My Store-Brand vs. Name-Brand Blind Taste-Test Experiment #3

Okay.   If you are a regular reader here you know the drill by now, so feel free to skip to the juicy parts!

Are name-brand groceries really worth the extra cost when alternative cheaper store-brand groceries are available?   More specifically, when it comes to edible products, does the quality and taste of name-brand products always justify the price premium which can often be as high as 50 percent or more?

Last October I tried to answer that question, one of the great never-ending debates in the world of personal finance, by conducting a scientific blind taste test using some of my very-opinionated family members.   The results from that initial experiment were frustratingly inconclusive.

Several months ago, I tried again.   In my search for answers, I can say that the second experiment did confirm this: sometimes the store brand was better – and sometimes it wasn’t.

In the absence of any definitive conclusion I have decided to march on, determined to reveal the ultimate winners in the battle between store-brand vs. name-brand items, one product at a time.

And so, for my third edition of the challenge, I headed out to our local Albertsons grocery store and once again picked out six everyday grocery products for the experiment.

As in the first two experiments, to ensure a one-to-one comparison, I only chose name-brand items that had identical store-brand counterparts; whenever possible, package size and item type had to be identical.

The next step was to convene an official panel of experts to sample each of the items in a blind taste test.   Of course, I decided to use my family again.

As word of the previous experiments have slowly spread within the confines of my extended family, I have had no trouble recruiting.   As such, the size of my expert panel has now grown to 18 human judges who were willing to join in on the fun.   I say human judges because just as he did in the other experiments, our family dog, Major, also took part in this taste test.

Anyway, with the panel in place, I prepared individual samples of both the store-brand and name-brand products.

To ensure the taste test was a blind comparison, each sample was marked only as ‘A’ and ‘B.’     The panel was then asked to taste and record which product they preferred; they were also free to note any accompanying comments they had regarding a particular product.   When comparing products, panelists that could not discern a clear winner were allowed to give a vote for both products.

Before we get to the results, let’s once again meet our distinguished panel of experts:

Doris

Aunt Doris
Birthplace:   London, England
Age: Not telling, but she is running for mayor of Cougar-town.   (Purr…)
First President Voted For:   Irrelevant.   (She prefers kings and queens.)

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Ferd1

Ferd
Birthplace: Can’t remember; he was just a baby at the time.
Age: 86
First President Voted For: Thomas Dewey

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Paul

Uncle Paul
Birthplace:   Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 81
First President Voted For: Harry Truman (Sorry, Ferd. Round 1 went to Paul.)

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Marilyn

Aunt Mary Jane
Birthplace:   New Orleans, Louisiana
Age: Unknown – and to keep it that way she pays KFC to keep her birth certificate in the safe that contains the Colonel’s 11 secret herbs and spices.
First President Voted For: None of the Above

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Dad

Dad
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 73
First President Voted For: Myself   (“Unfortunately, I didn’t win.”)

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Bud1
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Bud
Birthplace: Declines to state until released from the witness protection program.
Age: 71
First President Voted For: “Abe Lincoln.” (Funny, Bud, but I do all the jokes here.)

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Mom

Mom
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 69 (and holding)
First President Voted For: John F. Kennedy

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Rose

Rose
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California
Age: Old enough to be my mother-in-law.
First President Voted For: John F. Kennedy

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Mary1
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Mary Ann
Birthplace: Hemet, California
Age: 60
First President Voted For: George McGovern

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Jeannie1
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Jeannie
Birthplace: Hemet, California
Age: 59
First President Voted For: Richard Nixon (back when Watergate was just a hotel)

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Kevin

Kevin
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 57
First President Voted For: George McGovern (But he wants a do-over.)

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Chris

Chris
Birthplace: Hemet, California
Age: Younger than Jeannie and Mary Ann!   (Ha ha ha!)
First President Voted For: George McGovern

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Honeybee

The Honeybee
Birthplace: Whittier, California
Age: 42
First President Voted For: George Herbert Walker Bush

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Evan

Evan
Birthplace: Escondido, California
Age: 31
First President Voted For: George W. Bush

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Mark

Mark
Birthplace: Escondido, California
Age: 29
First President Voted For: George W. Bush

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Courtney1
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Courtney
Birthplace: Stanford, California
Age: 24
First President Voted For: John Kerry

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Matthew

Matthew
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 13
First President Voted For:   Herbie Hind (for class president – don’t ask.)

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Nina

Nina
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 10
First President Voted For: Meridith Arnett (class president)

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Major1

Major
Birthplace: Julian, California
Age: 6
First President Voted For: Registered by ACORN in 2008 (then forgot to vote).

Here now are the results of my third blind taste test experiment based upon the inputs received from the panel of experts.

