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

One of the great never-ending debates in the world of personal finance is whether or not name-brand groceries are really worth the extra cost when alternative cheaper store-brand groceries are available.  Furthermore, when it comes to edible products, does the quality and taste of name-brand products always justify the price premium, which can often times be as much as 50%?

Because inquiring minds like mine want to know, I decided to find out for myself by conducting a blind taste test using my very-opinionated family members to settle the question once and for all.

So last week, I headed out to our local Albertsons grocery store with my son, Matthew, and we picked out half a dozen everyday grocery products for the experiment.   To ensure a one-to-one comparison, we only chose name-brand items that had identical store-brand counterparts; package size and item type had to be identical, or virtually identical.

The next step was to convene an official panel of experts to sample each of the items in a blind taste test. For that, I recruited ten members of my family.

With the panel in place, I prepared plates with 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 meet our distinguished panel of experts:

DorisAunt Doris
Birthplace:  London, England
Age:  None of your business.
Hobbies: Knitting, painting, watching television

DadDad
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 72
Hobbies:  Telling (really) old jokes, golf, video poker

MomMom
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 68
Hobbies: Sudoku, putting up with my Dad’s old jokes

.

RoseRose
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California
Age: Old enough to be my mother-in-law
Hobbies: Riding Harleys, watching home improvement shows (in that order)

KevinKevin
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 57
Hobbies: Golf

.

ChrisChris
Birthplace: Hemet, California
Age: Classified
Hobbies: Reading, singing, gardening

HoneybeeThe Honeybee
Birthplace: Whittier, California
Age: 41
Hobbies: Mafia Wars, reading, drinking, Mafia Wars (I know, but she really likes Mafia Wars)

Evan Evan
Birthplace: Escondido, California
Age: 31
Hobbies: Soccer, working out, traveling

Matthew Matthew
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 12
Hobbies: Golf, bowling, baseball

Nina Nina
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 10
Hobbies: Collecting stuffed animals, singing, drawing

Major1 Major
Birthplace: Julian, California
Age: 6
Hobbies: tug-o-war, chewing his bone, walking, sleeping, eating

For this experiment, my son and I chose a broad range of grocery items that included cookies, cheese, tortilla chips, salsa, canned peas, and kielbasa sausage. Here now are the results of the blind taste test experiment based upon the inputs received from the panel of experts.

1.  Nabisco Oreo Cookies vs. Albertsons Chocolate Sandwich Creme Cookies

Price Comparison: Oreos, $3.29; Albertsons, $2.29  (a savings of 30%)
Panel Scoring: 8-7 in favor of the Oreos.
The Verdict: Sorry, it’s a hung jury – that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

The Oreo may be America’s favorite cookie, but if the results of this taste test get out, it may be in danger of losing some market share.   The panelists were virtually split down the middle when it came to their cookie preference, although it appears that those who preferred the Oreos were more adamant in their choice.  Evan noted that the Oreo filling was better, while the Honeybee observed that the Albertsons cookie was too chalky for her taste.  Nina also noted that the Albertsons cookie was too pasty for her palette.  My dog Major obviously disagreed with my daughter, demonstrating no clear preference – he wolfed down both cookies in record time.   Although there was no clear winner on taste, the split vote does suggest a bit of good news for those looking to save a little money when buying their cookies.

2.  Sargento Provolone Cheese Slices vs. Albertsons Provolone Cheese Slices

Price Comparison: Sargento, $3.99; Albertsons, $2.79  (a savings of 32%)
Panel Scoring: 11-7 in favor of the Sargento.
The Verdict: The Sargento cheese shredded the competition.

The Sargento cheese got a vote from every member of the panel, although many of the panel members did note the comparison was just too close to call.  Kevin noted that the Sargento cheese had a better aroma and less fat.  He also noted that the store brand left a bit of an aftertaste.  Nina also stated that she thought the Albertsons cheese had very little flavor.  Once again, the dog showed no preference, gulping down both samples with such speed that it is hard to believe that his taste buds even had a chance to register a response to his brain.  Unless your family eats its cheese like Major does, it may be worth it to pay the 32% premium for the name brand cheese.

