Wednesday, October 1, 2003



There’s a new can in town, and
our tasting panel finds that while
Spam is the sentimental favorite,
the new kid is a contender

Is this town big enough for two gun-slingin' pork logs? Are our streets wide enough, our musubis many enough, our minds open enough to accommodate a challenger to our beloved slab o' Spam?

A showdown was in order.

And so, at high noon last week -- OK, it was high 10:30 a.m. -- we assembled two dozen tasters and placed before them the contenders: Spam, of course; Tulip, the wannabe musubi-mate from Denmark; and, for comparison's sake, Treet, representing the generic luncheon meats of the world.

Our tasters were the Spam-faithful, the Spam-fearful ("Do I have to eat the whole piece?"), the Tulip-familiar and a number who didn't know what the fuss was about, but were hungry (people like this are easy to find in a newsroom).

In this sense, they represented the world-at-large. But to add more refined palates, we included cooks and other staff at Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar, which is a short walk from the newsroom.

Before we get to the results, let us meet the two primary contenders:

Tulip -- full name Tulip Luncheon Meat Hash with Real Bacon -- is a Danish import well-established in other parts of the world. Okinawa, Puerto Rico and Guam are major consumers. Tulip was introduced locally last month with an aggressive marketing push. It even comes in a Hawaii-only can showing a Tulip-topped musubi.

Spam -- full name SPAM -- is practically a staple food in Hawaii. We consume 5 million pounds per year -- that's six cans per person per year, according to L.H. Gamble, distributor here for Hormel Foods. Only Guam does more business per capita.

If you're looking for something to do this weekend, this taste-off is neither too dangerous nor too expensive to duplicate at home. Spam and Tulip are selling for under $2 per can at Foodland and Times markets. Slice 'em, fry 'em, don't tell your tasters which is which. May the best can win.

Our results showed first of all that we know our Spam. Almost everyone was able to correctly identify it, and some got all three names right. "You can always taste the original," one wrote. Oddly enough, those who got it wrong unanimously misidentified Treet as Spam.

Asked to pick their favorite, nine chose Spam, nine chose Tulip and there was one tie. Six chose Treet. Pretty even picking across the board.

But asked to quantify their choices by rating each sample 1 to 5, the tasters favored Spam, 85 points to 76 for Tulip, 67 for Treet.

By eliminating Treet from the voting we can confine this to a Spam-Tulip taste-off. The numbers for Spam-as-favorite go up to lucky 13, Tulip's go up to 10. (This is done by taking the six ballots that went to Treet and awarding their second-best votes to either Spam, 4, or Tulip, 1. There was one tie).

In general, the tasters thought Spam was saltier. This was not necessarily a minus. "Salty, like the original Spam!" exulted one who gave it a full five points. We tasted the regular versions, not low-sodium, of both brands. Spam does have 90 mg more sodium per serving than Tulip.

Tulip was often described as "smoky," and some were able to taste the bacon, which was a plus, except for one person who marked it down because it was too much like bacon.

Opinions about texture, greasiness and "meatiness" were all over the map.

Thankfully, this is not an election and the fate of the free world does not hang in the balance. It is hard to draw any conclusions, except possibly this one: Spam is our sentimental favorite, but we're willing to give this new kid a chance.

That is, except for one taster, who named Tulip No. 1, then said she would keep buying Spam. If you can't be loyal to a gelatinous pink slab, after all, what is loyalty?

Both L.H. Gamble and Advantage Webco Dodge Hawaii, which is distributing Tulip, have run their own blind tastings, and not surprisingly, the in-house brand won in each case.

Greg Gomes, president of Webco, said Tulip is firmer, less salty, "and if you've got a good palate, you can taste the bacon."

Gomes admits to being a long-time Spam consumer before his conversion to Tulip. "Our competitor's brand is a terrific product. It's been around a long time. It defines the product," he said.

"We don't pretend to be Spam."

Hoagy Gamble described Tulip as "OK, but it's different. It's not Spam." His analogy: "Pepsi's OK, but for someone who drinks Coke, we want Coca Cola."

Gomes said Tulip's entry into the market has been very successful and that he has orders for 250,000 more cans. The product is in Times and Foodland, coming soon to Longs Drug Stores. KTA and Big Save are bringing it to the neighbor islands.

Gomes is hoping to win 20 percent of Hawaii's luncheon meat market, partly by expanding that market, partly by whittling away some sales from Spam.

But Gamble said Spam has weathered much competition in the past and he doesn't expect massive defections. "It's an American product that has delivered."

All of the publicity generated by Tulip's entry into the market has actually helped sales of Spam, he said. "It has brought awareness to the canned luncheon meat category. Our business has never been better."

It probably has also helped that Spam is selling at Tulip's low introductory prices. But it does seem that this town may well be big enough for two pork logs.

It is hard for us in Hawaii to imagine a world without Spam and Spam musubi, but truth be told, a taste-off like ours would have no resonance anywhere else (well, maybe Guam).

Just to put our values in context with the rest of the planet's, we close with this story, relayed by an expatriate now living in Los Angeles:

Her friend, a Japanese American from L.A., was in Hawaii for a visit and went golfing with some friends. They all made fun of him when ordered a post-game hot dog. They, of course, were all having Spam musubi.

So he tried one and allowed it was pretty good.

When he left for L.A., one of his golfing partners gave him a can of Spam, one of the new low-sodium cans that has a picture of a musubi on the label.

He said, "Good, I can eat it on the plane."

Turns out he thought there was a musubi inside the can.


Nutritional facts

This is what you're eating in Tulip or Spam, per 2 ounce serving (one-sixth of a can):

Tulip (regular): 180 calories, 15 g fat (6 g saturated fat), 35 mg cholesterol, 700 mg sodium, 2 g carbohydrate, 8 g protein

Tulip (low sodium): 170 calories, 14 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 35 mg cholesterol, 510 mg sodium, 2 g carbohydrate, 8 g protein

Spam (regular): 180 calories, 16 g fat (6 g saturated fat), 40 mg cholesterol, 790 mg sodium, 1 g carbohydrate, 7 g protein

Spam (low sodium): 180 calories, 16 g fat (6 g saturated fat), 40 mg cholesterol, 580 mg sodium, 1 g carbohydrate, 7 g protein

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