1.   Hillshire Farms Deli Select Honey Ham vs. Albertsons Deli Indulgence Honey Ham

Price Comparison: Hillshire Farms, $2.79; Albertsons, $1.61*   (a savings of 42%)
Panel Scoring: 12-10 in favor of the Hillshire Farms.
The Verdict: Sorry to be a boar, but the jury was essentially hog-tied on this one.
* Due to different sized packages, price based upon equivalent-unit cost

The next time you feel like pigging out on some honey ham, you may want to consider the panel’s verdict here.   The Albertsons brand held up surprisingly well against its well-known national-brand cousin.   Among those who preferred the store-brand Uncle Paul noted that it wasn’t gummy, unlike the Hillshire Farms ham.   Nina also gave the store brand high marks because it “melted in her mouth better.”   Riding the fence somewhat, Aunt Doris admitted that “both were good,” but she still preferred the Hillshire Farms.   As for the unabashed Hillshire fans, Mark gave it high marks for its “much better, smokey flavor.”   Courtney preferred the name-brand ham because it “had a better honey flavor that made it delish.”   Finally, although she liked both brands, Mary Ann gave the nod to Hillshire Farms because it “looked better.”   She had a point.   Unlike the Hillshire Farms ham, the store-brand slices were so thin that they tore very easily.   In fact, they were so fragile and tore so easily that it is hard to imagine being able to lay them out on a party platter.   Then again, assuming the store-brand tastes good, why pay an equivalent-unit premium of 42% for the national brand if the ham is only going to be buried inside a sandwich?

2.   Nabisco Chips Ahoy! Cookies vs. Albertsons Chocolate Chip Cookies

Price Comparison: Chips Ahoy! $3.39; Albertsons, $2.69   (a savings of 21%)
Panel Scoring: 12-11 in favor of the Chips Ahoy!
The Verdict: Although close, one can argue Albertsons knocked the chips off the competition’s shoulder.

What is going on here?   In last year’s inaugural taste test challenge, Nabisco’s mighty Oreo cookie barely held off the humble Albertsons equivalent.   This time Nabisco’s famous Chips Ahoy! cookie almost lost to Albertsons’ chocolate chip challenger.   True, many on the panel thought the name-brand cookie was better; Ferd and Jeanie preferred the Nabisco cookie because it had more chips.   Both Bud and Nina agreed with that assessment, saying it was no contest.     However, while Mary Ann and the Honeybee agreed the Albertsons cookie had fewer chocolate chips, they also thought the store-brand cookie tasted better.   Aunt Doris preferred the Albertsons cookie too, saying its chips had a “more chocolatey” flavor.   Meanwhile, Mom gave props to the Albertsons cookie because it was crispier.   As for the dog, Major swallowed both cookies whole – and I mean that literally.   How does he do that?   (And kids – please don’t try that trick at home.)

3.   Bird’s Eye Cool Whip vs. Albertsons Whipped Topping

Price Comparison: Cool Whip, $2.59; Albertsons, $1.49   (a savings of 42%)
Panel Scoring: 9-8 in favor of the Cool Whip.
The Verdict: The Cool Whip barely managed to stay on top.

Do you notice a trend here?   Once again, the expert panel was unable to come to any sort of consensus.   Yes, the Cool Whip beat out the store brand by one measly vote but, considering that it sells at a premium of 42 percent, that doesn’t seem like a very, um, sweet victory.   Still the Cool Whip had the approval of a slim majority of the panel and that is definitely worth something, right?   Both Rose and Evan thought the Cool Whip was creamier.   Mark gave his vote to the Cool Whip because he thought the store-brand “was really boring.”   (I know.   But I’m only reporting what I was told, folks.) Nina also preferred the Cool Whip, almost by default.   When asked to evaluate the store-brand topping, she left a comment on her evaluation sheet that was a bit less-cryptic than Mark’s: “Ewwwwww.”     Despite the negative press by a couple panel members, the Albertsons brand had its champions.     Courtney gave her vote to the store brand because the Cool Whip “tasted like airy marshmallows.”   Apparently airy marshmallows is a bad thing.   Meanwhile, Aunt Doris gave bonus points to the Albertsons brand, opining that it had a richer taste; that’s ironic considering it’s the Cool Whip that costs more.

4.   Dreyer’s Vanilla Ice Cream vs. Albertsons Vanilla Ice Cream

Price Comparison: Dreyer’s, $4.99; Albertsons, $3.69   (a savings of 26%)
Panel Scoring: 11-6 in favor of the Albertsons.
The Verdict: No contest here.   The Albertsons brand put the competition on ice.

