Supermarket Brands vs. National Brands: Which Taste Better?

Consumer Reports

If concern about taste has kept you from trying store-brand foods, hesitate no more. In blind tests, our trained tasters compared a big national brand with a store brand in 29 food categories. Store and national brands tasted about equally good 19 times. Four times, the store brand won; six times, the national brand won.

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What's more, the store-brand foods we tested cost an average of 27 percent less than big-name counterparts — about what you'd find across all product categories, industry experts told us. The biggest difference: 35 cents per ounce for Costco's vanilla vs. $3.34 for McCormick's. (Prices are the averages we found across the country.) Price gaps have less to do with what goes into the package than with the research, development, and marketing costs that help build a household name.

Store brands take hold
During double-digit inflation in the late 1970s, cheap no-frills goods (aka generics) came in plain packaging that said little more than "applesauce" or "whole-kernel corn." They usually weren't very good, concedes Brian Sharoff, president of the Private Label Manufacturers Association, a trade group. Our tests and U.S. sales figures show that's no longer true.

Today's store brands enjoy more prominent placement on shelves, snazzier packaging, more promotion, and, in general, higher manufacturing standards than in years past. That's not surprising, since some companies make both national brands and store brands. Many big-name companies make their usual types of products for the stores; others make additional private-label items. Hormel Foods Corp. (cured meat, chili), for example, also makes bouillon, pudding, and salsa.

Despite the dismal economy, Sharoff doesn't expect a resurgence of no-frills products. Instead, he says, chains will offer more "second tier" store brands that stress savings, such as A&P Savings Plus and Smart Price, Safeway Basic Red, and Kroger Value. Second-tier products sell for about 35 percent less than big brands on average.

Bottom line
Switching to store brands can be a painless way to cut your grocery bill.

 

Barbecue sauce

K.C. Masterpiece Original, $1.96 per bottle

Publix Original, $1.51 per bottle

Winner: Name brand
K.C. Masterpiece is clearly better. It has complex flavors-smoke, heat, and just enough sweetness. The Publix, a tomato-based sauce reminiscent of ketchup, isn't as sophisticated.

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Frozen lasagna

Stouffer's, $1.44 per serving

Great Value (Walmart), 88 cents per serving

Winner: Tie
Stouffer's cheese is more flavorful, and there are more flavors from herbs (though some taste dehydrated). Great Value lasagna tastes sweeter, and the pasta is firmer, a plus.

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Dijon mustard

Grey Poupon, 5 cents per serving

GreenWise Market Organic (Publix), 3 cents per serving

Winner: Tie
Each is tasty in its own way. The Grey Poupon is hotter and moderately sour, and has more of a bite, like horseradish. The Publix has well-blended, well-rounded flavors and is slightly sweet and moderately salty. We'd be happy with either on a hot dog or in a dressing.

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Salsa

Old El Paso Thick n' Chunky Medium, 17 cents per serving

Kirkland Signature (Costco) Organic Medium, 10 cents per serving

Winner: Store brand
A chunky tomato salsa with crisp vegetable pieces, cumin, and smoky flavors, Kirkland is better overall: more complex, and just plain tastier. Old El Paso has stewed flavors, with onion and jalapeño pieces.

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Whipped topping

Cool Whip, $1.58 per container

Great Value (Walmart), 87 cents per container

Winner: Store brand
Testers gave the edge to Great Value because it has a little less chemical aftertaste. Both have an artificial-vanilla flavor.

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Au gratin potatoes

Betty Crocker, $1.85 per package

Great Value (Walmart), 92 cents per package

Winner: Store brand
Neither packaged potato-and-cheese combination is anything to write home about, but our trained tasters said that the Great Value has more potato flavor. The knock against Betty Crocker: It's mealy and starchy, with a dehydrated-potato impression.

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Brownie mix

Duncan Hines Family Style Chewy Fudge, $1.95 per package

Market Pantry (Target) Fudge, $1.32 per package

Winner: Tie
Both are moist and have decent cocoa flavor, though you'd never confuse them with brownies from a good bakery.

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Granola

Quaker Natural Granola Oats, Honey & Raisins, 30 cents per serving

America's Choice (A&P) 100% Natural Granola Oats, Honey & Raisins, 34 cents per serving

Winner: Name brand
Flavors in Quaker's cereal are fuller, more complex, and well rounded. It has crunchy oat clusters, chewy raisins, and almond slices. America's Choice has fewer clusters, less-tasty raisins, and more coconut flavor. It didn't stand up as well to milk, either.

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Raspberry preserves

Polaner All Fruit 100% Natural Fruit Spread, 15 cents per serving

Kroger, 12 cents per serving

Winner: Tie
They're of similar quality, but the Polaner has more of a cooked or stewed flavor, while the Kroger is sweeter and leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste. Both have crunchy seeds. The texture of both varied from jar to jar.

Vegetable juice

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V8, $2.81 per bottle

365 Organic Vital Veggie (Whole Foods), $2.67 per bottle

Winner: Name brand
Both are tomato based, but the similarity ends there. The V8 is less salty and has fresher and more identifiable celery and carrot flavors. The green vegetables in the 365 Organic are nondescript, and the juice itself is salty and slightly bitter.

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Copyright © 2005-2009 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.

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