The Highest And Lowest Quality Frozen Cakes You'll Find At The Store

Five boxes of frozen cakes
Five boxes of frozen cakes - Static Media/Getty

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Anyone with an indomitable sweet tooth will agree that there is nothing more satisfying than realizing you already have a dessert on hand to tackle sudden onset sugar cravings. While nothing beats a homemade cake, there are plenty of delicious frozen cakes in the freezer aisle of your local grocery store that come pretty darn close -- perfect for everything from entertaining guests, to giving you the post-dinner sugar fix you deserve.

But these cakes are not always made from sugar, spice, and everything nice. Like the majority of store-bought desserts, frozen cakes can be incredibly processed. Aside from the obvious components of eggs, butter, sugar, and flour, plenty of those stocked in stores are also stuffed with low-quality ingredients that you are not likely to find listed in an actual cookbook. Fortunately, some of the offerings out there are higher quality than others. We put our sugar-crazed brain aside for a second to inspect the ingredients in several popular store-bought frozen cakes and help you choose your next sweet treat.

Read more: 13 Store-Bought Ice Cream Bars Ranked From Worst To Best

Highest: Trader Joe's Tres Leches Cake

Three slices of Tres Leches cake
Three slices of Tres Leches cake - Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's frozen aisle is one of the modern wonders of the world, especially if you are after a sweet treat. Nestled between the ice cream and cheesecakes, you'll find boxes of the grocery store chain's frozen Tres Leches Cake. Just like any good take on the traditional Latin American cake, this is a light sponge soaked in three kinds of sweet milk (hence the name "tres leches"), topped with a thick layer of whipped cream.

A classic Tres Leches recipe is relatively simple and consists of multiple kinds of dairy and the usual cake staples (butter, flour, sugar). While the Trader Joe's Tres Leches Cake does contain three additives -- acacia gum, guar gum, and sunflower lecithin -- these are at least natural, not artificial, and are minimal compared to other cakes on this list. Studies on the effects of these additives are generally very positive, with both gums even potentially boasting digestive benefits. The rest of the ingredients list is bulked out with the kinds of things you'd find in your kitchen, such as unbleached flour, heavy cream, salt, cream of tartar, and egg yolks. Yes, this is an extremely sugary treat (personally, we do not want to eat any Tres Leches cake that isn't), but in the grand scheme of things, it is actually relatively wholesome.

Lowest: Sara Lee Classic Pound Cake

Foil box of classic pound cake
Foil box of classic pound cake - Sara Lee

There was a time when Sara Lee cakes were whipped up in an actual bakery, but those days are long gone. To give credit where it's due, its iconic Classic Pound Cake isn't the worst quality cake in the world and only just inches itself onto the "lowest quality" section of this list. Its ingredients list does contain actual butter, sugar, eggs, and bleached enriched flour, which is essentially what you would expect to find.

Our problem lies with all the other ingredients listed on each tin of this moist, buttery cake, which is made up of a significant number of additives. While there's no high fructose corn syrup here (again, kudos), there are a lot of scientific-sounding ingredients. The bulk of its ingredients list is made up of things such as mono- and diglycerides, guar gum, xanthan gum, and sodium stearoyl lactylate. There's also modified food starch, a substance typically used to thicken foods that's made by processing the likes of wheat, corn, potato, or tapioca. None of these ingredients are overtly alarming but they also don't scream quality, especially when the term "pound cake" comes from the fact that it is traditionally supposed to be made with a pound each of just four ingredients: butter, flour, eggs, and sugar.

Highest: Private Selection Pineapple Upside Down Cakes

Box of pineapple upside down cakes
Box of pineapple upside down cakes - Kroger

As you would expect (or at least hope) from a pineapple upside down cake, the very first ingredient listed here is actual fruit, so we are off to a good start. The rest of Private Selection's Pineapple Upside Down Cakes are packed with equally wholesome ingredients, such as brown sugar, enriched wheat flour, sugar, butter, and eggs -- in short, all the baking staples you would find in the average cake-lover's kitchen.

We're pleased to see that natural flavor is used instead of any artificial flavors. In fact, the only remotely chemical-sounding ingredients here feature in the baking powder, which contains a pretty standard amalgamation of sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bicarbonate, corn starch, calcium sulfate, and monocalcium phosphate. Baking powder needs both sodium bicarbonate (also known as baking soda) and an acid, such as monocalcium phosphate, to react with each other and release carbon dioxide to help your baked goods expand, so don't be alarmed if you spot this kind of scientific jargon on the back of a store-bought cake; you most likely put something similar into your own cakes at home without realizing.

