My Store-Brand vs. Name-Brand Blind Taste-Test Experiment #2

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.

Unfortunately, the results from that initial experiment were frustratingly inconclusive.  My panel sampled the national- and store-brands of six common grocery items including cookies, tortilla chips, kielbasa sausage and other items.  The results: the national and store brands each won two of the challenges, while the remaining two challenges were just too close to call.

And so, as a scientist and intrepid personal finance blogger, I figured it was my duty to continue this experiment until a clear winner can be declared once and for all.

As such, 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 experiment, to ensure a one-to-one comparison, I 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.  Since they did such a good job last time, I decided to use my family again.  With the addition of three judges who didn’t participate in the last experiment joining in on the fun, the panel for this trial consisted of thirteen members of my clan  – plus the dog, of course.

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:

DorisAunt Doris
Birthplace:  London, England
Age:  Still none of your business.  (Same as it ever was.)
Favorite Color: Green

PaulUncle Paul
Birthplace:  Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 80
Favorite Color: Forest Green

MarilynAunt Mary Jane
Birthplace:  New Orleans, Louisiana
Age: Invoked her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Favorite Color: Sea Green

DadDad
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 72
Favorite Color: “Brindle-$*** Purple”  (That’s my dad.)

MomMom
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 69
Favorite Color: Blue

.

RoseRose
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California
Age: Old enough to be my mother-in-law.
Favorite Color: Pink

KevinKevin
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 57
Favorite Color: “Bluish-purple” (He’s color-blind: Everything looks bluish-purple.)

.

ChrisChris
Birthplace: Hemet, California
Age: Classified
Favorite Color: Yellow

HoneybeeThe Honeybee
Birthplace: Whittier, California
Age: 41
Favorite Color: Blue

Evan Evan
Birthplace: Escondido, California
Age: 31
Favorite Color: Blue

MarkMark
Birthplace: Escondido, California
Age: 29
Favorite Color: Blue

Matthew Matthew
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 12
Favorite Color: Purple  (not the Brindle-$*** variety)

Nina Nina
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 10
Favorite Color: Blue

Major1 Major
Birthplace: Julian, California
Age: 6
Favorite Color: Black (and white)

As I did in the last experiment, I once again chose a broad range of grocery items to evaluate.  This time I selected everything from soup to nuts, along with some crackers, spaghetti sauce, fruit cocktail and canned corn.  Here now are the results of my second blind taste test experiment based upon the inputs received from the panel of experts.

1.  Campbell’s Vegetable Beef Soup vs. Albertsons Vegetable Beef Soup

Price Comparison: Campbell’s, $1.49; Albertsons, $0.89  (a savings of 40%)
Panel Scoring: 9-7 in favor of the Campbell’s.
The Verdict: Too close to call.  Nobody can accuse the Albertsons soup of being a laughing stock.

If Campbell’s soup is, as the old commercial goes,  “Mmm, mmm, good!” then one can credibly argue that Campbell’s store-brand counterpart is at least “Mmm, good!”  The Honeybee noted that the Campbell’s soup was greasy, and that the Albertsons brand had a better beef flavor.  Both my mom and Rose also agreed that the flavor of the Albertsons brand was better.   Even so, a slim majority of the panel disagreed with that assessment and selected the Campbell’s soup.  My cousin Mark noted that the Albertsons brand was too salty while the Campbell’s had a more even flavor.  Chris felt the Campbell’s was lighter tasting.  My daughter Nina preferred the Campbell’s saying, “It was more kid-like.”  Take that for what it’s worth, folks.  I’m just reporting the results here.

2.  Nabisco Ritz Crackers vs. Albertsons Round Crackers

Price Comparison: Ritz, $2.79; Albertsons, $1.59  (a savings of 43%)
Panel Scoring: 13-2 in favor of the Ritz.
The Verdict: No contest.  The panel says “Put it on the Ritz.”

In my last experiment, Nabisco arguably suffered a bit of an upset when it came to their Oreo cookie.  But this time the old National Biscuit Company fared much better.  In fact, their Ritz cracker trounced the store-brand knock-off in a landslide victory.  The Albertsons cracker got demerits from Mark for having a weird texture, and from Nina and the Honeybee for being pasty and chalky, respectively.  Matthew said the store-brand was flavorless.  Mark noted that the Ritz was more buttery than the store-brand and Mom opined that the Ritz was, “just tastier and crispier,” while Chris remarked “Now that’s a cracker!”   Kevin was the only person who thought the Albertsons cracker beat the Ritz, saying “it smelled better.”  The only other mammal on the panel that thought the store-brand cracker was actually tasty was my dog, Major.  (I know that because Major was the only panel member other than Kevin willing to eat a second one.)

