Real Food Challenge: Good ‘ol PB&J vs the Uncrustable

August 5, 2009

PB&J is one of our go-to quick fixes for lunches and snacks. If we expect to be away from the house for more than a few hours I take some along so we don’t have to eat out. My kid’s getting protein, healthy fats, carbs and whole grains, plus a little bit of fruit, and because I use real food, she’s not getting high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils. It takes only minutes to make and she loves it. What could be more perfect?

Nothing in my opinion, but the makers of Uncrustables – those white bread, additive laden sandwiches sold by the box in the freezer aisle – would have us believe otherwise. Curious about whether they were better, cheaper, faster, I went to an urban grocery store to do some math and read some labels. Here’s what I found out:

1. “Natural” is a marketing term and it’s not regulated. Natural flavoring may not be safer than artificial flavoring as stated in this 2004 MSNBC.comarticle by food editor Phil Lempert, and three different brands of “natural” peanut butter had very different looking ingredient lists. I had to read several labels before I found the brand or item that had the fewest ingredients or the most ingredients that could be found in my kitchen.

Bread: Have you read bread labels lately? You need just four ingredients to make it from scratch: yeast, flour, salt and water. Yet even the Nature’s Pride 100% Natural, 100% Whole Wheat bread I found at the store has eleven ingredients, and six are a mystery: wheat gluten, cultured wheat flour, natural flavor, whey, soy lecithin, cultured corn solids. They sound innocent enough, but I don’t really know what they are made of.

Peanut Butter: This one’s easy. Smuckers, the makers of Uncrustables, also makes Natural Peanut Butter. Two ingredients: Peanuts, salt.

Jam: It was not so easy to find an inexpensive jam that wasn’t sweetened with high fructose corn syrup or the misleading “grape juice concentrate” which, along with pear- and apple-juice concentrate, is often stripped of its nutrients and flavor, leaving only the sugar. I settled on Polaner Strawberry Preserves: Strawberries, Sugar, Fruit Pectin, Citric Acid.

Now for the Uncrustables (the circled items are actual foods)…

Uncrustables ingredients

2. It’s cheaper to make your own. A loaf of bread, jar of peanut butter and jar of jam can make 18 half sandwiches for a total of $8.43.  That’s 47 cents a sandwich. A 4-count box of Uncrustables costs $2.75 at this store, making them about 69 cents each. Here’s the breakdown:

Peanut Butter: $2.69 for 14 servings

Bread: $2.25 for 18 slices

Jam: $3.49 for 24 servings

4. The homemade version is just as convenient: Uncrustables need to thaw before you can eat them. This may take around 3-5 minutes, which is about the time it takes to make PB&J from scratch. If you don’t have three minutes in the morning to make a sandwich, spend ten on the weekend and make a whole loaf of bread into sandwiches. Stack them back in the bread bag and pop them in your freezer.

5. The Crust: Apparently a study by German researchers found that bread crust contains eight times more of the cancer fighting antioxidant pronyl-lysine that does the soft squishy center. But I’m not a Ph.D. so I don’t really know how to decipher scientific studies. I am a mom, though, and I don’t want my daughter to think she needs special food just because she’s a kid. Talk about inconvenient. So I serve her the crust and let her decide whether to eat it. Sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn’t.

Taste Test: I have to admit the Uncrustable tasted better than I expected. I’m tempted to have my kid do a side-by-side comparison, but I’m pretty sure I know how it will turn out. (Remember the McDonald’s food wrapper experiment?) It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m the grown-up and if I give her the homemade version, that’s what she’ll eat.

Decision: I’m sticking with the real deal. It’s quick and convenient, it travels well, it’s less expensive, my kid likes it, and, when made with ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible, it’s nutritious.

And now it’s your turn: What labeling/marketing/pricing trick bugs you the most?