The Store Brand Taste Test Challenge: They’re as Good as Big-Name Brands

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Everybody knows that store brand foods—pasta, canned veggies, cookies, condiments, whatever—are cheaper than the national brands. The assumption is that the national brands taste better. Consumer Reports demonstrates that they don’t.

Ever wonder if Prego tomato sauce really tastes better than the generic sauce made under the Safeway label? Or whether El Paso salsa is superior to the Costco brand?

The October issue of Consumer Reports asks these sorts of questions and more while putting store brands in head-to-head competitions with national brands, using trained taste-testers to decide when—if ever—it’s worthwhile to pay more. The conclusion: “Switching to store brands can be a painless way to cut your grocery bill.”

Here’s the gist:

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.

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.

As a result of that extra spending, national brands are more likely to have the latest in convenient packaging, and foods may have the newest tastes or be fortified with trendy supplements, says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, a leading market research company. That’s the nationals’ main advantage.

That’s right: What you’re mostly paying for with national brands is marketing and fancy packaging. Those are certainly advantages to attracting consumers’ attention, but not advantages in terms of taste. It might be better for society if the food we eat is a bit more expensive, as some observers and critics have argued, but that has nothing to do with the taste or quality of generic versus big-brand name items.

Of course, some generic foods may be hard to stomach. Take Oat-o’s, the knockoff of Cheerios.