3.  Prego Spaghetti Sauce vs. Albertsons Spaghetti Sauce

Price Comparison: Prego, $2.18; Albertsons, $1.59  (a savings of 27%)
Panel Scoring: 10-6 in favor of the Albertsons.
The Verdict: A clear majority of the panel thought the Albertsons brand was a sauce of inspiration.  Well, kind of…

In a surprise, the Albertsons spaghetti sauce was deemed the better choice for topping pasta over its famous name-brand competition.   I should point out though that, as far as some of the panel members were concerned, the term “better” did not necessarily equate to “delicious.”   Perhaps that’s because my Italian family is extremely biased when it comes to sauce; most members of my clan prefer their own homemade versions.   In fact, Kevin refused to sample either sauce, essentially saying that he couldn’t do so in good conscience because he’s half-Italian.  That being said, of those that left their scruples at the tasting table, Aunt Doris, my dad, and the Honeybee hated both sauces, but disliked the Albertsons sauce less than the Prego.   Mark went on to note that both of the jar sauces were bland and neither tasted like fresh tomatoes.  Nina docked the Prego sauce for tasting too much like carrots.  The only panel member that seemed to actually enjoy sampling the spaghetti sauces was the dog, who eagerly lapped up both samples.

4.  Del Monte Fruit Cocktail vs. Albertsons Fruit Cocktail

Price Comparison: Del Monte, $1.89; Albertsons, $0.89  (a savings of 53%)
Panel Scoring: 11-2 in favor of the Del Monte.
The Verdict: Del Monte is king of the mountain.  For Albertsons, it’s just a bunch of sour grapes.

Like Nabisco, Del Monte got a bit of a black eye in the previous experiment when it came to their canned peas – the store-brand won in an embarrassing landslide.   This time, Del Monte got its revenge as their fruit cocktail delivered a knock-out punch (no pun intended this time) to its store-brand competitor.  Uncle Paul, Aunt Mary Jane and Mark all agreed that the major drawback to the Albertsons cocktail was that it was too syrupy.   The Del Monte fruit cocktail scored points on multiple fronts.  Both Nina and Chris liked the sweetness of the Del Monte brand, and Evan and Mark gave the nod to the name-brand because it had a fresher fruit taste.  Sometimes though it’s the little things that can make a difference: My mom and the Honeybee stated that they preferred the Del Monte fruit cocktail because it included cherries.

5.  Planters Cashew Halves & Pieces vs. Albertsons Cashew Halves & Pieces

Price Comparison: Planters, $6.09; Albertsons, $3.99  (a savings of 34%)
Panel Scoring: 9-9
The Verdict: In a dead heat, the panel was completely nutted-up.

Although the panel deadlocked on which cashew was better, sometimes a stalemate can be considered a victory for a significantly cheaper brand.   The panel was completely bamboozled and unable to come to any consensus here when it came to taste.  Of those who preferred the Albertsons cashews, Rose preferred their saltier taste.  Nina opined that the store-brand cashews had “more flavor,” while Chris agreed, saying they had a “more nutty taste.”  Don’t tell that to the other half of the panel though.  Mark thought the Planters cashews had a more pleasing “natural flavor” that was lacking in the store-brand.  Both Matthew and my mom agreed, noting that the Planters nuts were also crunchier.   Kevin also preferred the taste of the name-brand cashews and said that savvy shoppers know that Planters nuts can often be found on sale for half-price every two or three weeks at major drug stores.

6.  Del Monte Yellow Corn vs. Albertsons Yellow Corn

Price Comparison: Del Monte, $1.19; Albertsons, $0.69  (a savings of 42%)
Panel Scoring: 8-8
The Verdict: Shucks – no preference here.  Blame it on the cornucopia of opinions.

