Our tests pit 19 private-label products against big-name rivals.
Trade big brands for store brands and you’ll save big bucks—an average of 25 percent, according to industry experts. In comparing store-brand and namebrand versions of 19 products, our savings ranged from 5 percent (frozen lasagna) to 60 percent (ice cream).
Many of those store brands were also as tasty as the alternative. Our sensory experts found that the store brand and name brand tied in 10 cases, the name brand won in eight cases, and the store brand won once.
A tie doesn’t indicate that the tastes were identical. Two products might have ingredients of similar quality—good, bad, or in between—but taste very different because those ingredients differ. A case in point: our pair of wheat breads. Freihofer’s has mild grain and malt flavors; Hy-Vee has a sourdoughlike flavor.
Nutrition for the pairs is similar, with a few exceptions we’ve noted in the results starting on the facing page.
Over the years, we’ve found that a wide variety of store brands perform about as well as name brands. That’s what readers have told us, too. When we surveyed more than 24,000 of them about supermarket shopping last year, 72 percent said they’d bought store brands in the past month, and 74 percent were highly satisfied with the quality of store brands at their supermarket. Asked “In general do you think that store brands are usually better, the same as, or worse than national brands,” 3 percent said better, 78 percent said the same, and 18 percent said worse.
National brands produce and package a wide variety of store-brand products. Among the many big names known to make store brands are Hormel (canned meats, bouillon, and desserts), Marcal (paper towels, tissues, and napkins), Mc- Cain (french fries, appetizers, and frozen pizza), and Reynolds (foil, plastic wrap and bags, and disposable plates and cups).
Rarely will you find clues to a store brand’s heritage, and suppliers can change at any time. Nor is there any guarantee that national brands simply slap different labels on products rolling off the same assembly line. Store-brand products might be made to different specifications.
They’re here to stay
Store brands continue to chip away at the leading brands’ market share. Almost two-thirds of shoppers surveyed in May and June 2012 by the management consulting company Accenture said that their grocery carts were at least half full of storebrand products. The biggest categories: milk, bread, baked goods, and cheese.
In tough economic times, shoppers are naturally drawn to cheaper brands. But photo: michael smith october 2012 ConsumerReports.org 17 private label is not a flash in the pan, says Matt Arnold, a senior consumer analyst with Edward Jones, an investment company based in St. Louis. “If you are able to create a private-label brand that garners trust among your shoppers,” he says, “it almost becomes a national brand within your four walls.” Indeed, more than half of respondents to the Accenture survey said that it would take a permanent price reduction of a brand-name product—down to the price of the store brand—to persuade them to return to buying it.
Consumers have more store-brand choices, too, as retailers tap into product categories that lack clear national-brand leaders. Arnold notes that there are more “upper tier” private-label products, which let customers trade up when the economy improves. Publix, for example, sells dozens of organic foods under its own brand; Costco sells Kirkland Signature bourbon, Greek yogurt, and green tea; Price Chopper sells its own gelati and an extensive line of mustards.
But with those fancier store brands and a current rise in the cost of commodities, exacerbated by drought, the price gap between store brands and name brands could be narrowing. A recent poll of retailers by Supermarket News found that store-brand price increases are outpacing those of national brands. National brands also have more invested in research and development, packaging, advertising, and marketing, so ingredients represent a smaller slice of their cost. As a result, says Neil Stern, senior partner with McMillanDoolittle, retail experts based in Chicago, a rise in the price of commodities is more likely to hike prices of private-label products than those of national brands.
Based on our tests, store brands are often at least as good as national brands and usually cost much less. They’re worth a try. Your taste buds might be happy; your wallet certainly will be.
(See also: Best cheap supermarket wines)
In blind tests, our trained tasters evaluated 19 pairs of staple foods. National brands and store brands tied 10 times; national brands won eight times; store brands, once. Costs are based on the average prices our shoppers paid.
Swanson 66 cents per serving, Giant Eagle 52 cents per serving.
Verdict: Giant Eagle. It’s a simple, mild broth with a slight taste of roasted chicken. Swanson’s broth tastes highly processed, has hints of dehydrated spice and off-tastes, and varied a bit from one sample to another.
Skippy 20 cents per serving, Wegmans 15 cents per serving.
Verdict: Tie. Both are fine choices. Skippy is a bit sweeter and slightly more bitter than Wegmans, which has more of a roasted impression.
Ocean Spray 44 cents per serving, Meijer 37 cents per serving.
Verdict: Tie. They are of about equal (though imperfect) quality. Ocean Spray has more fruit flavor and tastes slightly less “cooked,” but it’s a bit bitter and has an odd perfumelike note. Meijer is very tart—more sour than sweet. Both contain juices from other fruits, such as grape and apple.
