Save a $100,000 with a Do It Yourself Taste Test

By Elizabeth Lang on 30 October 2009 (Updated 11 June 2012) 33 comments
Photo: Zach Klein

At Wise Bread we've written numerous times about the cost savings of buying store brand items instead of national brands. We've even discussed the fact that in Consumer Reports and on other surveys store brands often outperform national brands.

Yet, we (as a society) continue to spend billions of dollars on brand name items when the generic brand may be produced by the same company. According to Consumer Reports (via Mainstreet) this includes the makers of Reynolds Wrap, McCormick Spices, and Birds Eye Veggies.

So, if we know the cost savings is guaranteed and others tell us the the store brand may be just as good, why do we still buy the national brand?

Well, I buy the national brand when I think it tastes (or works) better.

For items like milk, pasta, sugar, peanut butter, flour — pretty much any staple or baking product — I always buy the generic brand. Why? Because I bake or add these items to something else and don't notice the difference.

But, what about cereal, soda, or ice cream? I, along with many others, tend to buy the national brand because I think it tastes better. In fact, these are items that I can save even more on — from 30-60% by purchasing the store brand. (See also: How to Grocery Shop for Five on $100 a Week)

We're not talking about a few cents either. Using the generic store brand calculator I ran some calculations. If an average family of four who currently spends $75 a week on groceries (the national average) switched to store brands on half of their grocery items, they would save over $100,000 over the course of a lifetime. (If they invested the savings at a 5% rate of return.) And that doesn't even include non grocery items like toilet paper, lotion, over the counter drugs, etc.

So, how do you actually save this much money?

I recommend conducting your own blind taste test for items that you currently think taste better.

Personally, I refuse to buy generic brand Coco Puffs (my guilty pleasure). So, today when I went to Target, I purchased two boxes of chocolate cereal: one box of Coco Puffs for $2.54 and one box of Coco Comets for $1.75.

We conducted a blind taste test in our house. In the end, I preferred (just slightly) the Coco Puffs due to their taste and texture. But my spouse preferred the Coco Comets.

While the generic brand didn't win, had this been a frequently purchased item, I might have been willing to sacrifice my very slight preference for cost savings. Since I only buy this cereal a few times a year, I would rather indulge.

Performing a do it yourself blind taste test is an excellent way to see if those national brands you think taste better, actually taste better.

I think next on my list may be ice cream for a blind taste test.

What national brand items do you think taste better? (And have you ever actually compared?)

4
Average: 4 (2 votes)
Your rating: None
ShareThis

comments

33 discussions

Add New Comment

CAPTCHA
This test helps prevent automated spam submissions.
Guest's picture
Michele

I've found that not all pastas are the same, even if you adjust cooking times and techniques to bring out the best from the shape and size of whatever noodle you're using.

Whenever I see a bargain-basement deal on Barilla or De Cecco I buy as much as I can carry home. The sales are few and far between, though, so I'm usually stuck with the store-brand pasta.

We eat a lot of pasta in my household, so others may not be bothered with the difference in quality as much as I am.

Guest's picture
Emily

I'm totally with you. Our home buys only generic brands, except when a coupon makes the name brand cheaper. I just found it amusing that you picture one of the very few items I insist on name brand. Something about generic Spam makes my skin crawl. Probably a bad experience my mind has subliminated....

Guest's picture

I'm one of those people that literally gets a rush from using coupons. So when it comes to buying generic brands our family of 4 has adapted our buds to what ever we bring in the house. Saving money is our biggest priority. Al thou we wish that there were more healthier generic options. For now our cat will keep on eating generic spam with kibbles & Bits, and we will stick with coupons and store brand sales.

Guest's picture
Megeelee

When I was in college - broke and sick of ramen noodles - I sprung for a $0.50 box of the store brand equivalent of Velveta Shells and Cheese. I couldn't even swallow the first bite. It was so disgusting I spit it out, flushed it down the toilet (no garbage disposal in the dorm) and swore off all store brand Mac and cheese since. It's been a decade and I still can't bring myself to try them again.