3.  Hillshire Farms Polska Kielbasa vs. Albertsons Polska Kielbasa

Price Comparison: Hillshire Farms, $3.69; Albertsons, $2.79  (a savings of 24%)
Panel Scoring: 9-3 in favor of the Albertsons.
The Verdict: In a landslide, the Albertsons polska kielbasa was the clear wiener.

Better taste for less money – it doesn’t get much better than that folks!  The panel clearly preferred the Albertsons brand sausage.  Aunt Doris noted that the Albertson’s brand was tastier, while the Honeybee agreed, noting that it was probably due to the higher fat content in the meat.  My Dad, Nina and Matthew all noted that the Hillshire Farms kielbasa had “no taste.”   The name brand sausage did have a couple of supporters.  In particular, Kevin commented that the Hillshire Farms kielbasa had “less fat, less salt and a better aroma” than the store brand.    As for the dog, he didn’t play favorites – in fact, he was the only panel member that refused to show a preference.  (Surprise, surprise.)

4.  Del Monte Canned Peas vs. Albertsons Canned Peas

Price Comparison: Del Monte, $0.89; Albertsons, $0.75  (a savings of 16%)
Panel Scoring: 9-1 in favor of the Albertsons.
The Verdict: Albertsons.  The store brand clearly gave the Del Monte peas a black eye.

In another landslide decision, the Albertsons brand canned peas trounced their name brand counterparts.  With the exception of Evan and the dog, who did not participate in this test because they both dislike peas, the panel was unanimous in their preference for the store brand.  The Honeybee noted that the name brand peas were chalky and hard, while Dad remarked that they had “no taste.”  Aunt Doris observed that the store brand peas were sweeter, while Rose opined that they were fluffier.  Score another victory for the lowly store label products!

5.  Tostitos White Corn Tortilla Chips vs. Albertsons White Corn Tortilla Chips

Price Comparison: Tostitos, $3.00; Albertsons, $1.69  (a savings of 44%)
Panel Scoring: 10-3 in favor of the Tostitos.
The Verdict: When asked to chip in with their opinions, the panel preferred the Tostitos

Sometimes you do get what you pay for.  In the case of tortilla chips, the panel felt that the Tostitos were clearly the better-tasting product.  The biggest complaint against the store brand tortilla chips was that they were too salty; Mom, Nina, and Matthew all noted the saltiness.  Aunt Doris observed that the Tostitos were not only better tasting, but crispier too.  Kevin mentioned that the Tostitos had a “much better aroma” than the store brand.   Saltiness or lack of aroma was not of any apparent concern to Major, as the dog once again inhaled both of his samples with no sign displeasure.  In this case, unless you’re addicted to salt, it may just be worth the 44 percent price premium to buy the Tostitos – especially if you are hosting a party.

6.  Pace Chunky Salsa vs. Albertsons Chunky Salsa

Price Comparison: Pace, $2.99; Albertsons, $1.99  (a savings of 33%)
Panel Scoring: 6-6
The Verdict: No preference here.  You say tomato, I say tomahto.

Why have tortilla chips if you aren’t going to have some salsa to go with them?  The panelists used their preferred chips to sample chunky salsas.   In what I thought would be a clear win for the name-brand Pace salsa, the panel ended up deadlocked.   The Pace salsa was clearly chunkier upon visual inspection, but this was a taste test and visual appeal was not a primary evaluation criterion.  Among those who preferred the Pace chunky salsa, Kevin noted that the name-brand salsa had more vegetable chunks and was less spicy, Chris observed it to have a “fresher taste,” and Matthew simply described it as being “lovely.”   Meanwhile, among those who preferred the store-brand salsa, the Honeybee felt the store brand had a better balance of flavors, although she did note the lack of chunks for what was supposed to be a chunky salsa.  Mom and Rose both felt the store-brand salsa had a better tomato taste.  In this case, the split decision suggests it may not be worth paying the 33 percent premium for the national brand.

