Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Chef Boyardee Beefaroni "Throwback Recipe" vs. Current Recipe

My diet has certainly changed over the years. As a kid I always enjoyed getting a chance to eat (among other unhealthy choices) canned pasta products like Campbell's SpaghettiOs (whether the regular version or the ones with meatballs or sliced hot dogs) and the different varieties from Chef Boyardee (stuff like Spaghetti with Meatballs, Beef Ravioli, Lasagna and Beefaroni--which was probably my favorite). Even back then I didn't eat this stuff on a regular basis, and it was always a fun treat to get to have some.

Times have changed and now I find it even more rare that I get a chance to try out this kind of stuff. Thanks to aging and trying to eat a somewhat more healthy diet I generally find that when I decide to splurge (dietetically speaking) on this kind of thing, or stuff like fast food from McDonald's and Burger King, I almost always regret it afterward when I feel all sluggish and greasy because of all the processed and less-than-healthy ingredients. I do still find myself wanting to try out this stuff every once in a while as a bit of a nostalgic taste trip back in time, but am almost always disappointed by the experience.

In the case of Chef Boyardee in particular (and the other stuff in general) I've always figured that the memory of these foods simply doesn't live up to the reality of what's in them and what they taste like. Well as it turns out, there may actually be a difference between the Chef Boyardee foods I ate in my youth and the ones I've eaten as an adult.

Chef Boyardee recently introduced "Throwback Recipes" for it's cans of Beef Ravioli, Lasagna and Beefaroni. Probably at least partly owing to being old, I'm kind of a sucker for most anything in "retro" or "throwback" packaging. I've bought cans of Mountain Dew and bags of Doritos simply because of the fact that they were presented in old-school packaging that harkened back to the snacks I ate as a kid. I've also bought some beers in retro cans and bottles--including the little stubby bottles that Budweiser and Coors have used in recent years, and the "Limited Edition" 1975-style cans that Narragansett has been putting out for the past few years. That can was made famous when it was crushed by Captain Quint in "Jaws". While I wasn't drinking beer as a kid, the throwback cans and bottles still hit my nostalgia nerve and I always enjoy getting that kind of stuff when I can find it.

Quint enjoying his can of Narragansett in "Jaws"...
...and then crushing it!
The funny thing is that, in most cases, the throwback and retro packaging is just that--packaging. Most of the products themselves remain the same, and are simply dressed up with packaging that appeals to earlier generations that enjoyed them in the past. The main exception to this rule that I've seen is the Coke and Fanta products (from Mexico), and the Pepsi Throwbacks that replace their usual high fructose corn syrup with real sugar. This does seem to make a difference in taste that is usually pretty enjoyable.

I'd probably pick up and try out the Chef Boyardee Throwbacks even if the throwback nature only extended to the labels. But they actually have gone a major step further with what they're calling "Throwback Recipes" that are supposedly the same as what was used in an earlier time. I haven't been able to figure out precisely WHEN the recipes are supposed to be from. I appreciate the fact that they're using old recipes, but can't be sure whether these are the recipes I was eating as a child or not. The good news is that this potentially confirms the idea that there's something different (worse?) about the modern Chef Boyardee products and that's what always seems to make them such a disappointment when I try them out now.

So, what IS different about the "Throwback Recipes"? Well, you're still getting a helping of canned pasta products, so obviously it's still going to taste like something from a can--as opposed to the kind of pasta that you would expect from home-cooking or something you might get in a fine Italian restaurant. But there ARE some interesting differences. First off, the cans promise "More Meat, More Cheese, More Goodness" than the regular Chef Boyardee products--although I'm not really sure if the "Goodness" refers to the quality and/or relative healthiness of the ingredients, or just the overall taste.

The first real difference is a welcome one--the standard high fructose corn syrup has been replaced by what's simply being billed as "sugar" (not unlike the sodas I mentioned earlier). I think the reason they say "More Meat" on the label isn't because they have added more meat to the dishes so much as the fact that they're ONLY using meat in the throwbacks. The new recipes include Textured Vegetable Protein. The regular Chef Boyardee meals certainly aren't vegetarian, but I suppose they add TVP as kind of a "filler" and a way to make them seem the same as earlier versions while removing some of the negative aspects of real beef (fats, cholesterol...). There's nothing "healthy" about Chef Boyardee products of course, but I suppose that they're at least trying in some small way. Which brings us to another change in the Throwbacks (and a reason why they are probably doomed to only being around for a limited time). For some years now there has been a big movement to remove trans fats from American foods. It's been a tough haul, but overall it's definitely a good trend. Personally I think we've had to suffer some amount of loss of flavor with this trend, but I certainly support the health benefits. Well, as expected, the current recipes do not have any trans fats (or at least little enough that they can put 0 grams in the Nutritional Facts). But the Throwbacks have actually added some of the trans fats back in. The label indicates that there is 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving. This is one of the food industry's sneaky little tricks though because there are actually "About 2" servings in a can of Chef Boyardee. So while 0.5 grams might not sound all that bad, it's actually 1 gram for the whole can (and who eats only half-a-can of Chef Boyardee in a sitting anyway?). Another refreshing thing to see on the Throwback Recipe label is that it includes "real" sounding items like olive oil, dried garlic, dried onion, beef broth and spice at the end of the ingredient list, where the regular recipe simply lists "flavorings". Possibly the strangest difference was with the cheese that was used (and this will could have the biggest effect on the overall taste). The Throwback Recipe uses Romano cheese (and it appears to be a pretty "real" version of processed Romano too). I don't know when Chef Boyardee made this decision, but the current recipe has replaced the Romano with an "Enzyme Modified Cheese" that features cheddar cheese! This would certainly change the flavor profile and would seem to make the whole dish seem a little bit less "Italian" in nature.