I also tried the store brand cereals a few years ago. They weren't that much different, but the generics seemed stale.

However, I've had good experience with store brand juices. If it's 100% juice, how different can it be?

Guest's picture
Tricia R

Next time try using Velveeta cheese. Melt in the microwave and add to your noodles. 1/4 of a block is enough for 1 small bag or box of noodles and it is no different than velveeta shells and cheese.

Food4less makes a generic block style cheese and keeps it right next to the velveeta. It tastes great no difference at all and less addatives. Its about $3.50 for the block

Guest's picture
Andrew - Kansas City

I love cereal and eat it all the time. I have tried several of the off brands to compare and I have found the Quaker brand in the bag to be a very good substitute for the national brands except for the substitute cheerios. (they just don't taste right) the fruit loops, pebbles, corn puffs, cap'n crunch, are all fantastic. Sometimes they are cheaper but often they are about the same as the national brand when it is on sale of I have a coupon. the replacement spoon size shredded wheat used to be a great deal but they keep raising the price and now it is cheaper to buy the big box of national brand at Costco (unless the Quaker is on a good sale at the grocery store)
There is another brand of the bag cereal (not Quaker) and they are all terrible.

the Best Choice - Nutty Nuggets (grape nuts) are fantastic at half the price of the national brand. can't tell them apart at all. PS milk is a great deal at Costco. I won't buy it at the grocery store anymore.

Guest's picture
Lisa

one of the best places to shop generic is at Aldi. Yes, I had for years been under the impression it was an unclean store / place to shop. I found out differently. OH>> I wish I'd known when i was younger and starting on my own!

However -- I started shopping there.. and on just the savings from what I purchase (chicken, meat, canned goods, some produce) I can take 2-3 trips to Aldi for one at Jewel / Dominicks.

Many people don't know -- Aldi's is owned by the same people who own Trader Joes. and if you're an organic lover or on a special diet / no nitrates/ no msg or no gluten.. there is no better place than TJ to shop. Even their regular produce is cheap!

I have tried many of the Aldi brand items that normally I would purchase brand names for at Jewel.. and you know what ? I FAR prefer aldi for most of them. For those I don't like much.. i can take one shopping trip every 2 months to jewel and pick up those items.

Guest's picture
Kimber

I love Aldi's! I do 90% of my shopping there. I have never once seen it dirty. They keep that store spotless at all times. That is just a rummer started by the bigger stores to try to keep people out of there & in their stores. Now years ago Big top foods was a nasty place to shop but has cleaned up because of government guidelines.

Guest's picture
JustAGuy

Hello,

Haven't lived in Chicago in about 12 years, but it is nice to hear the names Jewel, Dominic's and Aldi's.

I'm sure there are lots of folks scratching their heads wondering what the heck you are talking about.

Guest's picture

I have to say I'm right with you on the pasta....I will try just about any generic but only once. Pasta just does not pass muster - in fact, I was so put off by the disappearing, disintegrating ditalini trick that I never ventured in the store brand market for noodles again.

We like our spaghetti in one piece and will pay a bit more for the wholeness of it ;)

Single ingredient products will always stand a better chance - less stuff to muck up.

Guest's picture
Cody Foss

I've found the house brand stuff at Costco (Kirkland) is almost always better than the name brand and is always a lot cheaper. House brand stuff at Superstore (here in Canada) can be pretty nasty. I find Wal-Mart middle of the road.

Guest's picture
Kevin

I've taste-tested just about every store-brand alternative of products we buy regularly, and I've started buying most of them. Major exceptions include Saltine crackers over Premium Plus, I just don't like the store brand; and I like Dr. Pepper and the generic pop-makers just can't seem to reproduce that one to my satisfaction.

But for everything else, I test and replace. I don't consult my wife. If I did, she would pass judgment without taste-testing first, presumably based on some terrible past experience with store brands that she won't talk about, and we'd continue buying the store brand.

