A Nutritionist Reviews the Winners of Trader Joe's 2020 Customer Choice Awards

Trader Joe's just published its annual Customer Choice Awards list for the 11th year running, featuring the top entree, cheese, snack, sweets, and more from the aisles of the food store giant. The overall verdict? Plant-based foods made a strong showing, and that's on trend with an overall consumer shift towards plant-based eating.

Of course, TJ's list also contains some indulgent (hello, dark chocolate peanut butter cups!) and non-plant customer faves (like the Mandarin orange chicken). Here are all the popular market's 2020 winners, along with my nutrition commentary for each item.

Favorite overall: 'Everything but the Bagel' sesame seasoning blend

This product pops up on a lot of my clients' food journals, and I find that people get pretty creative about its use—adding it to everything from eggs and avocado toast to salads, stir-frys, pasta dishes, pizza, and even the rims of Bloody Mary glasses.

Made from a mix of sesame seeds, salt flakes, dried minced garlic, dried minced onion, black sesame seeds, and poppy seeds, it's both flavorful and healthful. A quarter teaspoon portion provides 80 mg of sodium (just 3% of the daily recommended max), and 5 calories. And with every sprinkle, the fiber and minerals from the seeds, like manganese, calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, add up.

Try it on more whole foods, like cooked veggies, vinegar-based slaw, hummus, lentil or black bean soup, roasted fingerling potatoes, popcorn popped in extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil, cooked or cooked and chilled quinoa, and guacamole. If you're super adventurous, sprinkle into melted dark chocolate, as a dip for fresh veggies or fruit.

Favorite entrée: Mandarin orange chicken

If you're not familiar with this product, the bag includes battered chunks of dark meat chicken, which you bake in the oven, and a thick brown sauce. After tossing the cooked chicken into the heated sauce on the stovetop, you can serve it as an appetizer, or add it to an entrée.

Here's the nutritional rundown: The batter contains both eggs and wheat flour, and the sauce is made from a combo of sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, soybean oil, and seasonings. A one cup portion provides 320 calories, 16 g of fat, 24 grams of carb (with 1 gram as fiber and 6 grams from sugar), 21 grams of protein, and 330 mg of sodium, 14% of the daily recommended limit.

If you are a fan, your best bet is to combine it with a generous portion of veggies, like broccoli, kale, spinach, or a mix of greens, bell pepper, and onion, and "noodles" made from spiralized veggies. If you're meatless, or trying to eat less meat, make a similar (and much healthier) dish with a sauce made from actual mandarin oranges (juice and sections), and a touch of pure maple syrup, combined with brown rice vinegar, onion, garlic, fresh grated ginger, sea salt, black pepper, and crushed red pepper. Toss over low heat with frozen lima beans, a generous potion of veggies, or spiralized veggie noodles topped with chopped almonds or pistachios.

Favorite vegan/vegetarian item: cauliflower gnocchi

While the first ingredient is cauliflower, this TJ's favorite is also made with cassava flour and potato starch, along with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. The added starches bump up the carb content, which clocks in at 22 grams per cup, with 6 grams as fiber, so a net of 16 grams total (about the amount in a slice of bread). One serving also provides 3 grams of fat, 2rams g of fiber, 140 calories, and small amounts of calcium, iron, and potassium.

If you enjoy this item, think of it as a carb food that contains some bonus veggies. Add a generous portion of additional veggies, along with some healthy fat, like Brussels sprouts or asparagus with vegan pesto or olive tapenade, or EVOO sautéed tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, and onions. Add a protein to round out the meal. TJ's steamed lentils make a great plant-based option.

Favorite sweet treat: dark chocolate peanut butter cups

The first ingredient of the semi-sweet chocolate that makes up the bulk of these goodies is sugar, along with cocoa, and milk fat, and the peanut butter is combined with sugar, palm oil, and soy lecithin—so this confection contains several of the 'big 8' most common allergens. A three piece portion provides 200 calories, 12 grams of fat, 22 grams of carb, with 2 grams as fiber and 18 from sugar, 3 grams of protein, and 8% of the daily iron target.

If you're obsessed with these sweets, and they don't trigger any food allergy or sensitivity symptoms, enjoy them on occasion. Or, as an alternative treat you can enjoy daily, opt for TJ's fair trade organic 72% cacao Belgian dark chocolate. The only ingredients are organic cocoa mass, organic cane sugar, and organic cocoa butter. Three squares provide less than half the sugar than the cups, plus 4 gram of fiber. If you really love the PB/chocolate combo, you can dip each square into a dab of all natural peanut butter.

Favorite snack: plantain chips

The ingredients here are pretty basic: plantains, sunflower oil, and salt. A one ounce portion, about 20 chips, provides 140 calories, 6 grams of fat, 20 grams of carb with 1 gram as fiber, and less than 1 gram of protein. If these are on your can't-live-without list, enjoy them in moderation, and alternate with other healthful crunchy or salty snacks—like TJ's extra virgin olive oil popcorn (a healthier oil for anti-inflammation), whole nuts, and raw veggies with dips like hummus, guacamole, and TJ's organic creamy cashew fiesta queso.

Favorite beverage: non-dairy oat beverages

The only two ingredients in the shelf-stable version of this TJ's product are water and hydrolyzed oats. The brand also makes a refrigerated non-dairy oat beverage that also contains sunflower oil, stabilizers, and added nutrients—including calcium, B12, and vitamin D. A one cup portion of the shelf-stable version provides 110 calories, 2 grams of fat, 22 grams of carb with 3 grams as fiber, 2 grams of protein, and small amounts of calcium, iron, and potassium.

Oat "milk" can be used in anything from cereal, overnight oats, coffee, and smoothies to creamy soups, dips, sauces, and desserts, like chia pudding or mock ice cream. It's a great plant-based option for those who need to avoid common allergens, including nuts and soy. Just bear in mind that oat milk is low in protein, relatively high in carbs, and higher in calories than unsweetened almond milk, which may have as little as 25 calories per cup.

Favorite produce: avocados

The TJ's awards list highlighted their Teeny Tiny Avocados, which they promote as a "no more letting unused avo-halves brown in the fridge," eat-the-whole-thing option. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, there's absolutely nothing I don't love about avocados. They're loaded with good fat, 20 different key vitamins and minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Avocados have been shown to boost satiety, help reduce waist measurements, protect heart health, and boost the absorption of important fat soluble vitamins and antioxidants.

Enjoy them as is with a little fresh squeezed lime juice and pink Himalayan salt, blend into fruit smoothies, add to salads or as a side dish, mash as a spread or dip, and whip into chocolate avocado pudding.

Favorite cheese: Unexpected Cheddar

Made from just pasteurized milk, cheese cultures, salt, and enzymes, a one ounce portion provides 120 calories, 10 grams of fat, 0 grams of carb, 7 grams of protein, 20% of the daily calcium goal, and 6% of the goal for vitamin A. Rather than crackers or pepperoni, pair a serving with some heart-healthy olives, artichoke hearts, or fruit. And if you don't do dairy (or you're trying to cut back), TJ's offers some non-dairy "cheese" options, both in the cheese section and in the refrigerated area near the hummus.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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