Thursday, July 21, 2011

Product Review: GoPicnic

When the friendly folks at GoPicnic offered to send us some gratis product samples to review here on the blog, I gladly accepted. But I'll admit - from the outset, I was skeptical. GoPicnic markets its products as "ready to eat meals," "meals on the go," and - prepare yourself for this one - "shelf-stable meals."

Listen. I understand the intent behind saying "shelf-stable." It means the product doesn't require special care. It need not be refrigerated. It won't spoil quickly or easily. Good enough. But use the term "shelf-stable" with your distributor, or the supermarket that's carrying your food. Don't say that to consumers. To me, nothing about that term is appealing. On the average, I prefer my food fresh. It's inherently shelf-unstable.

So instead, please tell me - the consumer - that GoPicnic meals don't require refrigeration. That I can store them in my pantry (or wherever). Okay? Now let's move on...

The idea - in theory - is that GoPicnic takes other brand's products (ideally healthy and high quality, though that's debatable...) and repackages them in a convenient box you can tote anywhere, so that you have a complete meal, in GoPicnic's words, "good food anytime, anywhere."

They also claim that the meals are environmentally-friendly, since GoPicnic strives to use packaging that is either recycled or recyclable. But you know what? By putting more packaging (a box) around other companies' products that already have their own packaging, it creates a lot of...stuff. And much of what I found in the box pictured below appeared neither recycled nor recyclable. It just produced a lot of garbage.

You know what would be more eco-friendly? Putting your own picnic lunch to go in a reusable, resealable container. We have a whole set of glass ones at home, and they work great for all sorts of foods.

Okay, so let's talk more nuts and bolts about the quality and gluten-free status of the contents. GoPicnic sells 5 varieties of gluten-free meals: Hummus and Crackers, Steak Nuggets and Cheese, Tuna and Crackers, Turkey Pepperoni and Cheese, and Turkey Stick and Crunch. They cost $5 each. Okay so far.

Each meal is packaged with an assortment of goodies. For example, the Steak Nuggets and Cheese meal contains essentially beef jerkey, cheese spread, crackers, trail mix, and a piece of chocolate. This immediately poses a potential problem. Every product is from a different company, each with its own definition as to what "gluten-free" means. The end result is that, depending on your sensitivity and your own personal level of acceptable cross-contamination risk, these foods may or may not be okay for you. In the Steak Nuggets and Cheese meal, the products ranged from GFCO gluten-free certified, to products made on equipment shared with wheat. That's the first problem. (A second related problem is the issue of constantly keeping up with ingredient or manufacturing process changes to any one component of the GoPicnic meal, since every part of the meal comes from someone else.)

Second problem. The second flavor that GoPicnic sent me to review was the Salmon and Crackers. You might notice that Salmon and Crackers is NOT included in the GF list I cite above. That's because it isn't! The crackers are wheat flour crackers. Thank goodness I continue to religiously read labels before I eat anything. I'll admit - this was probably an employee oversight. Someone carelessly mailed a gluten-free blogger a gluten-ous product, intending to send a gluten-free one. Maybe it was a one-time mistake. But it does make me question GoPicnic's vigilance in ensuring the GF status of the meals they purport to be GF.

Third problem. Size. These are marketed as meals, but at best, I'd call them a snack. The Steak Nuggets and Cheese meal contains a scant 320 calories. While I don't count calories, I'd wager that I eat at least 2,500 calories per day. That means I'd need to eat 8 GoPicnic meals to feed myself for a day.

Think of it another way... The "cheese" in the meal is actually a 0.75-ounce container of cheese spread, barely largely than a generous pat of butter. The bag of crackers contained 7 crackers. Seven! And they were small crackers. Other components of the meal were similarly small. 0.625 ounces of beef jerkey. 0.42 ounces of chocolate. 0.75 ounces of quasi-trail mix. My stomach is already grumbling from the cavernous space left behind after eating this pint-sized snack.

In the end, for me, the GoPicnic meals fail on several major fronts. I'm not convinced they're reliably gluten-free, they're too small, and they're not my style. I'd prefer to pack my own meal to go...shelf-stable or not.

I do begrudgingly admit that I see some utilitarian value to them. Keep one stashed in a desk drawer at work, in a dorm room on campus, or in a locker at school, for when you need a GF snack in a pinch. But for my money, you're better off getting your meals elsewhere.

Sorry, GoPicnic, but for me, it's NoPicnic.

- Pete


gfe--gluten free easily said...

Yours is the most honest review that I've seen yet on these products, Pete ... I applaud you! After I read the ingredients and considered all the other factors you mentioned, I passed on trying them. And egads on being sent a gluten product. I'm just not too keen on buying from a company that offers both and has problems keeping them straight. Plus as you pointed out, they are marketed as meals and I think parents are sending their kids off with these are their lunches. Thank you for doing such a thorough review and being willing to state the facts so well! I think we're often missing that in our gluten-free community, so your blog fills a vital role when it comes to product reviews.


p.s. This company is the only one that would not allow folks to take photos of their display and products at the GFAF Expo. That restriction also just sent out the wrong vibe to me.

Leta said...

Your points are all well taken but for me, these could be a problem solver. I do a lot of theater and when rehearsals are most nights of the week + possible weekend days, grocery and prep time evaporates (as do laundry time, but that a different issue). Tech days are often over 12 hours long and start early and having something in the house that I can grab and have available to snack on while everyone else is having pizza would be great.

peterbronski said...

Hi Shirley... I really appreciate your comment. I strive, to the best of my ability, to achieve certain things in our product reviews: be brutally honest, whether positive or negative; do due diligence in researching a company; and provide specific praise or criticism, rather than generalized "I liked it" or "I didn't like it" statements. My anecdotal sense is that many bloggers are reluctant to post negative product reviews. (I have several thoughts as to why this is the case, but I won't bother going into that here...) But as I've said before, my allegiance has always been to doing right by our readers, and not worrying about hurting some company's feelings. I'm already getting more long-winded than I meant to, but a comment like yours really means a lot. I feel like I'm achieving my goals. (And how funny that they wouldn't let folks take pictures at GFAF Expo! Wrong vibe indeed...)

Hi Leta... I certainly understand where you're coming from. That's where the utilitarian value of something like a convenient GoPicnic meal might come in handy. But I'd wager that, with a bit of thought, and stocked pantry, it wouldn't take much extra time to put together your own custom meals to go in a food bag that would also fit the bill. In principle GoPicnic has a decent idea. For me, it's there execution that is lacking.

Cheers, Pete

Bad Alice said...

The gluten-free ones came in very handy during a recent plane trip, but I'm glad my husband looked closely at the Rocca bar that was included as a dessert. It was made on the same equipment as products containing wheat. I didn't want to chance being sick the next day. I found the inconsistency of labeling unnerving. I almost made the mistake of trusting that the company had considered such issues.

I usually pack up my own goodies for a plane trip, but we were so curious we had to try them. Actually, airports seem like a great place to sell them. They don't cost any more than the snack boxes they sell on planes.

Jason said...

I'm asymptomatic so the varying degrees of gluten freeness didn't even occur to me. I recently tried the hummus one and thought the same about the fact that it was just a collection of other companies' products - I could assemble the components myself (snack bags of chips, nuts, dried fruit) but not sure where to find tubes of shelf stable hummus. I like to keep things like this in my snack drawer at work and glove compartment in the car for emergencies. Certainly wouldn't consider this a meal in itself.

Anonymous said...

For those who want to assemble their own components, check out They sell all sorts of travel size snacks and have a whole section on GF snacks, including hummus! I order stuff from here all the time for travelling.