So when I introduce a store-brand alternative into the house, I do so without fanfare; only occasionally has she complained and asked me go back to the name brand. Helps that I handle the shopping and cooking though.

There are certain things that make no sense to buy as a name brand, especially single-ingredient things. example: Grated Parmesan Cheese - ingredients: parmesan cheese. There's like $1.50 in price difference between the store brand and the name brand!

Guest's picture
Len Penzo

Funny you should bring this up! Two weeks ago I enlisted my family as an expert panel and we did a scientific generic vs store-brand blind taste test of our own.

If you are interested in the surprising results, check out my article:

http://lenpenzo.com/blog/id771-my-store-brand-vs-name-brand-blind-taste-...

All the best,

Len
Len Penzo dot Com

Guest's picture
Dean

I highly urge everyone who buys bottled water to do this test. Buy every brand of water you can find plus take some tap water and put all the water in the fridge for and hour or so. Then start the taste test. Rate them in order AND try to guess which one is which. My results were that the Ralph's generic distilled water tasted better than 10 other brands, including the pricey Fiji.

Guest's picture
Devin

Some store brands are okay, others are garbage. You're not saving anything if you don't enjoy it. I wouldn't feed my dog with Aldi products.

Guest's picture
Marla

We tried ketchups: Safeway's store brand, Heinz, and Del Monte. Had seven testers, and Del Monte won. We all thought we'd picked Heinz, which came in second.

Being from Hawaii, I'd never buy anything but the genuine SPAM! :-)

Great post, Elizabeth!

Guest's picture
Christie

Okay, I've done the store brand vs national brand ice cream test, in the last month actually. It is worth it to buy the national brand. The store brand wasn't as flavorful, didn't have the same texture, and had more air. The national brand was definitely a hands down winner in every category (except price which is about a .50 difference). Again, one of the things we buy rarely, so it is worth it!

Guest's picture
Olivia

We have the advantage of a bump and dent store in our town. (Salvage, overruns, close to expiration.) That said, we end up with quite a few odd branded items. My husband still insists Hellmann's is the best mayo but he's fine with the sister brand, Best Foods. He's also funny about Skippy. If there's a jar of Skippy in the pantry and another is already open on the shelf, he'll break out the Skippy as well. Well at least it's gotten at a great price. Sadly, once we find something oddball we really like it may never show up again.

Guest's picture
Amy W.

I have no problem buying store brand for most things, but I have a few items I only buy name brand. #1 Cheese. I hate generic cheese. I have yet to find any that taste right, and some won't even melt.
#2 I only buy Skippy Natural Peanut Butter because it is the only peanut butter without hydrogenated oils that tastes like the regular and has a good texture. I can't live without my peanut butter. #3 Sandwich meat. We have some packs of sandwich meat around here that are around $0.33 for a small pack, but you can't tell the difference between the ham, turkey, or anything else. I'll stick with the real meat.

Other than those items, cheap is the way to go.

Oh, and I buy milk from a local dairy that has pasteurized milk that hasn't been hydrogenated (the cream is still in there). Once you start drinking this milk, the best name brand tastes like water. It costs about $5.99 a gallon, but worth it for us.

Guest's picture
Guest

Generic food items we use the most of in this household are...tomato soup, potato flakes, cereal, granola bars, baking items, white rice, noodles, some fruit snacks, canned and frozen vegetables, canned and frozen fruit, store brand bakery, seasonings and spices,spaghetti o's, plain applesauce, frozen potatoes (french fries, hashbrowns), garlic bread, cake and muffin mixes.

Things that have to be national brand are...spaghetti sauce, ice cream, cheeses, boxed meals, macaroni & cheese, flavored noodle and rice packets or boxes, frozen pizzas, flavored applesauce, frosting tubs, dessert kits.

Im sure there are many more. But even just a small amount of store brand items purchased that are used regularly, will add up to big savings. And if you have small children in the house, it teaches them not to be brand loyal and to be conscious of trying new items and saving money.

