The best and worst foods we ate during grocery store showdown taste tests 2020

CLEVELAND, Ohio — 2020, the year when we all visited grocery stores like never before. This year saw many of us working and schooling our children from home. And heading to our favorite restaurant was curtailed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

To help readers who are cooking more than ever, reporters Yadi Rodriguez and Brenda Cain hit dozens of local grocery stores and bought hundreds of dollars worth of popular items, including frozen pizzas, pasta sauces, salad kits and barbecue sauce. They conducted taste tests to help find what people can confidently spend their money on and products you should steer clear of.

Here are the best and worst foods we ate during the grocery store showdowns. And stay tuned because early in 2021 we’ll publish results of our very first blind taste test, grading dozens of jars of peanut butter.

We kicked off the year by buying and tasting 130 frozen pizzas.

We bought up to two pizzas per brand, and selected pepperoni first when available. We shopped at Acme, Aldi, Dave’s, Fresh Thyme, Giant Eagle, Heinen’s, Lucky’s Market, Marc’s, Meijer, Nature Oasis, Save A Lot, Target, Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Whole Foods.

We paid between 99-cents to $11.99 for each pie.

See the complete rankings: We ate 130 frozen pizzas and ranked them, worst to best; Nos. 1-2 made by same company

Outsiders Pizza - Jalapeno + Bacon, Quad Cities Style

Outsiders Pizza – Jalapeno + Bacon, Quad Cities Style
– Photo by Yadi Rodriguez,

Where we bought it: Target, $8.99. Note: This pizza is widely available at Northeast Ohio grocery stores.

Nutrition per serving:

Calories 400 | Fat 15g | Sodium 570mg | Carbs 49g | Protein 16g

Box says: “Damn good pizza! Jalapeno, applewood smoked bacon, mozzarella, cheddar, roasted garlic, bourbon barbecue sauce and malt crust”

We say: The box says it all — this is damn good pizza. The unique pairing of toppings was so tasty we went back to the store for another pizza! One of us talked about this pizza so much, her husband wanted to try it so a third pie was purchased. The crust was on the thick side and has a nutty flavor. The BBQ sauce is smokey-sweet and there’s plenty of thick-cut, crispy bacon pieces and jalapeños, which deliver real heat. This pizza was, according to taste tester Kristen Davis, “a real flavor bomb.”

Worst: Meatless Meat Lovers, Daiya

We say: The entire team thought this pizza was completely devoid of flavor. “This looks like the painted wooden toy foods kids play with – and tastes like it too!” — Cain

In March, most people were suddenly working from home. Looking for a hearty lunch that was quick and easy, we ranked 15 flavors of StarKist Tuna Creations. Two of StarKist’s flavors, Spicy Korean Style with Gochujang and Red Curry with Coconut, were not found in our area.

They are reasonably priced at under $2. On sale you can get them for as little as $1 and they can be found at most grocery store shelves.

See the complete rankings: Ranking 15 flavors from StarKist Tuna Creations line; BBQ, Thai, Sriracha, Bacon-Ranch tuna fish, anyone?

Lemon Pepper Tuna Creations

StarKist Tuna Creations – Lemon Pepper
Photo by Yadi Rodriguez,

Nutrition per serving:

Calories 80 | Fat 0.5g | Protein 17g | Sodium 340mg

Thoughts: Wow! True to description, 100 percent. It’s as if someone squeezed a fresh lemon inside this package. This tuna slid right out of the package. You can see pepper flakes throughout. You can taste the lemon and the pepper in every bite. Must try if you’re a fan of this flavor combo. A refreshing take on standard tuna.

Buy it on Instacart | Buy it on Amazon | Buy it at Target | Buy it at Walmart

Worst: Bacon Ranch

Thoughts: I was looking forward to this flavor and boy was I left disappointed. This was salty, mayo-y, very minimal ranch flavor and I didn’t get any bacon. Don’t be fooled by the package, it is “flavored” but I wish it had bacon bits or pieces. This was dry and also left an after-taste.

In April we were already thinking of Cinco de Mayo when the dining room became the office. Before we left the office for the last time for the foreseeable future, we ranked 13 salsas to grab for Cinco de Mayo from Giant Eagle, Aldi and Trader Joe’s refrigerated cases.

These ranged in price from $2.49-$4.49.

See the complete rankings: Ranking 13 salsas to grab for Cinco de Mayo from Giant Eagle, Aldi, Trader Joe’s refrigerated cases

Giant Eagle Mango Habanero Salsa (Hot)

(Photo by Brenda Cain,

What the tub says: “Green bell peppers, mango puree and habanero peppers.”

