Tastes Great, Less Money: How to Knock an Easy 30% Off Your Grocery Bill

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During a series of blind taste tests pitting store-brand foods versus name-brand products—say, Publix orange juice vs. Tropicana—there were rarely clear winners. In other words: The presence of a national brand label is by no means a guarantee that the product will taste better. So if you automatically, unconsciously default to selecting a brand strictly because you recognize it and you’ve always bought it, you could be paying 30%, sometimes 50% higher prices for no good reason.

The taste test experiments were conducted by Consumer Reports, and the full results are available in the October issue, on newsstands as of September 7.

In CR’s 21 head-to-head match-ups, the majority ended as ties, with some tasters preferring one, some the other, and no decisively superior taste winner. In 10 of the contests, however, there was a clear winner: Seven times, a national brand won, while in three instances, the store-brand was crowned taste champ. Here are the details on that latter trio:

Chicken soup: Food Lion’s (36 cents per serving) Lotsa’ Noodles soup beat out Campbell’s Chicken Noodle (41 cents per serving) for having a little more intense flavor. Campbell’s had oily broth, with fatty pieces of chicken.
Orange juice: Publix Premium won over Tropicana for having a bit less of a cooked flavor with slightly less bitter taste.
Hot dogs: America’s Choice (A&P, $2.64 per package) beef hot dogs trumped Oscar Mayer ($3.65 per package) for their juicy and flavorful franks.

Last year, CR conducted a similar taste-test challenge with different products but similar results: In 29 match-ups, there were 19 washes in which store- and national-brands tasted equally good, while a national brand won 6 times and a store brand won 4 times.

None of these tests can tell you which products you’ll personally like best—and under which circumstances you’ll happily pay a little extra to please your family’s palate. But the tests do reveal there’s a decent chance you’ll like some or another store-brand product, giving you an easy opportunity to save some cash without sacrificing taste.

Why, if the foods have the same nutrition and pretty much the same ingredients, do major brands cost more in the first place? You’d think that manufacturers could bring costs down because they produce so much of this stuff. But the higher costs aren’t caused by production so much as they are by expensive marketing efforts, as CR explains:

National brands are generally pricier than store brands, not so much because of what’s in the package but because of the cost of developing the product and turning it into a household name.

Meaning: eye-grabbing labels, tie-ins with cartoon characters and celebrity endorsers, advertising (and coupon) campaigns, and so on. This is partly what you’re paying for when you buy a name-brand product, as a high-profile marketing exec admitted in a recent Q&A (see the last question).

Yet apparently the marketers do their jobs very well. Or is it that the supermarkets are bad at marketing their store products? In a survey related to the CR taste test, many shoppers said they were reluctant to try generic store-brand products, most likely because the consumers assumed that the products were low-quality or don’t taste good. 17% of those surveyed said they thought that “name-brand foods are more nutritious,” which plainly wasn’t true with the foods matched up in the taste test challenge.

There’s a reason that name-brand and store-brand products are of similar taste, quality, and nutritional value: They’re often made by the same companies in the same factories before the food is placed in a container covered with a different label. As a CR press release states:

There’s no reason store brands shouldn’t hold their own, since some companies manufacture both, including Sara Lee, Reynolds, 4C, McCormick, Feit, Manischewitz, Joy Cone, Stonewall Kitchen, and Royal Oak.

So, um, it might be time to do some blind taste tests in your own home. Unless, that is, you like paying extra just for a label.

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