What good is whipped topping without the ice cream?   In this experiment’s only decisive battle, the Albertsons brand creamed Dreyer’s, with my expert panel preferring the store brand by margin of almost two to one.   Mary Jane gave kudos to the store brand, noting that it had a more pleasant vanilla taste.   The Honeybee agreed, and noted that the Albertsons also had a better texture.   Uncle Paul thought the Albertsons brand “tasted great” and was “less sweet.”     Nina agreed with Uncle Paul in one aspect – she thought the Dreyer’s was sweeter.   Perhaps not surprisingly, Dreyer’s got her vote too.   Among the few others that gave Dreyer’s their vote, Courtney did so because she preferred its richer flavor.   As for Major, the slippery nature of the ice cream meant he was unable to swallow his frozen treat in a single gulp.   In fact, if I’m not mistaken, it appeared as if he had an epiphany midway through the first dollop.   Yep.   I actually think he realized the joys of savoring his ice cream samples.

The Verdict for Experiment #3

This experiment clearly belonged to the store-brand products.   The Albertsons brand ice cream trounced the Dreyer’s, and while the other name-brand products managed to squeak out razor thin majorities, those close-calls suggest paying the name-brand premiums may be a bad idea anyway.

Final Thoughts

For those of you who are interested, here is an official summary breakdown of the expert panel voting.

TasteTestJune10

I know what you’re thinking…

But, Len, you said earlier that you purchased six everyday grocery products to sample, but you only gave the results for four of them.   What happened to the other two?

For the record I also bought Wheat Thins and Pepperidge Farms Texas Toast Garlic Bread (along with their store-brand equivalents).

Sometimes, though, things don’t always go as planned.

Unfortunately, I didn’t pay enough attention when I picked the box of Wheat Thins off the shelf.   I accidentally purchased a flavored variety of the store-brand that rendered any comparison impossible.

As for the garlic bread, well, we just ran out of time.

I promise to retest and report on the results of those two products in my next experiment.

In Conclusion

As I’ve noted before, there are some items where it may make good sense to pay the premium that comes with name-brand products – especially if you hate to sacrifice flavor or quality at the expense of saving a little money.   However, these experiments continue to show that there are indeed cases where the store-brand product can be just as good or better than their name-brand counterparts.   Of course, in those cases it makes absolutely no sense at all to pay the added premiums.

The results of these experiments continue to affirm my best advice to you on this topic: You should never assume the name-brand product is always superior.

Be bold.   Go out on a limb.   You really need to take a chance and try the store-brand products so you can see for yourself.

Just do it already!   You never know, you may just find there are a lot of store brands out there that are actually acceptable to your palette – not to mention your pocketbook.

Comments

  1. 1

    says

    I purchase a lot of name-brand items, your experiments here only confirm I’m making a financially sound choice! (Only cereal is the exception. Name-brand cereals have let me down, way too crispy for my liking, like particle board crispy…yuck!)

    • 2

      says

      @Little House: Regarding cereal, I found I prefer the store brand version of Lucky Charms. However, when it comes to my favorite cereal of all time (Apple Jacks), I don’t think the store brand compares!

  2. 3

    says

    Hey, Jen. Funny you should mention cereal. In March I had the neighborhood kids do a taste test experiment on kid cereals. You might be interested in the results – so be sure to check it out! :-)

  3. 4

    says

    I am impressed how many people you got to participate! It was cool to see all the Presidents voted for.

    I eat the store brands all the time, unless I know from experience they are gross. I will get the name brands if they have a killer sale though, why not?

  4. 5

    says

    I can’t comment on the taste test – we don’t have Albertson’s in my neck of the woods – but I love the line up, I mean “panel of distinguished of experts”.

    I have tried store brand whipped toppings and confess that they don’t come close to Cool Whip. That stuff is good enought to be dessert itself.

  5. 6

    says

    I’m surprised that the ice cream was so heavily skewed towards the store brand. This seems like a lot of fun, even if it is “never-ending” as you suggest. I think your conclusion is for the majority of items, there are no clear preferences in your sample. Do you agree?

  6. 7

    says

    I love this series my friend. We always buy store brands when we can, and do our own comparisons. We find there are very few big brands that can justify the price.

    • 8

      says

      @Jen: Thanks, Jen. It is a lot of fun, and so it’s not hard rounding up volunteers! :-)
      @Kevin: I prefer the Cool Whip too.
      @Shawn: You’re right, there is usually no clear majority – which makes the name-brand premium premiums a real risk.
      @Jesse: I’m glad you enjoy the series, Jesse! One of these days I’d love to conduct an experiment where I use personal finance bloggers for my expert panel. Maybe someday! :-)

  7. 9

    says

    Like Kevin, we don’t have an Albertson’s near us. This means, of course, that you need to buy a bus and go on the road with your traveling troupe of testers. Looking forward to seeing all of you in Southern Illinois where we can test name brands vs. Kroger.

    About products: have you tested peanut butter? And when is your sort of conclusive book going to be published?