Final Thoughts

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

TasteTest2

I went into this experiment hoping I would find a definitive answer in one direction or the other regarding what would be the better option when comparing name-brand versus store-brand edible grocery items.  Unfortunately, I think this initial taste test revealed that the answer is highly dependent on the individual product.

Yes, 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, the experiment also showed 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.

My best advice to you is to never assume the name-brand product is always superior.  I highly recommend that you take a chance and try the store-brand products so you can see for yourself – you never know, you may just find there are a lot of store brands out there that are actually acceptable to your palette.

If you do, you could end up saving yourself a lot of money in the long run!  :-)

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47 comments to My Store-Brand vs. Name-Brand Blind Taste-Test Experiment

  • Great post – an entertaining look at why the name brand isn’t always the better choice.. Paying more doesn’t always mean you’re getting a better product!
    .-= Peter´s last blog ..When Getting Great Deals On The Things You Buy, Make Sure You’re Actually Getting The Deal =-.

  • I have found that some of store brands are superior to national brands. It is more of a hunt and peck sort of thing though. Aldi seems to have a good selection of brands that are really good. We save tons of money on their canned soups and vegetables.

    • Charlene

      I agree that a lot of store brands are better than national brands. Special K with strawberries name brand cereal tastes awful, IMO. The strawberries in it are gross. The Kroger brand of that cereal is fabulous, and Meijer brand is a close runner-up to Kroger. I think Kroger owns Albertsons. If so, their store brand would probably be good as well. Aldi’s “Cheeze-It” type of snack crackers are so yummy. They’re a little less tangy, but for the price difference I’ll suffer with less tang. ;)

  • Jason @ Redeeming Riches

    Great post! You always entertain along the way!! Once you convince yourself to get past the perception of “generic” and you focus on taste – a lot of those items do taste very similar if not better! Thanks for the scientific study!
    .-= Jason @ Redeeming Riches´s last blog ..Why You Need a Larger View of Your Money (And So Do I) =-.

  • Excellent post, here is my opinion on generics. My family always buys one of each if its something we have never tried before. We use the products at the same time, like with the chips, we would open both bags and sample them both until they are finished. In the end, we choose the one we like and stick with it. Some times its the generic, some times its the store brand.

    I agree that there is no definite answer there because each product is made differently. In fact, many of the store brands are actually made in the same factory, by the same company that makes the generic brand such as Peter Pan peanut butter vs Generic Great Value brand.
    .-= Jesse´s last blog ..UPrinting.com Business Card Giveaway Winner =-.

  • Too funny! It’s true that top dollar doesn’t always guarantee top quality. That goes for food and almost all other goods as well. I get so annoyed when people insist on spending $50 on a basic cotton shirt just for the label when it won’t last any longer than a $5 version.
    .-= Ashley´s last blog ..Rodney Anderson Pioneers the Medical Debt Relief Act =-.

  • What a great experiment Len! But I think this example can be expanded into most products.

    Look at computers, Dell does not make a single part in the computer they sell. Neither does HP or any other computer “assemblers”.

    Most “multi vitamin” supplements are not made by that particular brand. There are probably just a handle of companies that actually make the supplements and folks contract them to produce bottles for them. They then just slap on a fancy bottle sticker and market the hell out of it.

    I’m willing to bet Nike and Reebok does are made by the same shoe factory in Taiwan!!!

    So yes, generics

  • Although we normally go with a store brand (generic) first… if in doubt we do what Jesse suggested and buy one of each then do an in-home, blind taste test of our own!

    Great post Len… thanks.
    .-= Matt Jabs´s last blog ..Homemade Toothpaste Recipe – Easy and Frugal =-.