Price: $4.49

Thoughts: The label says “puree” but there are definitely large chunks of the sweet mango fruit throughout this salsa. They provide a nice foil for the heat of the habanero peppers. This salsa leans more toward the heat, but even those of us who prefer a milder salsa can enjoy this one because of the fruitiness.

Worst: Sweet Onion, Giant Eagle

Thoughts: It was difficult to detect the individual flavors — only a salty, less-than-fresh tomato flavor rose to the top.

By April, we were juggling Zoom meetings and lunch for the kids between their classes, so we grabbed seven salad kits from Trader Joe’s in Woodmere to find another alternative to the peanut butter sandwich.

They ranged in price from $3.29-$4.29.

See the complete rankings: Ranking 7 salad kits from Trader Joe’s that are perfect for Work From Home lunches

Broccoli and Kale Slaw Kit

(Photo by Brenda Cain,

What’s included: Broccoli, kale, dried cherries, dried blueberries, slivered almonds and sunflower seeds with a sweet and creamy slaw dressing.

Price: $3.29

Thoughts: This bagged salad kit was one of the best I have ever had, bar none. The vegetables were crisp and fresh and the almonds and sunflower seeds infuse the salad with a delightful snap and saltiness. The dried fruits were sweet and chewy and their individual flavors really stood out nicely amid the vegetables and the sweet/tart slaw dressing.

Worst: Southwestern Chopped Salad

Thoughts: The veggies were crunchy but there were so many ingredients, it was almost impossible to get the individual tastes, possibly because the onion was so overpowering. The oddest sensation was that once assembled, the flavor was reminiscent of a Taco Bell taco. The dressing was not all that spicy.

Not even a pandemic can squelch summer’s backyard barbecue season. And this year it was clear the backyard would be our chief location for entertainment, so the food had to be good — meaning the BBQ sauce had to shine! So we snapped up every flavor of barbecue sauce sold in two local Giant Eagle stores, 79 bottles in all!

We purchased our the BBQ sauces at Giant Eagle’s Legacy Village location in Lyndhurst, with the exception of one that was out of stock. We found it at the Giant Eagle on Chagrin Boulevard in Beachwood, along with four additional BBQ sauces.

The Pioneer Woman BBQ Sauce

Peach Whiskey BBQ Sauce (photo by Brenda Cain,

Price: $2.99. Note: This was one of four sauces purchased at the Giant Eagle in Beachwood.

Nutrition per serving:

Calories 50 | Fat 0g | Sodium 320mg | Carbs 13g | Sugar 11g

First ingredient: Liquid cane sugar

Bottle says: “My Peach Whiskey Chicken is one of the Drummond family’s favorite dinners, and this BBQ sauce brings those same scrumptious flavors to your kitchen! Sweet chunks of juicy peaches and sassy southern whiskey perfect an unexpectedly delicious dip for fried chicken tenders.”

We say: There was no debate to be had. We whole-heartedly agreed this thick, succulent sauce is the perfect topper for just about anything you choose to grill. It will add a refreshing twist to your barbecue. The fresh, fruity aroma greets your nostrils as soon as you open the jar. Chunky pieces of peaches can be found throughout. Be sure to have a spoon handy because this sauce is too thick to pour. And besides, you’ll want to lick the spoon so you don’t miss one drop of this barbecue sauce.

Our thoughts: So thin and watery, it will not stick to anything and it has a sickening artificial sweetness taste. No calories = no taste!

Missing baseball and ballpark nachos, in July we hit two west side Giant Eagle and Marc’s grocery stores to taste and rank 12 varieties of nacho cheese dip to see how close we could come to recreating that flavor we were craving.

The jars ranged in price from $2.50-$5.49.

See the complete rankings: Ranking 12 nacho cheese sauces to eat while watching the Cleveland Indians

Salsa Con Queso, Tostitos

Salsa Con Queso, Tostitos
– Photo by Yadi Rodriguez,

Where we bought it: Marc’s

Price: $3.75

Nutrition per serving:

Calories 40 | Fat 2.5g | Sodium 280mg | Carbs 5g | Cholesterol less than 5mg

First ingredient: Water

Our thoughts: This jar of nacho sauce is a home run for many reasons. It warms and pours well, will adhere to your chips and make you feel like you can enjoy the entire plate of nachos without making a mess. In addition to the texture, it scores in the flavor department with plenty of peppers and onions nestled in what starts as a mild cheese sauce before delivering a nice kick as it heads for home.

Buy it at Giant Eagle $4.79 | Buy it on Instacart $4.39

Worst: Easy Melt, Giant Eagle

Our thoughts: If you prefer the taste of a slice of American cheese, this may be the sauce for you. The taste is true to the cheese it is made from. However, its paste-type texture makes it nearly impossible to drizzle over your chips or dip with a pretzel.

