I will.
Final Synopsis: A completely different sort of “potato” chip.
Now that the season of pumpkin madness has subsided, and the cooling winds of dark November have arrived, I can finally catch up on a backlog of other, truly out-there Trader Joe’s products that they tried to slip onto the shelves without anyone noticing.
The craziest addition has to be Trader Joe’s Ghost Pepper Potato Chips. This new addition to the snack section may well be the biggest let down of any Trader Joe’s product to date.
|What it is:||Not very spicy potato chips.|
|Price:||$2.29 for a 7 oz. bag|
|Worth it:||No, not if you’re looking for spicy chips.|
If Trader Joe’s has a failing, it’s that it sometimes over promsises. That’s unavoidable for a group that dreams as big as they do – bringing us such exotic oddities and far-flung favorites as frozen Kouigns Amann, Tamil Uttapam and, of course, the wonders of Scandanavian Cookie Butter. I’m deeply grateful there’s a mainstream grocery store that regards the average American consumer highly enough to gamble their business on such unusual products. On the other hand, sometimes they come out the gate with what sounds like a great idea but absolutely fail to deliver on it. It’s like the Marketing team gets really excited and doesn’t listen to what the R&D guys are telling them. The result is packaging that signs a check the contents simply cannot cash.
That’s absolutely the case with Trader Joe’s Ghost Pepper Potato Chips. It’s commonly known that the Ghost Pepper is the absolutely hottest pepper in the world. Not just hot, and not just really hot, but like legendarily, pinnacle of the pepper pyramid hot. It’s weird that most people seem to know this, but they do. Every now and then the populous at large latches onto some bit of esoterica that seems like it should otherwise be languishing in obscurity. Keep your jalapenos and keep your habaneros, the people say, if you’re looking for pure, tongue-blistering, utterly unenjoyable HEAT, you want a ghost pepper.
Just in case you need a refresher on the spiciness of peppers, there is a more-or-less scientific scale that was devised to measure the relative hotness of peppers. Called the Scoville Scale, it measures the spiciness of peppers in so-called Scoville heat units, or SHU’s. A nice sweet bell pepper comes in at 0 SHUs. Banana peppers are about 100 units, a good jalapeno pepper is about 1,000 SHUs. The pepper referred to as the “Ghost Chile”, on the other hand, weighs in at 2 million SHU’s or more. Just by way of comparison, some law-enforcement grade pepper sprays only contain about 500,000 SHU’s. Four times hotter than pepper spray – that’s the ghost chile for you.
So what in heaven and hell could Trader Joe’s have been thinking when they released the absolutely mildest, gentlest “spicy” potato chip I’ve ever tasted?
I’ve spoken at length before about my light weight, or “chili wuss”, status when it comes to spicy foods. Pace brand Mild salsa is sometimes a little too hot for me. As a rule, I avoid the jalapeno potato chip. If I happen to munch down a couple by mistake I usually have to take a long break to fan my mouth. My brothers and cousins can all pile them into their mouths by the truck full, but even the gentler brands often leave me sweating.
I bring this up because even I find these ghost pepper potato chips contemptuously mild. They’re only spicy in so far as they suggest the notion of spiciness. If you smell the bag, you might think “Oh, these smell like they might be slightly spicy”. Savor that feeling, because that illusory impression is as spicy as these chips get. Bite into one of these cross-cut “lattice” style chips and you’ll catch just a hint of peppiness that immediately fades out and leaves you with basic, plain ol’ potato chip taste. I’ve had BBQ flavored potato chips that are spicier.
That’s not to say these potato chips are bad – they’re just bad at being spicy. The potato chips themselves are very satisfying to snack on – the thick, waffle-cut chips are very crispy and crunchy and entirely munchable. I found the mild spiciness to actually be a nice alternative to the spicier mainstream brands, in the same way that Trader Joe’s Sriracha sauce is a nice, less-spicy alternative to Hoy Fong Sriracha sauce. Finally, an only-sorta spicy potato chip I can enjoy! I just never thought I’d find them under the guise of ghost pepper chips.
If TJ’s had billed these chips as “Mild Jalapeno Flavor”, or “Potato chips – With Just A Touch Of Heat”, I would be writing a very different review right now. But by calling them Ghost Pepper Chips, and then doubling down on all their website and product copy about how insanely hot they are, Trader Joe’s is just making a fool of itself. Do not be suckered in by this marketing gimmick – unless you’re looking for a mildly spicy potato chip, these will disappoint you.