  • @Peter: You’re right – doesn’t mean you’re necessarily getting a better product. Based upon the results of this experiment my dog, Major, obviously agrees with us too! ;-)

    @Family: I almost always buy the store-brand veggies (canned or frozen). I have yet to find a case where the store-brands were inferior to the name-brand products. It makes me wonder how the name-brand veggies even manage to stay in business!

    @Jason: Thanks, Jason! It is amazing how a truly blind taste test can eliminate a lot of preconceived biases.

    @Jesse: I have noticed that some canned veggie products have the exact same product lot codes! Readers, next time you are at the store, go to the canned veggie section and compare the codes – I bet you may just find the ONLY differences between some store and name-brands are the label and… the price! :-)

    @Ashley: I’m with you! But try convincing some people of that very fact. For a lot of folks, their preconceived notions are just too ingrained in their psyches.

    @MrCreditCard: In many cases, you’re right on the money! Excellent point! You can go even bigger than PCs. Large-scale products like automobiles and planes have many many parts and components outsourced and the “name-brand” company is essentially just a large-scale integrator. Never thought about it applying on a smaller scale too, but it does.

    @Matt: The blind taste tests are actually pretty interesting. My whole family actually had a lot of fun with this experiment. Our dog was in absolute poochie-heaven and can’t wait for us to do it again! ;-)

  • Brilliant!

    What’s the deal with “Kevin” – was he eating through his nose?
    .-= Four Pillars´s last blog ..Unintended Consequences =-.

  • Judy P

    Well done Len, it was alot of fun being part of the taste test….Mom

  • Albertson’s pees, whoo hoo! :)

    Great survey Leo. Awesome job. Next up, soda’s and drinks yeah? :)
    .-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..Get An Umbrella Insurance Policy – Your Teenager Is Going To Bankrupt You =-.

  • @FourPillars: Cousin Kev has always used his nose to eat which, for obvious reasons, is why I rarely serve steak or spare ribs when he comes over for dinner. And please… don’t ask me what organ he uses for his sense of smell! lol

    @Mom: Get ready because we’re doing round two over the holidays! :-)

    @Samurai: Thanks, Sam! Look for round 2 near the end of the year. I have at least one drink already in mind, so stay tuned! :-)

  • Jennifer Y.

    Nice experiment! I have very few brand loyalties, many times the generic/store brand is just fine.

  • Sheila Wilson

    It’s not “savings”!!! For the luvva pete, it is A saving. As in, A saving of 40%.

    Savings are what you have in the bank.

  • Hey, wait a minute! Why should I take your word for it when you misspell your own name? Hello! Whatever happened to “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’, unless sounded as ‘a’ as in neighbor and weigh?” ;-)

    In the US, the term “a savings of” is accepted practice – nobody, and I mean NOBODY, says “a saving of 40 percent.”

    Here is just one of a bajillion examples that I found in an article in the New York Times:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/30/business/30milk.html

    And yes, I know, Sheila, “bajillion” isn’t a real word. ;-)

  • Dawna Constantine

    excellent article! i’ll be back for sure.

  • This is a great blog posting and very useful. I really appreciate the research you put into it

  • There’s a big problem with buying store-brand – while it’s cheaper, and often tastes fine, it’s often packed with added salt and sugar. Take a look at the breakfast cereals next time you’re in the store, I guarantee that 9 times out of 10 the store brand will have more salt, more added sugar, and often more saturated fat than the big brand alternatives! What really annoys me though is when the store brand “healthy option” version still has more sugar/fat/salt than the “regular” branded version – people pick up the healthy option one without carefully reading the label, and are basically being lied to!!
    .-= Billy´s last blog ..Reading Opponents – Putting Players On A Hand =-.

    • Very interesting, Billy! I am going to have to check that out next time I go to the store. You would think, though, that the added sugar would add to the cost and make the store-brand less competitive. I wonder why that isn’t the case?

  • Peggy Jackson

    I am interested in joining your
    consumer panel of taste testers

  • Maureen C.