With the dog days of summer upon us, we tried 95 varieties of lemonades purchased from several local grocery stores — Dave’s Markets, Heinen’s, Lucky’s Market, Marc’s, Whole Foods and Target.

Lemonades we sampled cost from 50-cents for a single serving to $4.99.

See the complete rankings: Ranking 95 lemonades from local grocery stores for National Lemonade Day

Sweet Lemonade, Lucky’s

Sweet Lemonade, Lucky’s
– Photo by Yadi Rodriguez

Where we bought it: Lucky’s Market

Price: $1.99

Nutrition per serving:

Calories 459

Contains: Juiced in-house

First ingredient: Unpasteurized lemons

Our thoughts: Do you remember hot summer days on the porch with a freshly-squeezed glass of lemonade in your hand? Well, if you are up for the flavor, but not up for the work involved in squeezing your own, we have found it! This drink has all the flavor without any of the work. It was definitely the freshest we encountered. Nothing but water and sugar and fresh fruit — perfectly balanced — and fresh squeezed in the store.

Worst: Strawberry Lemonade, Zevia Kidz

Our thoughts: Don’t offer this to your kiddos! The fizzy water tastes more like medicine than a treat. It’s not worth the price.

In September, we found 24 varieties of Alfredo sauces. At the time, it was difficult to find more than a few sauces at any one store shelf. We visited the following stores: Aldi, Giant Eagle, Heinen’s, Lucky’s Market, Marc’s, Meijer, Target, Walmart and Whole Foods.

The jars ranged in price from $1.29 to $7.99.

See the complete rankings: Ranking 24 Alfredo sauces from grocery stores in honor of National Linguine Day

Alfredo, MID’S

Alfredo, MID’S
– Photo by Yadi Rodriguez,

Where we bought it: Heinen’s

Price: $6.99

Nutrition per serving:

Calories 100 | Fat 9g | Cholesterol 50mg | Sodium 420mg | Carbs 2g | Sugars 1g | GF

First ingredient: Light cream

Jar says: True Sicilian pasta sauce. Alfredo done the Sicilian way. A white pasta sauce was created in 1914 by a restauranteur named (what else?) Alfredo. Mid’s take on this favorite features three varieties of cheeses for a thick, creamy and restaurant-grade delicacy that’s the perfect alternative to our true Sicilian red sauces.

Our thoughts: If this is true Sicilian sauce as the jar says, then sign us up for a trip to Sicily! This was the best flavor — by far — of all 24 sauces we tried. Great texture, creamy and delicious. Flavorful, and you can see and taste the spices. Rodriguez declared she would go out of her way to buy this sauce! If you are a fan of Alfredo sauces but don’t have the time to make your own, give this one a try.

Buy it at Giant Eagle $5.99 | Buy it on Instacart $6.99

Worst: Alfredo, Victoria Vegan

Our thoughts: Horrible. We did not like the flavor or consistency. This sauce’s pungent taste is quite overwhelming. Doesn’t taste like what you expect from an Alfredo sauce. But on a positive note, you can taste the cashew.

As temps started to cool in November, we started thinking of comforting lunches of hot soup. We found 35 varieties of chicken noodle soup in the soup aisle at Aldi, Giant Eagle, Heinen’s, Target, Walmart and Whole Foods.

The soups ranged in price from 50-cents to $3.58.

See the complete rankings: Ranking 35 chicken noodle soups from grocery stores that are perfect for winter, cold/flu season

Well Yes! Chicken Noodle, Campbell’s

Well Yes! Chicken Noodle, Campbell’s
– Photo by Yadi Rodriguez,

Where we bought it: Walmart

Price: $1.98

Nutrition per serving:

Calories 110 | Total Fat 2.5g | Sodium 640mg | Carbs 13g | Protein 8g

First Ingredient: Chicken bone broth

Can says: Made with chicken bone broth. Eat positively. Live deliciously. Eat what you love.

Our thoughts: Don’t pass this soup up on your grocer’s shelves. This one is unique. The broth has a deep rich flavor, and a vegetable blend no other soup we sampled offered. There is the standard carrots, onions and celery, but add to that white beans and small dices of tomatoes, which provide a deeper dimension to the flavor. The noodles are not as thick, but remain firm, to bring a nice texture to every bite. This will quickly become a new favorite at your house.