  8. 10

    says

    i love this post and the fact that you brought this topic to life. i love going to Albertsons and seeing my savings at the bottom of my receipt and seeing that i saved $15, $20, $30 bucks.

    it makes me happy knowing i am a smart shopper.

  9. 13

    Holly says

    @ Kristia:
    same…I have to have Heinz ketchup.

    But, like you, very little diff. in store brand vs. name brand … although I do have a slight preference for Cool Whip over store brand whipped cream and my kids have a strong preference for Pop-Tarts over generic. To us, the generic toaster tarts seems to have a chemical (artificial) after-taste.

    @ Joe:
    As far as peanut butter, WalMart’s brand is actually much tastier, in my opinion, than the name brands.

    Thanks for the laughs, Len! ACORN–HAHAHA!

    • 14

      says

      @Joe: Ha! You know what, Joe? I would strongly suspect the Kroger brand is made by the same companies that market the Albertsons brand. I believe most store brands all come from the same distributors and they just change the labels. I don’t know that for a fact, but I strongly suspect it. On products: I haven’t tested peanut butter, but that is a great suggestion; I will include it in the next experiment. :-)
      @James: I know what you mean. Sometimes the printed savings at the bottom of the receipt approaches (but has never passed) our grocery bill!
      @Eric: Thanks. My family seems to enjoy them too. In fact, I will be on the East Coast next week visiting family there, so I intend to involve them in the next experiment.
      @Kristia: You’re not alone, Krista, regarding the ketchup. Several people have made the same observation on some of my other taste test experiment posts. I too think Heinz is simply unbeatable – but maybe I should find out once and for all in the next experiment?
      @Holly: Funny you should mention pop tarts: In my first experiment I actually intended to taste-test the Pop Tarts, but I accidentally bought two different flavors (I think they were Smores and Brown Sugar Cinnamon) so we couldn’t compare. I may have to resurrect that one in a future test. Glad I could make you smile – if I do say so myself, I liked the ACORN joke too. ;-)

  10. 15

    Karen says

    I tend to buy generics. My hubby used to work at a potato processing plant where they packaged french fries for McD’s, McCain, a store brand and a no name brand. They stopped the line, changed the packaging and restarted the line. As for Cool Whip – try actual whipped cream! Its about half the price, made of dairy, not fluffed up oil and wierd chemicals, and doesn’t leave that greasy coating in your mouth. Cool Whip is just a “convenience fake” that attempts to mimic whipped cream. No Thanks! Not even if it was free!

    • 16

      says

      Did you know Cool Whip was invented as a longer-lasting alternative to real whipped cream? It was specially made so that it could tolerate freezing, unlike the real stuff. I think it tastes okay, but you are right, there is nothing better than real whipped cream. I can’t imagine ever using Cool Whip on my strawberry shortcake!

  11. 17

    says

    Hi Len, Who cares about the taste test, I’m nosey and just loved the pictures of your family!!! Go buckeye’s (mom & dad Penzo), my birth state!! Anyhow, I vote with my pocketbook, unless it is disgusting or totally filled with artificial stuff. Always a fun read! Barb

  12. 20

    says

    One of the best blogs I have come across for information and facts in this particular specialized niche. I am going to often be coming back regularly for brand new posts.

  13. 21

    ambereyedmonkey says

    i completely agree about the ketchup…nothing beats Heinz but i can’t tell any difference between that and the Sam’s Club Bakers & Chefs fancy ketchup. i would love to know what your taste panel thinks.

  14. 22

    says

    I love your comparison experiments. I have to confess that as the resident grocery shopper of the house, I am not above pretending the store brands are the national brands by putting store brand things into and old national brand box. What? My family THINKS that they will only eat the national brands, so why make them feel bad by revealing the truth. ;) More of this please.

  15. 23

    Laura says

    I don’t know if you have an Aldi’s store in your neck of the woods, but you should do a comparison of name brand vs. Aldi counterparts. There are very few items at Aldi’s I find to be sub-par (their pizza rolls are horrible). Even their macaroni and cheese (which I am picky about) is as good as Kraft and I think their Shells and Cheese is better.

    • 24

      says

      I believe someone else made the exact same recommendation in one of my other taste test challenges, Laura. I did a search for Aldi stores in California but their store locator came up empty! :-(

  16. 25

    valleycat1 says

    We don’t have a local Albertson’s, but our Target store has upgraded to include some groceries & we’ve liked everything we’ve bought in their brand; we’re also buying a lot of SaveMart’s Full Circle Organic items too. The Full Circle ketchup is great.

  17. 28

    says

    No Len, there are no Aldi’s in California or DC, as a matter of fact. And yea, you are both right Cool Whip is disgusting. Best thing is to use whipped cream.

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