    Hi..My first time reading your blog and I really enjoyed your experiment. I use many store brand products and brand name. As you said you have to try them. Both my partner and I agree that we just can’t change our ketchup as there is just no ketchup that we have tried better than Heinz. But we tried. All veggies are store brand, for sure.
    I worked for a company that did promotional items for big companies. During this time I did find out that all the t-shirts came from one big t-shirt co. and many big name companies sew their logo or tags on them. I was shocked to see the price difference as each company added their name. Its a shame that so many people feel they have to buy these big names to fit in. More so the parents who say I just have to buy it for my kids because everyone else is wearing it. They really are just paying for the name.
    Thanks for writing.
    All my best,Moe

    • I’m with you, Moe, when it comes Heinz ketchup; it is simply unbeatable. As for parents who justify buying their kids expensive clothes because “everybody else wears them,” well, heh, even my kids finally figured out that sorry excuse doesn’t work on me. I always tell them the same thing: those kids’ parents are knuckleheads for wasting their hard-earned money – and I’m not a knucklehead! LOL

  • Jerry

    This is a great post and I agree with the added non essentials that really, have a significant health risk.
    Other than that, there is one major flaw witht the test that needs to be considered.
    The test is not totally blind when someone is familiar with there “favorite” product. To do the test justice, each person should taste test a pair of which they have never tried either! This would go a long way to making a more valid test. Case in point is the Oreos. Many would love their Oreos, and just chose them because it is their favorite regardless of the quality of the store brand.

    Go ahead, try it!

    Other than that, I really love to see these private sessions as you don’t have to read through the “psycho babble” of the big corportations trying to push their vaunted goods on we, the good people!

    Cheers everyone!

    • I am glad you enjoy the experiments! I try to average a new taste-test experiment every 10 weeks, so please come back to see the results of the others!

      Yes, you are technically correct about the test not being completely blind, Jerry. But good luck trying to find anybody over the age of 18 months who hasn’t tried an Oreo before. ;-)

  • Well I have to admit that I will choose the name brand products over the generics when it comes to my food. There are some things I may get generic such as drinks but thats about it. Interesting results though.

  • While I’m so interested with the results of your so-called experiment, I lingered quite too long on your panel of experts especially one. If we are all dogs, maybe companies won’t pay too much for advertisements. =) Anyway, I highly agree that there’s no definite answer to this experiment. When I didn’t have a family to raise, I clearly stick to name brands not that I thought they were better tasting, but I hate trying unadvertised stuff. Now that I have a family though, I scout for better alternatives that can help me stretch my budget and save some cash fast. And indeed some store brands are better while I still consider Oreo’s to be the best.

  • Alice

    I usually look at the contents first. If the store brand is much less healthy (way more fat, salt or sugar) I opt for the name brand. If it’s comparable or better I buy the store brand.
    Then, I try it. Only if I really dislike it will I even try the name brand. Perhaps it tastes better, but if the store brand tastes good enough, it’s good enough!

    Well, if the price difference is really small I might give it a try. Or I buy it sometimes when it’s on sale and therefore cheaper than the store brand. But usually, I go with store brand first, name brand if store brand won’t do. I find it’s easier to work that way.

  • While it is true that most store brand products taste as good as brand name products, store brands are not always the cheaper buy. By using manufacturers coupons, you can usually buy grocery items for a lot less than the equivalent store brands.

  • Elizabeth

    Please don’t give your dog chocolate – it’s toxic to them (causes kidney damage I believe) and will kill them if it’s in a sufficient amount versus their weight.

    • Len Penzo

      I appreciate your concern, Elizabeth, but a little chocolate in moderation won’t hurt your dog. I’ve got plenty of real life proof too! :-)

      I’ve had dogs my whole life and except for my Great Dane (which naturally have short life spans) they’ve all lived to 15 or older while getting one Oreo or chocolate chip cookie a day as a treat. When I was growing up my parents had a cocker spaniel that got 10 M&Ms each night before bedtime — that dog lived to be 17. :-)

      One item that IS truly toxic to dogs in small quantities is grapes (including raisins).

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