Buy it at Giant Eagle 3 for $5 | Buy it on Instacart $3.49 | Buy it at Target $1.99 | Buy it at Walmart $1.98

Worst: Organic – No salt added, Health Valley

Our thoughts: The broth appeared a bit on the “gray side” when we opened the can, as if someone had soaked dirty socks in water and called it broth. Absolutely no flavor: Zip, zilch, zero. Small pieces of mushy carrots paired with chewy noodles. Skip this one.

December brought the chill of winter and the holiday season. We found 61 varieties of instant hot cocoa at local Aldi, Dave’s, Giant Eagle, Heinen’s, Meijer, Target and Whole Foods stores.

The cocoas ranged in price from 50-cents to $12.49.

See the complete rankings: Hot chocolate, anyone? We tasted and ranked 61 cocoa mixes from grocery stores

Snickerdoodle, Land O Lakes

Snickerdoodle, Land O Lakes
– Photo by Yadi Rodriguez,

Where we bought it: Giant Eagle

Price: 50-cents

Nutrition per serving:

Calories 140 | Total Fat 2.5g | Carbs 26g | Sugar 24g

First Ingredient: Sugar

Box says: Where simple goodness begins. Chocolate hot cocoa mix. Snickerdoodle flavor. Natural & artificial.

Our thoughts: All the taste of a Snickerdoodle cookie without hours of mixing and baking. Delicious! Smells just like fresh-baked Snickerdoodle cookies. Keep a pack of this in your purse, your car, or your desk drawer because you never know when the craving will hit! Since it is made with water, you can have it anywhere…and it’s worth it.

Buy it at Amazon $24.99 for a 14.8oz canister | Buy it at Giant Eagle $.50

Worst: Non-Dairy Chocolate, Swiss Miss

Our thoughts: If you can get past the appearance — which looks like muddy water — this one is very chocolatey and very sweet. It is nothing more than drinking thinly-flavored chocolate water.

We hadn’t yet heard of the coronavirus when in July of 2019 we took on the gargantuan task of taste-testing 174 red pasta sauces purchased from Greater Cleveland grocery stores, but this story came in handy once we were all suddenly stuck at home.

We went shopping at every major store and big-box chain — from Marc’s to Trader Joe’s and everywhere in between — and chose up to two flavors from each brand on shelves. If a brand offered a marinara, that was our first selection.

Stores we shopped at: Aldi, Dave’s, Earth Fare (now closed), Fresh Thyme, Giant Eagle, Heinen’s, Lucky’s Market, Marc’s, Save A Lot, Target, Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Whole Foods.

They ranged in price from 85-cents(!) to $12.99.

See the complete rankings: We ate 174 pasta sauces from Greater Cleveland grocery stores and ranked them, worst to best

Classico Italian Sausage

Classico Italian Sausage
– Photo by Yadi Rodriguez,

Label says: “Made with fresh onion and garlic. Gluten-free.”

We say: Plenty of large chunks of peppers and onions, and sausage. This trio of flavor was fantastic. The name of the sauce is the taste you get.

Sodium: 500 mg per serving

Sugar: 6 g per serving

Where we bought it: Giant Eagle

Price: $2.39

Worst: Ohio City Pasta, Saffron Tomato

We say: This sauce was watery, so it did not adhere to the noodles. But worse than that, it had a bad metallic aftertaste, which lingered.

If you are thinking salsa, why not guacamole? We went shopping at every major store and big-box chain and chose all of the flavors on shelves, as well as made in-store offerings. We ended up tasting 44 different guacamoles in late 2019.

Our samples came from Aldi, Dave’s, Earth Fare (now closed), Fresh Thyme, Giant Eagle, Heinen’s, Lucky’s Market, Meijer, Mustard Seed, Target, Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Whole Foods.

They ranged in price from $2.88 to $8.99.

See the complete rankings: We ate 44 guacamole dips from grocery stores in Greater Cleveland and ranked them, worst to best, for National Guacamole Day

Heinen’s fresh Guacamole, made in the store

Heinen’s fresh guacamole, made in the store.
– Photo by Yadi Rodriguez,

Calories: 45

Where we bought it: Heinen’s

Price: $8.99/pound

Our thoughts: I could have stopped eating all other guacamoles the moment I tasted this one. Fortunately I live near a Heinen’s so I can have a steady diet of this lime-y goodness. The avocado is smooth and creamy, with chunks of tomato and onion. Light. Very fresh. Worth going out of your way for. Smells delicious with a strong jalapeno aroma.

Worst: Hope Organic Spicy Mango

Our thoughts: Smells more like flowers that have been in a vase for too long than fruity avocado. Believe it or not, the taste was worse than the smell. Awful! Sweet, heat with peppers – every flavor hits all at once and not in a good way. Mushy texture, too. Definitely a weird interpretation of guacamole.