Again, when it came to the canned corn, there was a split decision by the panel with respect to taste.  This is in sharp contrast to the results from the last experiment when the panel surprisingly chose the store-brand canned peas over their name-brand counterpart.   Kevin, my dad, and Chris noted that both brands were so similar in taste that it was too close to call – although Chris thought both tasted “equally bad.”  Matthew stated that the Albertsons corn was “awesome,” and Nina also preferred the store-brand.   Mark disagreed.  He gave demerits to the Albertsons corn for being “mushy and bland,” but gave high marks to the Del Monte corn for its crisp texture and sweet flavor.  Said Mark: “And I’m not a corn fan.”  Aunt Doris also commented on Del Monte’s sweeter flavor while the Honeybee praised the Del Monte corn for being “more flavorable.”

Final Thoughts

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

TasteTestJan10

When I started these experiments last year, I hoped 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, this second experiment has only confirmed the unsatisfying results of the previous test: The answer continues to be 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.

The results of these experiments have not changed my best advice to you on this topic.  You should never assume the name-brand product is always superior and 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!

As for me, until I can definitively settle this question once and for all, I will continue to run these experiments on a quarterly basis.  Stay tuned.

Hey, Readers!

Do you have a suggestion for a particular product YOU would like to see tested?  If so, let me know!  You just might see it in my next experiment.

29 comments to My Store-Brand vs. Name-Brand Blind Taste-Test Experiment #2

  • I find that for products like ketchup, Heinz or more natural products taste better.

    I also noticed that if you are used to a certain brand having grown up with it — it being slightly more acidic, sour, sweeter, saltier.. you are going to always prefer it over another “better” brand

    I noticed that with products I know are crap, but I still enjoy because of childhood memories and preferences.
    .-= FB @ FabulouslyBroke.com´s last blog ..Living at home with your parents: The scoop =-.

    • I agree, Me. I think it’s hard to beat Heinz ketchup. Maybe I should try that one just for grins next time? I’m curious to find out what kind of “crap” products you enjoy – maybe they really aren’t crap. Again, maybe I should add those to my next experiment…

  • Jason @ Redeeming Riches

    Awesome stuff Len! I love these challenges and am surprised by how well the Albertson’s brand does over all.

    How about a gourmet coffee comparison?
    .-= Jason @ Redeeming Riches´s last blog ..Credit Card Rewards Duel: Knight Rewards vs Challenger Avoid =-.

  • Mr. Moneybags

    I overheard some stock brokers arguing whether Colombian or Middle-Eastern cocaine/opium is of better quality/ gives a better kick, perhaps you can help them out?

    Great idea by the way, they don’t call you the mighty Len Penzo for nothing!

    • Hmm. I like the fact that you are thinking out of the box, Mr. Moneybags! LOL But there’s one little problem with that suggestion. (Actually there are at least a dozen that I can think of, but I don’t have the time to get into all of them here.)

      When it comes to cocaine, I was told that my local Albertsons quit carrying their own store-brand label in the mid-80s after the Scarface craze burned itself out – so that automatically makes cocaine ineligible for consideration.

  • Wow what a great experiment! You know, I heard that Sunrype juice and store bought brand juice are manufactured in the same juice processing plant (aka they are the same juice). All you pay for is the packaging and marketing. I’m a big proponent of store-bought. Maybe next time you could do a “generic” or brand-name over the counter medication test hehe.. i know there are quite drastic differences in price there. It could be titled “Does Advil work better than Safeway brand ibuprofen?”
    .-= youngandthrifty´s last blog ..The Centsible Life turns ONE! (giveaways galore) =-.

  • BD

    This was highly entertaining! :)

    My family and I noticed a huge difference in Del Monte sweet crisp canned corn, over Libby’s. The Del Monte was much crisper and sweeter than the mushier Libby’s. Although, to be fair, that’s national brand against national brand.

    I’ve noticed the Walmart brand of rice chex cereal (Great Value Toasted Rice Cereal) tastes almost exactly like its name brand Chex counterpart and is around $2.00 cheaper…wonderful buy! The Great Value generic Froot Loops though? UGH. No comparison to Kelloggs Froot Loops.

    The Great Value generic frozen pizzas were ok too. I mean, it’s frozen pizza…it all tastes pretty bad, unless you put CPK frozen pizzas in the contest.

    The section I always go Generic though is dry goods. Plastic bags, garbage bags, plastic wrap, paper towels… I’ll buy the generic over the name brand any day. The quality is always fairly close to the name brand, and the generic is so much cheaper. Unless I have a really awesome coupon for the the Name brand, of course.

