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Store-brand vs. name-brand taste-off

Our tests pit private-label products against big-name rivals

Consumer Reports magazine: October 2012

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Canned peaches
Del Monte have a bit less flavor than Aldi Sweet Harvest and cost more than twice as much.

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 name-brand 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.

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), McCain (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.

Store brands are here to stay

Almost 24 percent of supermarket products are store brands, according to the Private Label Manufacturers Association.

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 store-brand products. The biggest categories: milk, bread, baked goods, and cheese.

In tough economic times, shoppers are naturally drawn to cheaper brands. But 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.

Bottom line. In blind tests, our trained tasters evaluated 19 pairs of staple foods. Based on our test—in which national brands and store brands tied 10 times; national brands won eight times; store brands, once—store brands are often at least as good as national brands and usually cost much less. So give store brands a try. Your taste buds might be happy; your wallet certainly will be. Costs below are based on the average prices our shoppers paid.

Best & worst supermarkets

Read our May 2012 supermarkets report, in which more than 24,000 shoppers rated 52 chains. For that story, our reporter shopped for the same basic products in four ways: buying any brand he wanted without discounts, using a savings card and coupons and buying discounted items, buying store brands, and buying at a warehouse club. He saved the most by buying store brands, spending about $66 for our market basket of groceries, compared with about $164 as an impulsive shopper.


Store-brand winner

Giant Eagle (52 cents per serving) is a simple, mild broth with a slight taste of roasted chicken. Swanson’s (66 cents per serving) broth tastes highly processed, has hints of dehydrated spice and off-tastes, and varied a bit from one sample to another.

Toss-ups

Cheese crackers: Sunshine (38 cents per serving) has more sour-dairy flavor (think sour cream), with a cheesy flavor at the finish; Dollar General's Clover Valley (19 cents per serving) is slightly saltier and more toasted.

Cottage cheese: Friendship’s small curds (68 cents per serving) are soft, and the product is bland overall. H-E-B’s curds (31 cents per serving) are chewy and a bit salty, with a tangy, slightly sour dairy flavor.

Cranberry juice: They are of about equal (though imperfect) quality. Ocean Spray (44 cents per serving) has more fruit flavor and tastes slightly less “cooked,” but it’s a bit bitter and has an odd perfumelike note. Meijer (37 cents per serving) is very tart—more sour than sweet. Both contain juices from other fruits, such as grape and apple.

Granola bars: Both are chewy and have nuts, raisins, and dried cranberries. The dried fruit is slightly more flavorful in Nature Valley’s bars (56 cents per serving) than in Walmart's Great Value bars (33 cents per serving).

Greek yogurt: Even for our experts, it was hard to tell these two apart. Both are tasty, but the Winn-Dixie ($1.09 per serving) is a bit sweeter, with slightly more dairy flavor than the Chobani ($1.31 per serving).

Peanut butter: Both are fine choices. Skippy (20 cents per serving) is a bit sweeter and slightly more bitter than Wegmans (15 cents per serving), which has more of a roasted impression.

Ranch dressing: They are of about the same quality, but they taste different. Hidden Valley (22 cents per serving) has black-pepper bits and flavors of Parmesan and Dijon; Target's Market Pantry (10 cents per serving) has more prominent buttermilk and vinegar flavors.

Walnuts: They’re basically interchangeable, but Costco's Kirkland Signature walnuts (35 cents per serving) are slightly sweeter, with a little less roasted flavor than the Diamond (52 cents per serving).

Wheat bread: Their textures are similar— soft—but their tastes are not. Freihofer’s (26 cents per two slices) has mild grain and malt flavors and a caramel color, plus a burnt top that adds bitterness. Hy-Vee (14 cents per two slices) looks almost like white bread. It has a yeasty, sourdoughlike flavor and slight off-tastes.

Name-brand winners

Baked beans: Bush’s (56 cents per serving) boasts brown-sugar and molasses flavors, with a slight smoky note. Food Lion (37 cents per serving) 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.

Cookie-dough ice cream: Ben & Jerry’s ($1.12 per serving) has flavorful dark-chocolate chips and lots of big dough chunks that are a bit gritty. The Kroger Private Selection (45 cents per serving) is mediocre, and the dough is in small, gritty pellets, with artificial butterscotch and raw-flour flavors.

Granola cereal: Kellogg’s (48 cents per serving), with a pancake-syrup flavor, isn’t great, but Essential Everyday (37 cents per serving, Supervalu-Jewel and other chains) loses because of slightly chalky oats, with just a few clusters; an oxidized taste; and a lingering bitter aftertaste. It also has more sodium.

Lasagna: The name-brand Stouffer’s lasagna ($1.58 per serving) wouldn’t be mistaken for homemade, but it’s decent. Safeway’s Eating Right ($1.50 per serving) 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.

Mixed vegetables: The flavorful, fresh-tasting Birds Eye vegetables (35 cents per serving) trounce the starchy, shriveled, low-flavor veggies from Stop & Shop (31 cents per serving), which also have more sodium.

Oatmeal: The Quaker oatmeal (16 cents per serving) has clean, nutty grain flavors with a toasted taste. Publix oatmeal (11 cents per serving), on the other hand, is soft and a bit mushy, with lots of broken oat pieces.

Orange juice: The Tropicana (60 cents per serving) has distinct orange flavor and is moderately sweet. In Walgreens’ Nice (28 cents per serving), 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.”

Soymilk: Soy Dream (84 cents per serving) is sweet and off-white, and has vanilla and slight malt flavors. Price Chopper (40 cents per serving) is thin, beige, and lightly sweetened, with hints of adhesive-bandage and Play-doh-like tastes and a licorice aftertaste.

Other store-brand products worth trying

We combed through recent test results to find the highest-rated store brands in 10 additional product categories. All items are very good or excellent and are still being sold.

Bagels

Kirkland Signature Plain (Costco)

Beer

Big Flats Lager 1901 (Walgreens), Name Tag Classic Lager (Trader Joe’s)

Frozen fruit bars

365 Everyday Value Strawberry (Whole Foods)

Kitchen trash bags

CVS Odor Control Drawstring, Kirkland Signature Drawstring Trash 50787 (Costco)

Laundry detergents

Kirkland Signature Ultra HE liquid (Costco), Sears Ultra Plus Concentrated 9879 powder, Up & Up HE Fresh Breeze liquid and Up & Up Ultra Concentrated conventional powder (both Target)

Lightbulbs

EcoSmart 100 W Soft White CFL (Home Depot), Utilitech 100W Soft White CFL (Lowe’s)

Paper towels

CVS Big Quilts, Great Value (Walmart), Kirkland Signature (Costco), Up & Up (Target, Eastern U.S.), Walgreens Ultra

Pickles

365 Everyday Value Organic Kosher Dill (Whole Foods)

Sunscreen

Walgreens Continuous Spray Sport SPF 50

Toilet paper

CVS Premium Ultra, Great Value Ultra Strong (Walmart), White Cloud 3-Ply Ultra Soft and Thick and White Cloud Soft and Thick (both Walmart)
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Editor's Note: A version of this article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Consumer Reports magazine with the headline "Store-Brand Taste-Off."
   

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