Lowest: Pepperidge Farm Coconut Layer Cake

Box showing slice of coconut layer cake
Box showing slice of coconut layer cake - Pepperidge Farm

Pepperidge Farm is primarily known for its Goldfish crackers and bread, but it also boasts a pretty tasty lineup of frozen cakes. It's just too bad that the ingredients that go into these cakes aren't quite as satisfying. In the case of the Pepperidge Farm Classic Coconut Layer Cake, the three layers of sponge with thick frosting and coconut shavings are made up of a whopping five different kinds of vegetable oil: soybean, palm, palm kernel, hydrogenated cottonseed, and/or canola.

Unsurprisingly, these sponge layers also contain an astonishing number of additives. Some of these are pretty standard, such as corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup. While we're not a huge fan of this sweetener for its ability to increase inflammation and worsen insulin resistance, it's a sad fact that it crops up in the ingredients list for many store-bought cakes. Other additives are less easily recognizable and sound more suited to a chemistry lab than a baked good, such as polyglycerol esters of fatty acids, sodium caseinate, and polysorbate 60. There are much higher quality cakes out there, even in the frozen foods aisle. Alternatively, if you've got a real hankering for coconut cake in particular, check out this recipe (the ingredients for which consistent of far less scientific jargon).

Highest: Trader Joe's Chocolate Lava Cakes

Box of chocolate lava cakes
Box of chocolate lava cakes - Trader Joe's

Like all of the cakes on this list, even those in the high quality section, Trader Joe's Chocolate Lava Cakes aren't totally without their flaws. They may be overflowing with a decadent chocolate ganache and take less than a minute to prepare, but we have to mention the fact that there a few additives placed lower down on the ingredients list, such as gums and the carrageenan in the whipping cream. The latter is a thickening agent that's extracted from seaweed, of all things, and has long been used as a traditional health remedy in Ireland.

The saving grace here lies in those first few ingredients. While everyone knows that sugar, eggs, butter, and flour are the building blocks of every cake, you'd be surprised at how often they aren't the first components mentioned on the back of a store-bought cake -- or aren't mentioned at all. Fortunately, they're the MVPs in Trader Joe's Chocolate Lava Cakes. The flour is also unbleached.This admittedly isn't the be all, end all (the generic flour you pick up at the grocery store is probably bleached) but is still preferable considering how many chemicals are used during the bleaching process.

Lowest: Sara Lee Butter Streusel Coffee Cake

Box of butter streusel coffee cake
Box of butter streusel coffee cake - Sara Lee

Made of a twisted Danish pastry with a buttery swirl, Sara Lee's Butter Streusel Coffee Cake is a little bit different from the other cakes on this list. Sadly, the length of the ingredients list tells you everything you need to know about its quality. More of a novel than a list, it starts off standard enough with enriched wheat flour and margarine before devolving into something that looks like the overview of a scientific experiment, not a cake recipe. We will not bore you with every granular detail, but to give you a taste of what is going on inside this cake, some of the ingredients listed include hydrated monoglyceride, ethyl alcohol, and propylene glycol. High fructose corn syrup is involved, too. In fact, it is listed several ingredients above regular sugar, which is a red flag in itself.

Another additive used in Sara Lee's Butter Streusel Coffee Cake is sodium benzoate, a preservative used to stop foods going moldy. While this is generally considered safe, scientists have raised concerns about what happens when it's combined with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) -- which is also listed as the very last ingredient. Studies show that the two together may turn into benzene, a potentially carcinogenic chemical. Rest assured, the FDA keeps a watchful eye on benzene levels in foods, but this is still something you may want to consider when picking out your next sweet treat.

Highest: Katz Heavenly Crème Cakes Vanilla

White box of crème cakes
White box of crème cakes - Katz

These frozen cakes look suspiciously like Twinkies, so you would be forgiven for assuming that they come bearing the same load of low-quality ingredients. Upon further investigation, we are pleased to say that this is not the case. Katz Heavenly Crème Cakes Vanilla may follow a similar formula of stuffing individual sponge cakes with a creamy vanilla filling, but they're made with a refreshingly straightforward array of ingredients by a brand that has a no-preservatives rule.

Sugar (the real kind, not high fructose corn syrup), a gluten-free blend of brown rice flour, white rice flour, corn starch, tapioca starch, potato starch, and potato flour, and egg whites are the top three components listed for these cakes. They do contain xanthan gum (and a few additives in the baking powder) so they're not totally additive-free, but they're still considerably more wholesome than the majority of frozen cakes. As an added bonus, they're also allergy-friendly, free of not just gluten but dairy, nut, soy, and sesame. The level of care put into these cakes should come as no surprise considering the fact that Katz was created as a way to cater its founder's children's dietary needs. The fact that the cakes also manage to taste so good was also inevitable, with those same children and their friends serving as taste testers. After all, who knows good cake better than kids?

Lowest: Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Fudge Layer Cake

Box of chocolate fudge layer cake
Box of chocolate fudge layer cake - Pepperidge Farm

As huge fans of anything chocolatey, fudgy, and delicious, it low-key breaks our heart to define this as a low-quality cake. However, the reality is that there's a lot more going on in the Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Fudge Layer Cake than just straight-up chocolate.

