Store brands vs. name brands

In our latest taste-off, store-brand foods were often at least as good

Last reviewed: October 2010
Orange juice
Verdict: Store brand
Both products have a distinct orange flavor and are moderately sweet, but our trained tasters reported that the Publix juice ($2.99 per carton) has a bit less of a cooked (or processed) flavor and is slightly less bitter than the Tropicana ($3.48 per carton).

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.

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).

Bottom line

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."