Any smart supermarket shopper knows that buying store-brand products instead of big names can save big bucks. In our latest price study, filling a shopping cart with store brands saved us an average of 30 percent. If you spend $100 a week on groceries, those savings add up to more than $1,500 a year.
Yet some shoppers are still reluctant to try store-brand products. The top reasons from our recent nationally representative survey: "I prefer name brands," "The name brand tastes better," and "I don't know if store brands are as high in quality." Respondents 18 to 39 years old were particularly likely to question the quality of store brands.
Shoppers are quite leery of some categories. Although they'll snap up store-brand paper goods and plastics, at least half of our survey respondents rarely or never buy store-brand wine, pet food, soda, or soup. That may be especially true when the category includes a name-brand superstar such as Coca-Cola or Campbell's.
The message from our latest taste-off: Don't be reluctant to give any private-label product a try. In fact, our results may knock some of those iconic brands off their pedestals. Albertsons peanut butter was similar in quality to Skippy; Target's Market Pantry ketchup was as good as Heinz.
Overall, national brands won seven of the 21 matchups and store brands won three. For the rest, the store brand and name brand were of similar quality. A tie doesn't mean the taste was identical. Two products may be equally fresh and flavorful, with ingredients of similar quality, but taste very different because ingredients or seasonings differ. A case in point is ketchup. In Heinz, the spices stand out; Market Pantry is more tomatoey.
Although 17 percent of our survey respondents said that "name-brand foods are more nutritious," we found nutrition similar for most of the tested products. The most notable differences: Mott's applesauce has more sugar than Publix, Ore-Ida fries have more sodium than Jewel, and Kellogg's Froot Loops have 3 grams of fiber vs. 1 gram in Stop & Shop Fruit Swirls.
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There's no reason store brands shouldn't hold their own against the big boys. After all, some of the same companies manufacture both. Among the big names that also make store-brand products: Sara Lee (baked goods), Reynolds (wraps, storage containers), 4C (bread crumbs, iced tea, soup mixes), McCormick (seasonings, extracts, sauces, gravies), Feit (lightbulbs), Manischewitz (frozen appetizers, soup mixes, side dishes), Joy Cone (ice cream cones), Stonewall Kitchen (gourmet condiments, specialty foods), and Royal Oak (charcoal).
Two examples of a different type of store brand—"second tier" brands, which may cost even less—fared worse in our tests. We tasted second-tier Kroger Value Sandwich Singles Imitation Pasteurized Process Cheese Food and Shoppers Value creamy peanut butter, bought at Albertsons. Testers said the Kroger faux cheese is inferior to Kraft and regular Kroger singles. It's salty and chalky, with the artificial-butter aroma common in microwavable popcorn. The Shoppers Value peanut butter is so-so, with off-notes (raw-nut flavor) and a bit of bitterness, probably from peanut skins. Those flaws were noticeable even when the peanut butter was spread on bread. Many chains sell second-tier brands, including A&P (under the names Savings Plus and Smart Price), Safeway (Basic Red), Stop & Shop (Guaranteed Value), and Food Lion (Smart Option).
Almost any store-brand product is worth a try. There's little risk: Most grocers offer a money-back guarantee if their products don't meet your expectations. (National brands often give unsatisfied buyers coupons, but the process might take a while.) And there's plenty of opportunity for reward. "The secret's out," says Lisa Rider, vice president of retail consulting solutions for Nielsen, the marketing-information company. "Store brands are just as good. Store-brand buyers are no longer seen as cheapskates but as savvy shoppers."
STORE BRAND WINNERS
Campbell's, 41 cents per serving
Food Lion, 36 cents per serving
Verdict: Food Lion
These soups have soft, almost mushy noodles. Food Lion's flavors are a little more intense, the dehydrated spice taste is not as pronounced, and the soup doesn't leave as much of a fatty feeling in the mouth. The Campbell's broth is oily, with fatty pieces of chicken, and it leaves a lingering taste of garlic powder.
Oscar Mayer, $3.65 per package
America's Choice (A&P), $2.64 per package
Verdict: America's Choice
The A&P franks are juicy and full of flavor, with a pleasing blend of garlic and slight smokiness. The Oscar Mayer franks are OK, though slightly ashy-tasting and rubbery. Both are salty.
Ginger AleCanada Dry, $1.76 per bottle
America's Choice (A&P), 97 cents per bottle
They're good and are similar enough in quality and style that most people probably couldn't tell them apart. They have a mild ginger ale flavor with a short finish (the taste doesn't linger).
Kraft, $3.20 per package
Kroger, $2.52 per package
There were lot-to-lot variations within the brands, but they would probably go unnoticed in a sandwich. The cheeses are soft, mushy, and pasty.
Skippy, 19 cents per serving
Albertson's, 15 cents per serving
They are quite good overall, though tasters detected more deeply roasted nuts (think dark toast vs. light toast) in Skippy. Albertsons has a hint of molasses flavor.
Heintz, $2.76 per bottle
Market Pantry (Target), $1.74 per bottle
Tomatoes are about the only attribute these two have in common, so the choice comes down to personal preference. Heinz is spicier, with distinct Worcestershire notes. Market Pantry has mostly tomato flavor, which comes through precisely because it's not as spicy. The flavor differences are apparent straight from the bottle or with fries.
Kellogg's, $3.69 per box
Stop & Shop, $2.60 per box
They are crispy and sugar-coated, with pronounced artificial fruit flavors that kids may love but that reminded our tasters of lemon-scented household cleaner. Fruit Swirls tasted slightly stale. Froot Loops leave a vitaminlike aftertaste, and when tasters added milk, they noticed a slick, waxy residue in the milk and on the bowl and spoon. Kellogg's spokeswoman Susanne Norwitz cited a "flavor coating commonly used on cereal, which has a light oil base" as the probable cause.
NAME BRAND WINNERS
Frozen PeasBirds Eye, $1.90 per package
Wegmans, 90 cents per package
Verdict: Birds Eye
Although these two are bright green and similar in texture, the Birds Eye peas are sweeter and taste fresher.
ButterLand O' Lakes, $4.52 per package
Wegmans, $1.94 per package
Verdict: Land O' Lakes
The name brand wins, but not by much. When these butters were spread on bread, there wasn't much difference; when sampled on their own, the Land O'Lakes was slightly better. They are mild, though the Wegmans borders on bland and lacks a touch of sweet-cream flavor evident in the Land O'Lakes.
Ore-Ida, $3.91 per bag
Jewel, $1.99 per bag
They're crisp, tender, and good enough to eat out of the oven without condiments. Unlike the Jewel fries, the Ore-Ida fries retain their potato flavor even when they're slathered in ketchup. The Jewel fries are less crisp.
Bumble Bee, $1.06 per can
Market Pantry (Target), 77 cents per can
Verdict: Bumble Bee
It's flavorful and is the clear winner. Two of three lots of the Market Pantry had barely any identifiable tuna flavor and suffered from off-tastes that were tinny or reminiscent of diesel fuel and that even mayonnaise couldn't totally mask.
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