Would I Recommend It: Only to people who like not-particularly spicy potato chips.
Would I Buy It Again: Yes. I’m going to ignore that these say “ghost pepper” in the title and just put them out for parties.
Final Synopsis: It would be hard for these potato chips to be much less spicy.
Every year I tell myself, “Trader Joe’s couldn’t possibly have more unusual pumpkin products than they had last year”, and every year I’m proven wrong.
This October, it’s Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Tortilla Chips that literally stopped me in my tracks. Yes, corn tortilla chips made with pumpkin. Like pumpkin panettone and pumpkin yogurt before them, no one was asking for this – but Trader Joe’s was going to damn well make it.
|What it is:||Cinnamon-spiced, pumpkin & corn tortilla chips.|
|Price:||$3.99 for a 12 oz. bag.|
|Worth it:||No – the flavors don’t really work out.|
Pumpkin tortilla chips are, basically, just your ordinary, run-of the-mill yellow corn tortilla chips – only with pumpkin puree and pumpkin seeds mixed in. Not content to stop there, Trader Joe’s then dusted each chip with a sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg. Although no added-sugar goes into them, the tortilla chips are kind of vaguely sweet, tasting almost slightly of churros, but with a vague pumpkin aftertaste.
The pumpkin I can understand – as a mild member of the squash family it can work pretty well along side corn. Cinnamon and nutmeg, on the other hand, are very noticeable flavors. They don’t always play well with others. In particular, I’m thinking of chips and salsa, and nachos, the most common applications of the tortilla chip. Would you be likely to add cinnamon and nutmeg to your melted cheese or salsa dip? Probably not.
In fact, I decided to give these chips the benefit of the doubt and try them with Trader Joe’s pumpkin-based Harvest Salsa. Even in this case, even with a harmonious pumpkin taste in the salsa, the cinnamon and nutmeg threw off the whole flavor balance. The sweetness and spices clash with everything else. This not-quite-right combination of spices reminds me a lot of what Trader Joe’s just tried with their Pumpkin-Spiced Salted Caramels. In that case, the strange combination of flavors was intriguing enough to push me into “like” territory. I can’t say the same thing for these pumpkin tortilla chips, which are a their heart still just ordinary chips. Nothing special about these, just something “off”.
If you wanted to use them with anything, you would need to brainstorm some pretty out-of-the-box ideas. For example, they might go well at a party with a sweet caramel or frosting dip – maybe kind of cinnamon dessert dip? The chips may even work well with highly seasoned Middle Eastern or Greek dips, such as Trader Joe’s Muhammara or cool Tzatziki.
All that aside, I feel I should note that the weirdest part of these chips is the product copy on the back. “We’re out of our gourds with excitement,” Trader Joe’s writes. “We’re ready to squash any sentiment to the contrary. Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Tortilla Chips stand alone as the preeminent permutations of that perennially preferred plant, pumpkin.”
That is some amazing, over-heated copy – combining multiple puns with a lengthy bit of alliteration. The TJ’s copy writer was definitely firing on all cylinders that day. My question is, why would you want to waste such effusive praise on such a merely average product? This is a classic, one-season-and-done novelty if I ever saw one. That product description could work on literally any pumpkin product – why not save some of the puns for the big ones – like Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pie Spice Cookie Butter, for instance. I don’t know, it just strikes me as a waste of a well-turned phrase here.
Really, Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Tortilla Chips are a great example of “Yes, we can do it, but should we?” Yes, you can sell everything, quit your job, and become a tugboat captain, or gain hundreds of pounds in a bid to be the World’s Fattest Man, but should you? In this case, Trader Joe’s clearly has the power to put pumpkin into any product they wish, but there are some products that don’t really benefit from it.
Would I Recommend It: No – unless you had the perfect dip in mind.
Would I Buy It Again: I don’t see a need for that.
Final Synopsis: Cinnamon and nutmeg corn tortilla chips are novel, but not novel enough.