Sunshine 38 cents per serving, Clover Valley (Dollar General) 19 cents per serving.
Verdict: Tie. Sunshine has more sour-dairy flavor (think sour cream), with a cheesy flavor at the finish; Clover Valley is slightly saltier and more toasted.
Chobani $1.31 per serving, Winn-Dixie $1.09 per serving.
Verdict: Tie. Even for our experts, it was hard to tell these two apart. Both are tasty, but the Winn-Dixie is a bit sweeter, with slightly more dairy flavor.
Hidden Valley 22 cents per serving, Market Pantry (Target) 10 cents per serving.
Verdict: Tie. They are of about the same quality, but they taste different. Hidden Valley has black-pepper bits and flavors of Parmesan and Dijon; Market Pantry has more prominent buttermilk and vinegar flavors.
Friendship 68 cents per serving, H-E-B 31 cents per serving.
Verdict: Tie. Friendship’s small curds are soft, and the product is bland overall. H-E-B’s curds are chewy and a bit salty, with a tangy, slightly sour dairy flavor.
Freihofer’s 26 cents per two slices, Hy-Vee 14 cents per two slices.
Verdict: Tie. Their textures are similar— soft—but their tastes are not. Freihofer’s has mild grain and malt flavors and a caramel color, plus a burnt top that adds bitterness. Hy-Vee looks almost like white bread. It has a yeasty, sourdoughlike flavor and slight off-tastes.
Nature Valley 56 cents per serving, Great Value (Walmart) 33 cents per serving.
Verdict: Tie. Both are chewy and have nuts, raisins, and dried cranberries. The dried fruit is slightly more flavorful in Nature Valley’s bars.
Diamond 52 cents per serving Kirkland Signature (Costco) 35 cents per serving.
Verdict: Tie. They’re basically interchangeable, but the Kirkland Signature walnuts are slightly sweeter, with a little less roasted flavor.
Kellogg’s 48 cents per serving, Essential Everyday (Supervalu-Jewel and other chains) 37 cents per serving.
Verdict: Kellogg’s.Kellogg’s, with a pancake-syrup flavor, isn’t great, but Essential loses because of slightly chalky oats, with just a few clusters; an oxidized taste; and a lingering bitter aftertaste. It also has more sodium.
Bush’s 56 cents per serving, Food Lion 37 cents per serving.
Verdict: Bush’s. Bush’s boasts brown-sugar and molasses flavors, with a slight smoky note. Food Lion has a harsh, ashy artificial smoke flavor, is bitter, and has a metallic off-note. Those drawbacks overwhelm the more subtle flavors of onion and molasses.
Ben & Jerry’s $1.12 per serving, Kroger Private Selection 45 cents per serving.
Verdict: Ben & Jerry’s. It has flavorful dark-chocolate chips and lots of big dough chunks that are a bit gritty. Kroger’s ice cream is mediocre, and the dough is in small, gritty pellets, with artificial butterscotch and raw-flour flavors.
Quaker 16 cents per serving, Publix 11 cents per serving.
Verdict: Quaker. It has clean, nutty grain flavors with a toasted taste. Publix, on the other hand, is soft and a bit mushy, with lots of broken oat pieces.
Birds Eye 35 cents per serving 22 cents per serving, Stop & Shop 31 cents per serving
Verdict: Bird's Eye. Its flavorful, fresh-tasting vegetables trounce the starchy, shriveled, low-flavor veggies from Stop & Shop, which also have more sodium.
Stouffer’s $1.58 per serving, Eating Right (Safeway) $1.50 per serving.
Verdict: Stouffer’s. The name-brand lasagna wouldn’t be mistaken for homemade, but it’s decent. The Eating Right product is dominated by dehydrated-oregano and greasy/fatty flavors. The meat bits are chewy; the noodles, pasty. But Stouffer’s has more sodium than Eating Right.
Soy Dream 84 cents per serving, Price Chopper 40 cents per serving.
Verdict: Soy Dream. Soy Dream is sweet and off-white, and has vanilla and slight malt flavors. Price Chopper is thin, beige, and lightly sweetened, with hints of adhesive-bandage and Play-doh-like tastes and a licorice aftertaste.
Tropicana 60 cents per serving, Nice (Walgreens) 28 cents per serving.
Verdict: Tropicana. It has distinct orange flavor and is moderately sweet. In Nice, cooked flavors with marmalade and vitamin notes detract from the score, as does a lingering bitterness. Nice is “pasteurized from concentrate”; Tropicana claims its product is “never from concentrate.”
Other store-brand products worth trying:
We combed through recent test results to find the highest-rated store brands in 10 additional product categories.
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