The ingredients list starts out standard enough with sugar and water, before moving on to the likes of five different kinds of oil, high fructose corn syrup, and a whole lot of additives. These come in the forms of polyglycerol esters of fatty acids, maltodextrin, glyceryl-lacto esters of fatty acids, sodium caseinate, polysorbate 60, and more. The latter features in a lot of Pepperidge Farm cakes, including the Chocolate Fudge Stripe and Luscious Lemon varieties. A combo of sorbitol, stearic acid, and ethylene oxide, the Center for the Science in the Public Interest reports that polysorbates may potentially disrupt our gut, but more research is needed before we can say for sure. We will give it some praise for including natural vanilla flavor, though.

Highest: Private Selection Chocolate Ganache Lava Cakes

Box of chocolate lava cakes
Box of chocolate lava cakes - Kroger

Like everything in Kroger's Private Selection range, the Chocolate Ganache Lava Cakes aim to offer a slightly more upscale culinary experience than your average own-brand product. Each individual frozen cake is filled with copious amounts of gooey dark chocolate ganache, primed to ooze out of the sponge upon your first spoonful of cake, so we'd argue that they achieved their goal. It's a delicious, luxurious eating experience, but are the ingredients up to par?

For the most part, yes. There are a few additives here and there, such as carrageenan in the heavy cream and mono- and diglycerides in the semi-sweet chocolate. There are also gums (guar and xanthan) in the base of the cake itself. What makes up for this is the fact that they're at the very end of the ingredients list. The first ingredients listed for the Private Selection Chocolate Ganache Lava Cakes -- meaning they're the components making up the bulk of the recipe -- are sugar, water, eggs, butter, and flour, AKA the same ingredients any amateur baker would use to whip up a chocolate cake at home.

Lowest: Sara Lee Lemon Pound Cake

Foil box of lemon pound cake
Foil box of lemon pound cake - Sara Lee

If Sara Lee's Classic Pound Cake isn't made with high-quality ingredients, it stands to reason that its Lemon Pound Cake doesn't either. This frozen cake features many of the same additives as its plainer counterpart, such as mono- and diglycerides, guar gum, xanthan gum, and sodium stearoyl lactylate. We challenge you to find any of those in your kitchen.

In the process of making it lemon-flavored, Sara Lee threw a whole bunch of other ingredients into its pound cake. That includes corn syrup -- a liquid sweetener made of pure glucose that's slightly less processed than high fructose corn syrup, and isn't quite as controversial among nutritional experts. Unlike the Classic Pound Cake, this ranks soybean oil above butter, which is also pretty disappointing considering the fact that a pound cake is, true to its name, supposed to contain a whole pound of butter.

Highest: Favorite Day Molten Chocolate Lava Cake

Box of chocolate lava cake
Box of chocolate lava cake - Target

The entire purpose of Target's own-brand Favorite Day is to supply indulgent snacks, which is very much the best way to describe its Molten Chocolate Lava Cake. Each individual frozen cake is packed with a semi-sweet chocolate ganache, which makes for a truly luxurious dessert experience that's (mostly) fueled by high quality ingredients.

While there's a handful of additives at play here, gums, soy lecithin, and modified tapioca starch aren't the worst ingredients we've seen in a cake. Its primary ingredients are sugar, eggs, water, and bleached enriched wheat flour (although, admittedly, we'd be more impressed if it was unbleached). We also like the fact that the semi-sweet chocolate is made with actual natural vanilla flavor. That's a rarity when it comes to store-bought treats, with food brands often opting for an artificial, synthetic alternative known as vanillin due to the high prices of pure vanilla extract. Judging by the number of 5-star reviews for this cake on the Target website, it was well worth the splurge.

Lowest: Great Value Tres Leches Cake

Box of Tres Leches Cake
Box of Tres Leches Cake - Walmart

Walmart's Great Value line is perfect for thrifty shoppers, but there's a reason why its products are priced so low -- the ingredients aren't always top quality. That becomes pretty clear once you start scanning through the building blocks of its Tres Leches Cake, which go far beyond your standard recipe.

Milk is the number one ingredient, but once you start delving further into this list, you'll find yourself trying to decipher terms such as carboxymethylcellulose (no, we didn't make that up). Sometimes known as cellulose gum, this serves as a thickening agent, as well as extending the life of store-bought goods. Research is still ongoing into this additive, but a 2021 study did find that consuming it regularly on a longterm basis can have a negative impact on the good bacteria in your gut.

Even if you look past the gum, Great Value Tres Leches Cake is packed with ingredient names you probably don't recognize. That in itself is a surefire sign of a highly processed food product. Combined with the number of 1-star reviews on the Walmart website that also claim this tastes nothing like authentic Tres Leches Cake, you may want to leave this one in the freezer.

Read the original article on Mashed.