Look, I have to hand it to the product naming team at Trader Joe’s. Sure, in the past I’ve excoriated them over inconsistent and even nonsensical naming schemes. I may have lambasted them for giving products unpronoucable French names, but when it comes down to it, they’re basically geniuses and I love them.
|What it is:||Sweet pumpkin filling in a cereal bar|
|Price:||$1.99 for a box of 6.|
|Worth it:||Yes, if you like a sweet breakfast.|
I love Avacado’s Number Guacamole, I love their Carrots of Many Colors, I even like their Popcorn in a Pickle. It’s crazy, but what can I say. I like it when they get a little crazy. However, of all TJ’s product names the one I’ve somehow avoided talking about until now is Trader Joe’s “This Pumpkin Walks Into A Bar…”- one of the proud members of the ridiculous family of “This Fruit Walks Into A Bar…” cereal bars. It takes a bold unwavering vision to end a product name with an ellipses. “Just sort of trailing off without finishing your thought – that’s what customer’s respond to! Release a dozen varieties and keep ’em coming!”
In addition to the Pumpkin version we’re looking at today, Trader Joe’s also offers “This Apple Walks Into A Bar…” “This Strawberry Walks Into a Bar…”, “This Fig Walks Into A Bar…”, the list goes on… You certainly can’t accuse TJ’s of not committing to the gag – even if it makes scanning their breakfast aisle feel like flipping through a joke book.
All of these cereal bars offer basically the same thing, a strip of fruit puree surrounded by a wheat bran sheath. It’s a familiar set up for anyone who’s ever had a Nutrigrain bar, or one of the other many “cereal bar” versions on the market. The big difference is that Trader Joe’s brand cereal bars proudly boast they that they contain no synthetic colors, perservatives or hydrogenated oils. In addition, Trader Joe’s has blended an elixir of vitamins into the fruit filling which contains 6 different B vitamins and, oddly enough, selenium.
Selenium, which Trader Joe’s highlights on several parts of the box, is an essential trace mineral linked to various vital functions. Just one bar contains 50% of your daily selenium value. Most people get enough of this in the typical balanced diet – but if you’re worried you’re selenium levels might be low, hey, chow down.
As far as the taste goes, these are pretty ordinary fare. The bready casing is dry and crumbly, and the filling is sugary sweet with fruits flavor underneath. To TJ’s credit the first ingredient listed is actually “pumpkin filling”, less impressive is that fact that this pumpkin filling lists rice syrup, cane syrup and apple powder above the actual pumpkin.
It’s definitely the syrup you taste most, with the sugar levels pushing my tolerance for a breakfast food. Think “concentrated poptart filling”, and you’re about in the area. If you’re looking for an intense sugar lift to get you started in the morning these would do the trick (and be sure to please the kids), just watch out for the imminent sugar crash waiting around the corner. There are 15 grams of sugar per 37 gram bar, but it tastes like more.
Eaten straight from the box, I didn’t find these a satisfying breakfast addition – and eating more than one in a sitting left me filling sugared out. They fared much better after a few minutes in the toaster oven – crisping up slightly and filling the house with the warm smell of pumpkin pie. Tastier, but still super sweet and not particularly convenient if you’re using it as an on-the-go meal substitute.
Trader Joe’s cereal bars might fit the bill as a substitute pop tart, but if you’ve outgrown those sort of sweets it’ll leave you flat.
Would I Recommend It: Only to people who like a sugary breakfast.
Would I Buy It Again: Not I.
Final Synopsis: Sugary pumpkin filling in a Nutrigrain-like bar.
I am a dyed-in-the-wool, straight-up chips and salsa fiend. Give me some chips, give me some salsa, and everything is just fine as far as I’m concerned. I have yet to find a jar of salsa that is big enough that I won’t finish it off in a single sitting.
|What it is:||Bland tasting, baked tortilla chips.|
|Price:||$1.99 for a 7 oz. bag.|
|Worth it:||No, they taste stale.|
Unfortunately, I’m getting fat. And while salsa is a good, healthy, vegetable-based, low-cal snack – tortilla chips, with all their carbs and fat, definitely are not. It’s a sad state of affairs, but I now live a chips and salsa free life.
There are many types of delicious (and not so delicious) salsas available at Trader Joe’s, and just as many unusual chip choices – often featuring healthful gimmicks (such as flax seeds). However, even “healthy” tortilla chips usually have more fat and carbs than I’d like to gorge myself on. So I was delighted when I came across Trader Joe’s Baked Blue Corn Tortilla Chips the other day. Promising only 2 grams of fat per serving, they were the healthiest chips I have ever come across. Taking them home, I gleefully rejoiced in finding the answer to my prayers.
