Buying store brands can save big money

If concern about taste has kept you from trying store-brand foods, hesitate no more.
In blind tests, Consumer Reports’ 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.
What’s more, the store-brand foods CR tested cost an average of 27 percent less than big-name counterparts — about what you’d find across all product categories, according to industry experts.
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.
Increasingly, store brands go well beyond canned and frozen vegetables, dairy products, and paper goods. Publix puts its name on dozens of organic foods; Costco sells wine and champagne under its Kirkland Signature label. Even ShopRite, known more for low prices than fancy fare, offers a long list of imported foods, including roasted red peppers from Greece.
Today’s store brands enjoy more prominent placement on shelves, snazzier packaging, more promotion, and, in general, higher manufacturing standards than in years past. Whatever the stores are doing, it’s working. In the most recent supermarket survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 70 percent of respondents said they were highly satisfied with the quality of store brands they’d bought.
The bottom line is that switching to store brands can be a painless way to cut your grocery bill.
Supermarket brands vs. big brands: which taste better?
The findings from CR’s blind taste tests include the following:
— Oatmeal-raisin cookies. Pepperidge Farm Soft Baked, $2.98 per package, versus Archer Farms (Target) Chewy Soft Baked, $2.92 per package. Winner: Store brand. The Archer Farms cookies have well-blended, complex flavors, notably those of brown spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, etc.).
— Salsa. Old El Paso Thick n’ Chunky Medium, 17 cents per serving, versus 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.
— Dijon mustard. Grey Poupon, 5 cents per serving, versus 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 the Publix has well-blended, well-rounded flavors and is slightly sweet and moderately salty.
— Frozen lasagna. Stouffer’s, $1.44 per serving, versus Great Value (Wal-Mart), 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.
— Frozen broccoli. Birds Eye Steamfresh Premium Select Florets, 55 cents per serving, versus 365 (Whole Foods) Florets, 38 cents per serving. Winner: Tie. The products were virtually indistinguishable.
— Multigrain spaghetti with omega-3. Barilla Plus, $2.25 per box, versus America’s Choice (A&P) Plus, $1.59 per box. Winner: Tie. They’re similar, and both would be quite tasty with a nice sauce.
— Barbecue sauce. K.C. Masterpiece Original, $1.96 per bottle, versus 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.
— Precooked bacon. Oscar Mayer, 85 cents per serving, versus Publix Hickory Smoked, 58 cents per serving. Winner: Name brand. Oscar Mayer is a better choice, with a higher meat-to-fat ratio.
— Vegetable juice. V8, $2.81 per bottle, versus 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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