Guest's picture
Guest

One of the writers on here should write an article on how to stretch your food out as well as using store brands. There are many many things you can do to stretch out many every day meals besides using or buying certain things to lower that grocery bill. I think it would be a great help for people to read and try to incorporate new ideas into their cooking regime. Especially in these economic times. Some ideas people will know already and some will be new insight.
Some examples to start with:
*When making meat sauce for spaghetti-don't use a whole pound of hamburger. Try using a 1/2lb. You would be amazed that there really is no difference.
*Another trick for spaghetti-if feeding a large crowd or to get a few extra servings, add a can of tomato soup to the sauce.
*When making tacos, use a half pound of hamburger and substitute the rest with rice. It is a mexican dish so the rice just adds to that.
*2 chicken breasts can feed a family of 4-6. Cook in slow cooker and shred when done. Add to a sauce or gravy and this really goes far.
*Buttered noodles always make a great side dish.
*A clever way to make a meatloaf is to add more oatmeal and rice to the mixture and cuts out on use of more meat. Pound out to large square and layer mashed potatoes over. Roll over and cook as you would your meat loaf.
*Oatmeal and rice also stretches out mini meatloafs and burgers. The taste is no differnt, you save on meat and get the health benefit of the oatmeal.

I think creating an article like this and having people leave comments of what they do in their own households, would really be beneficial to many!!

Guest's picture
Sewingirl

Try mixing your cold cereal half and half! Buy 2 bags, one national brand, one generic, mix em up, and we can't tell the difference! Also, my Hubby works at a sugar manufacturing plant, they bag over 100 different lables off the same production lines. There is absolutely no difference in the product, only in your mind, and wallet.

Guest's picture
Rosa

There's some stuff we don't buy there - I dont' like their premade frozen food, and we don't buy white bread so we don't buy bread or buns there. But their sauerkraut is good, the canned salmon is the same brand our local big grocery (Cub) sells, but last I checked it was $1 cheaper. Sugar is sugar, baking soda is baking soday, powdered milk is powdered milk.

It's also about the only place we buy cereal - otherwise, we eat toast or oatmeal. But I don't taste the difference for rice puffs, corn squares, or cheerios.

So we go once every couple months and stock up on dry goods for about 1/3 less than the big grocery - and by luck, today they had Lego sets for $5/each less than Target (we actually went to Target and checked, then went back to Aldi and bought - what was $14.99 at Target was $9.99 at Aldi, $34.99 at Target was $29.99 at Aldi for the exact same set.) So that's a chunk of my Christmas list taken care of.

Guest's picture
MadJayhawk

Agree with Skippy lovers, ice cream and Kraft Mac & Cheese. I eat Jif if it costs less and do not die so it must be okay. I eat cereal by the truck load. Malt-o-meal cereals, particularly Frosted Mini-Wheats and Raisin-Brand, are very good alternatives. Kroger Corn Flakes and Rasin-Brand are good too. 10-13 cents an ounce is a very good price for cereal. We can get Honey Bunches of Oats at Sams Club for 8 cents an ounce.

We only eat Oscar Meyer cold cuts and hot dogs and Orville Rechingbloker popcorn. Orville's stuff pops up really well in my most excellent Whirlypopper - the best popper ever made. My father-in-law planted some of Orville's one year and we froze big bags of it and used it for over 5 years. Good stuff.

I agree that most commodities are commodities - sugar, flour, milk, salt, spices, vegetable oils etc. We see little difference in canned or bottled vegetables and fruit. Haven't noticed a difference in pasta. There is a difference in bread in my opinion except if you find a good generic brand that is probably made by a major bakery. Someone told me that the color of twist tie tells you when the bread was baked.

Walmart has a really good generic twelve grain bread for $1.85.

The best place for vegetables in our area is Sprouts Farmers Market. You can buy spices by the ounce there too. You probably don't need 4-8 ounces of any spice.

Guest's picture

I have had excellent results with two store brands in particular, Publix and Aldi's. Money back guarantee if not satisfied!

