Diet programs like Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig are a $2 billion industry. We know these diets work if you stick to them because they provide careful portion control. But most of us don't know something much more basic: how does the food TASTE?
Obviously, food is highly subjective and personal preference varies. But these diet foods can cost as much as $200 to $600 a month, so we wanted to try them. We conducted informal tastings of Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem and Smart Ones -- a grocery store brand affiliated with Weight Watchers.
Our tough tasters? Restaurateur and food network host Scott Conant, cookbook author and "GMA" food editor Sara Moulton, and Chef Marcus Samuelsson, who prepared President Obama's first state dinner.
We convened at Samuelsson's new Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem and matched up similar dishes from all three makers. The chefs knew they were diet foods but didn't know which brand was which.
First we tried three different vegetarian lasagnas side by side.
"It is offensive to the guy that actually came up with lasagna," Samuelsson said, "because he did not have this in mind."
Next came Salisbury steaks with sides. Sara Moulton had this reaction: "Oh my God, I just had a flashback. I can't remember if it's the cafeteria in high school or the cafeteria in college."
And finally we served the chef's breakfast egg dishes. "If I woke up in the morning and I had to look at this to start my day, it's a bad day," said Conant with a laugh.
Since the tasting was blind, the chefs didn't know it, but they consistently preferred the frozen foods we served over what are called "shelf stable" dishes that don't have to be refrigerated or frozen.
Moulton had praise for one of the frozen meals: "I think #1 is my favorite," she said. "I like the texture."
By contrast, Conant and Samuelsson thought one of the shelf-stable dishes tasted "synthetic."
The majority of Nutrisystem's meals are shelf stable and the company later complained that it wasn't fair to compare its shelf-stable foods with other companies' frozen ones.
The truth is, these foodies didn't love any of the foods. So we organized a second, less picky panel. This time our tasters were graduate students: Yecenia Alfaro of American University, Nick Gass from the University of Missouri and Courtney Collins of Georgetown University.
By trading famous chefs and fine china for starving students with paper plates, would we get a different reaction to the diet foods? Their commentary was more positive. Here's how Collins reacted to one of the lasagnas: "I thought [it] was really great, actually. It had chunky vegetables, which were good, and sort of like a pesto flavor."
Gass agreed: "It had the most variety of flavors, was the most appealing, it had the best texture." Alfaro was a fan of one of the egg dishes: "I really like that it was … like homemade egg with potatoes. It tasted a lot more fresh."
But the student tasters weren't pushovers. They had plenty of complaints even though this time we served only frozen foods from all three companies. Here are some sample comments:
Alfaro: "The cheese was very dry for me."
Collins: "It sort of creeped me out a bit."
Gass: "I didn't really care for the taste of it. I thought it had kind of a weird taste."
After carefully considering flavor, texture, aroma and appearance, how did the students vote?
Student Taster Favorites:
• 1st place: Smart Ones
• 2nd place: Jenny Craig
• 3rd place: Nutrisystem
Would our chefs agree? We had a hard time getting them to rank their favorites, because they're so used to fresh foods and fine dining, but once they did, here's how it turned out:
Chef Taster Favorites:
• 1st place: Jenny Craig
• 2nd place: Smart Ones
• 3rd place: Nutrisystem
How fitting: the starving students liked the least expensive grocery store brand. The famous chefs preferred the most expensive membership plan.
Keep in mind, we're talking about diet foods -- not gourmet meals -- so all of the companies are working with a limited flavor palette to keep the meals low-cal and convenient.
And, remember, this was an informal tasting -- just the opinions of six people -- professional chefs and star students -- but amateur tasters.
When we told the companies about our challenge, Jenny Craig and Smart Ones said they were "pleased" and "delighted." To read Jenny Craig's full statement, click here. For the complete Smart Ones statement, click here.
Nutrisystem said in a statement: "'GMA's' testing is unscientific and should not be relied upon by anyone as representative of how consumers will think one product tastes compared to another one....our foods are a balance of nutritional value, affordability, convenience and results."
Nutrisystem adds that in a survey, "8 out of 10 Nutrisystem customers said they 'love the food." To read Nutrisystem's full statement click here.
In addition to taste, another important factor is price. We asked all three companies for the average price range of 28 days worth of their food, three meals a day. While it is possible you will pay more for these diet foods, these are the prices reported by the companies, based on the plans consumers most often choose. Some of the diet plans suggest you supplement their meals with fresh produce and dairy and those costs are not included here. Shipping is included, where applicable.
Keep in mind, Weight Watchers charges a separate fee and does not require members to eat Smart Ones foods, but we wanted to include a grocery store brand that is easily accessible in our tasting. Nutrisystem's price includes online tools like chats with dietitians, meal planners, body mass assessment and more. Jenny Craig's plan includes a weekly one-on-one counseling session.
Price for 4 Weeks worth of Diet Meals, three meals a day:
Smart Ones: $178-$216
Jenny Craig: $300-$486