Unfortunately, they taste like crap. Or, more correctly, they taste like bland tortilla chips that have gone stale straight out of the bag. Another review of these chips likens them to “cardboard”, and that’s not far off. The sad fact is that Trader Joe’s Baked Blue Corn Tortilla Chips are flat and lifeless. Even salted, these chips simply fail to delight the tongue.
Not being fried, these chips lack the crispiness, crunch and snap of a traditional tortilla chip. If, before I ever tried them, you’d asked me if I would trade such seemingly inconsequential concerns of texture for less fat, I would have said yes. And I would have been wrong. It doesn’t seem like something as run-of-the-mill as “crunchiness” should make or break a tortilla chip – but in this case it absolutely does.
If you’ve ever tried a tortilla chip from a bag that’s been left open a few days too long, you know exactly how these taste. There’s simply no saving a stale tortilla chip – no matter how flavorful the salsa or how delicious the nacho cheese. It’s sad, but a stale tortilla chip is little more than garbage.
No matter how I tried to appreciate the healthy elements of these blue corn chips, I simply couldn’t get over the stale taste. Maybe you’ll have better luck at that than I did, but as far as I’m concerned my quest for a healthy – and tasty – tortilla chip continues.
Would I Recommend Them: Nope – too stale tasting.
Would I Buy Them Again: Not unless I’m reaaaaally desperate for a chip fix.
Final Synopsis: Unless they actually made you thinner, these chips ain’t worth it.
Few things are more tempting and decadent than a thick and creamy dip – and the king of these is no doubt the Spinach Dip. There is no party or social gathering that can’t be improved by the addition of a good spinach dip. Rich, cool and savory, even a mediocre spinach dip can elevate a humble tortilla chip to heavenly levels.
|What it is:||Low calorie spinach dip|
|Price:||$3.99 for a 16 oz. tub|
|Worth it:||Yes. Healthier, and still tasty.|
Of course, as is usual for anything that tastes so good, spinach dip is terrible for you. Loaded with lethal levels of fat, spinach dip is the sort of condiment designed to test your willpower to the utmost. Perhaps just a nibble, you think, maybe just a chip or two… We all know where this leads – into the grasping, inescapable current of a spinach dip whirlpool.
Fortunately, Trader Joe’s has come to the rescue with their new Trader Joe’s Reduced-Guilt Spinach & Kale Greek Yogurt Dip – another entry in their line of “reduced-guilt” dips. We took a look at their reduced guilt chunky guacamole and reduced guilt chicken salad before. Both delivered uneven results. As is so often the case for “diet” foods, it’s easy to make a low-fat, low-cal food product, it’s just hard to make it taste any good. “Reduced-guilt” products walk a dangerous line. You have to sacrifice flavor in order to be healthy, but stray too far to one side or the other and you end up with something pointless and stupid. Healthy, but too bad tasting, and no one will eat it. Good tasting, but not particularly healthy, and you might as well just get the full calorie version.
In this case, Trader Joe’s manages to walk the tight-rope perfectly. This Spinach and Kale dip isn’t quite as delicious as the real thing, but it’s damn well close enough. A rich mixture of kale, spinach, water chestnuts, red peppers, carrots, green onions, garlic and even a little mayo create a colorful flavor pallete that makes a satisfying, full-bodied snack for crackers or chips.
Whenever you sub out sour cream for plain greek yogurt, as TJ’s has done here, you’re going to lose a little zip. That’s still the case here. After a big bite of this dip, you’ll notice it’s missing a little something on the tail end – a touch bland where it should be a touch zingy. That’s just the unavoidable cost of keeping the fat content under control. Fortunately, the blend of other vegetables and seasonings pep the dip up, compensating for this flatness fairly well.
And boy is that little bit of blandness worth it. Trader Joe’s normal spinach dip has 70 calories per serving, 60 of those from fat. This greek yogurt dip has less than half that per serving – 30 calories, 20 of those from fat.
All in all, that’s a pretty good trade off. No every “reduced guilt” product is worth it, but this dip is an exception to the rule.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, healthy and tasty!
Would I Buy It Again: Sure – this is a winner.
Final Synopsis: Low cal spinach dip worth the price.