Current recipe label
"Throwback Recipe" label
The bottom line is that there ARE indeed some major differences between these two ingredient lists (recipes). Because of that there are also differences in the Nutritional Facts. Some of these differences look better for the Throwback, while others seem to portray the current recipe as being more "healthy". Of course this is all relative. Either way, we're still talking about Chef Boyardee canned Beefaroni after all! The more "natural" ingredients of the Throwback cause it to have more sodium (180 extra grams!), more calories (only 10 extra though), more fat and more cholesterol. On the other hand, the Throwback does have a bit less sugar in it. Another difference not seen in the ingredient or nutritional lists is the fact that the Throwback Recipe is more expensive than the current one. That seems to make sense, as this is a specially-produced variation that features different (and possibly more expensive) ingredients and a whole new, retro label. My local grocery store currently sells regular cans of Chef Boyardee products for $1.09, while the Throwbacks sell for $1.79.

Okay, so there ARE some differences between the two, but the big questions remain. How does the Throwback Recipe taste? And is it better than what is currently being passed off as Chef Boyardee foods? Well the only way to answer that is to try some out! And that's what I did. While there are three varieties of Throwbacks (Beef Ravioli, Beefaroni and Lasagna) I decided to pick one to do a taste test with. And Beefaroni has always been my favorite of the three, so it was an easy choice. I bought cans of each version, heated them up and tried them both out. It was an interesting enough experiment that I thought it was worth making a video about and posting on my YouTube channel. Please check out the video here to see the results!

At first glance there was some difference in the looks of the two recipes when poured into pans to heat. The current recipe looks a little more orange and the Throwback has more of a red appearance. The sauce in the Throwback looks a little thicker and seems to have more meat. But it also appears a bit runnier (kind of looks like it has some water (or other fluid) separation.

Current Recipe
Throwback Recipe
After heating them up the smell was pretty similar. The current recipe had a bit more of a sweetness in the aroma, but also seemed a bit less robust overall. But the biggest difference (not too surprisingly) came with the taste test. I tried the current recipe first. It tasted very familiar, and once again left me with the feeling that it simply wasn't as good as I remembered it being when I was a kid. I had always chalked this up to changing tastes and the fact that it's tough for anything to live up to the fond (and sometimes faulty) nostalgic memories of childhood. But now I had a chance to potentially figure the answer out once and for all. The Throwback Recipe thickened up even more upon heating. The water separation seemed to be just that--the natural separation of more "natural" ingredients in the recipe. It all came back together once heated up on the stove. The rich color and thicker sauce really added to the visual, and upon closer inspection you could actually see little pieces of "stuff" in the sauce (my best guess was that it was bits of the Romano cheese and/or the dried onion and garlic). That appearance wasn't found in the paler, thinner sauce of the current recipe. That sauce was very runny and didn't even stay on the pasta when you picked it up with your fork. It just left a light coating of orange on the pasta tubes. The Throwback sauce and meat stuck on the pasta much better. At first I didn't think there was too much of a difference in overall taste. But the more I ate the more I could taste the difference--and it was significant. The more "natural" ingredients of the Throwback actually came through in the taste (and even the texture and feel of the food as you eat it). I think the biggest taste difference most likely comes from the cheese--and the Throwback's use of Romano instead of the cheddar in the current recipe.

Closeup of the more hearty Throwback
An even closer look at the Throwback
In the end the Throwback Recipe was the clear winner. I'm now thinking that all these years of disappointment in my adult Chef Boyardee experiences WAS actually due to the fact that the recipe had been changed over the years. I still don't know for sure if the Throwback Recipe was the one in use when I was a kid myself, but it certainly seems to be a lot closer to what I was eating back then. We're still talking about a processed, canned pasta product, but I do feel that the Throwback Recipe is vastly superior (even if maybe a bit less healthy--if that's possible). While I don't buy this stuff often (and the Little Monsters really haven't had the chance to try out much if any of these canned pastas in their young lives--which is probably for the best), if I DO find myself buying more Chef Boyardee in the future I'll be glad to pay the extra price for the Throwback Recipes. And for a cheapskate like myself to say that, it's really saying something!



  1. My wife bought this product because I haven't liked the new stuff. I tried it last night and it is not the same thing I ate in the 60's and 70's growing up. It was so bad I only tried 1 ravioli and threw the rest in garbage. Then went and rinsed out mouth, brushed my teeth twice and rinsed with Listerine.

  2. I just had the throwback spaghetti and meatballs and wow what a difference! Yes the price is $1.79 but it was totally worth it because it really was good!!!

  3. Dude thanks for this!
    I just tried the Raviolis the other day and they were much better. I wonder about what year they changed the recipe because I feel like in the late 80s and early 90s it was still tastier. Then sometime in the late 90s it turned to the orange watered down version.

  4. This is a great page. I can say that the downturn in quality of Chef Boyardee canned foods almost certainly happened when Conagra Foods purchased the brand in the late 1990's, or was it 2000. Conagra has a long history of taking over established brands of food products, and switching to lower quality ingredients in order to maximize profits for the corporation. Everything that Conagra touches, turns to crap, pretty much.

  5. The Throwback recipes are way better, I haven't tried the Beefaroni but the other two are a noticeable improvement. I had to quit eating the Ravioli they make now because it tasted of nothing but carrots, which has been scaled back. As for the Lasagna, it was a childhood favorite i gave up on because of the addition of chunky tomato. Now its like I remember, hopefully these are here to stay.