John DeFlumeri Jr

Guest's picture

People often don't realize that many stores provide a money back guarantee on all of their store brand products. If you don't like it you can generally return it for a full refund.

Supermarkets frequently make more profit when they sell a generic rather than a name brand product. In addition, their generics help create grocery chain loyalty - important in the competitive grocery business.

As a result they have a vested interest in you trying their generics - thus the money back guarantee.

Aldi's, for example, has a great return policy.

Guest's picture
Guest

I used to work in the warehousing industry so I know how often companies do this sort of thing. One of the bigger buys is Amy's soup and Trader Joes. I love the Amy's Lentil Soup (which costs about 3.99 in Chicago). If you go to trader Joes and get the Organic Lentil soup cans, its literally the exact same stuff inside, but it only costs 1.99!

Be on the lookout at aldi's too because Trader joes is owned by the same company.

Guest's picture
Guest

I've shopped at Aldi's a number of times. Most of the items I like and they certainly are a good value. However, I won't buy the fish and other products from China, no matter the price.

Guest's picture
Guest

I had reservations about Aldi's when it came to town here in Alabama but have been pleased with what I have gotten. Their trail mix and dried fruit are great. You can't beat milk at $1.49 a gallon (skim through whole milk). Being urged to use your own bags is a wonderfully environmental statement. My only complaints are the limited amount of products being offered and a frequent lack of enough cashiers.

Debbie Dragon's picture

I buy generic everything (unless there is a sale combined with a coupon on a brand-name item that makes it cheaper) and I will say if you just buy generic as a general rule - you really don't notice the difference after awhile. You forget what the brand-name stuff tastes like :)

Guest's picture
Karen

I took a chance on a Kroger store brand last week. It was so awful that I actually called to complain. The CSR noted my complaint, then informed me that I could take the unused portion back to the store for a refund or exchange.

While that won't work for everything -- meats, for example, or half-gallons of ice cream that take up valuable freezer space -- this policy definitely encourages me to try the store brand from time to time, especially if I'm the only person who will be affected if the food's no good.

Guest's picture
L

It is downright silly to love Aldi because of their super low prices then whine that they never have enough cashiers. Of course they don't! Why do you think that gallon of milk is such a low price? Because they don't have to pay for more cashiers, they don't pay for muzak or bags, and don't pay for extra stockers because they can leave the items right in the boxes they came from.

The reason why people are liking Aldi better now is because most of their old stores are being renovated and all of their new stores are starting to look more like normal stores. They also have better hours now (open on Sundays in most places). If you used to think Aldi was a dirty place, that's because it was! They have done a great job at adding more cooler space and real shelves, while keepig the prices low.

I would still be cautious about the produce. They used to just leave all the produce out in boxes all day. Now I think they're supposed to change them every few hours (since most places they aren't in a refrigerated/sprayed) area but it still makes me nervous.

Also, while Aldi and Trader Joe's are owned by the same parent company, they are completely separate. The stores, policies and warehouses are totally separate.

I'd also be careful of some of their Special Purchase items. They were selling Medion computers for a while. These computers were also in the district offices. Unfortunately, after just a year or two, the hard drives started going and the offices replaced them with Dell's. I'm not sure if the store still sells the brand, but I'd just watch out for amazing deals on lesser known brands there.

You also can't call an Aldi store directly. Again, this is to save costs. The only phone numbers publicly accessible are to the district offices. So if you wanted to check on an item, you have to call the district office who will then put you on hold to call the store, talk to the manger at the store, then get back and tell you the answer. Many people get confused and think they are actually talking to the store. So just a heads-up.

Guest's picture
Gue joe bassett

If you go to a store like Sav-A-Lot you have a smaller store, because you don't have five brands of everything. You don't have to compare, because you are getting the cheapest brand. I like stores like Sav-A-Lot. If you need to pick up a few things like for lunch I go to Dollar General. YOu can go in and get corn beef hash, pickles, or sardines to eat and save a lot of money and time than going to McDonald's. Go to Dollar General and buy lunch and a family of five will save $20