  • Incredibly scientific tests! I should use my 6 kids to test the cereal aisle! Seriously, good insight and good feedback from your readers. I bet you got a kick out of doing the test. My experience has been that the Private Label, generic brands are improving and chipping away at market share. Would love to see more of these evals! Keep it up!

    • @YoungandThrify: I’ve heard the same thing about canned fruits and veggies too, although I don’t know if it applies to all products. That’s why I am always surprised when the panel picks one item over another in a landslide. I’d expect a deadlock, but that has not been the case, like in the case of the peas (from Experiment #1 that I did a few months ago) and fruit cocktail. You may be on to something with the medications – great suggestion (although I’d have to probably take that one on alone)!

      @BD: I’m glad you enjoyed it! Cereal is another one I do plan on testing – so stay tuned! As for dry goods, I am with you… I try to buy as many (although not all) generic dry goods as I can. One item I won’t skimp on though is tissue – I love Kleenex brand over the generic counterparts.

      @BeingSmarter: Yes, the whole family seems to enjoy taking part in the testing. It makes for a really fun time. I plan on doing these evals on a quarterly basis for a little while. Especially with all the good suggestions coming in! :-)

  • Tony

    I wonder if the comparison for shoppers really is “which tastes better.” I know when I buy, unless I am entertaining, I will go with the cheaper store brand if it doesn’t taste bad (meaning, will the kids eat it). Or, ingredients will often be store-brand while stand alone items may be national.
    Given the inconclusive nature of the taste tests but the success of store brands, it might just be that taste can be trumped in purchase decision.

  • Chris

    Interesting experiment!

    It is a little concerning that the store brand looses so one-sided in some categories…from my experience the store private label usually promises an equal or better experience to the National Brand!

    Cheers

  • Wow, nice and detailed! Well done!

    I am a snob for 25+ aged rib-eye though, which I seem to only be able to get at Whole Foods. $29/lbs vs. $8-12 normal!

    Do you mind doing a new blind test comparison of the latest Audi S5 vs. the BMW 335i coupe? Thnx man!
    .-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..You Are Already Wealthy, Stop Complaining! =-.

  • Your next stop should be “cheap” or “lower priced” wines versus “pricier recommendations!”…let’s put Napa Valley to the test!

    • @Tony: I think that depends. I think, for a lot of truly frugal shoppers, taste does NOT trump cost. They’ll put up with slightly degraded taste if they can save a few cents. I am one of those people not in that camp, however. As long as I can afford it, I will ALWAYS buy the product that has a clear advantage in the taste department. However, if the difference is minor or non-existent, then all bets are off and I buy the store brand.

      @Chris: Thank you! I try to please here at Len Penzo dot Com! My experience is the store brands *often* promises equal or better experience taste wise. I not ready to make the claim they *usually* do – at least not yet. You may be interested to know that in my first taste test experiment several months ago (you can link to it at the hyperlink near the top of this article or at the bottom of this post in the “Related Posts” section) the store-brands fared a bit better than in Experiment #2: The peas trounced the name-brand competition, and they also won another competition somewhat handily.

      @Sam: I love Ribeye. I just may try that experiment next time! Re: Audi vs BMW…You, sir, are the car aficionado – I’ll leave the test drives to you! :-)

      @Mr.CC: With Sam’s recommendation for testing ribeye steaks and your wine suggestion I’ve just about got a whole meal to test – all I need to do is throw in a comparison of organically-grown vs corporate-farmed russets for the baked potato!

  • Interesting that the results of this one are still sort of inconclusive. I am definitely curious about how various generic brands compare to one another. Perhaps a third round of the experiment? :)

    P.S. I almost always buy generic when given the choice.
    .-= Wojciech Kulicki´s last blog ..How to Deal With Future Income =-.

  • I think there’s a difference between store brands as well. I like Trader Joe store brand better than the other grocery store brands.
    .-= Bucksome´s last blog ..Thursday Tidbits #6 =-.

  • Classic stuff Len.

    There may be some sort of utility equation that you can create to work out which item to buy.

    If you can numerate the number of people who liked the cheaper product, then modify it by the cost saving, it may be better to buy even a slightly less popular but much cheaper product.

    Then again, who wants two bags of bad crackers. ;)
    .-= Monevator´s last blog ..House buyers could be paying off their mortgage in retirement =-.

  • Nice post. Keep up the great work

  • The problem with store brands it’s that often they are invented brands used by the supermarket to sell a private brand they can change without people noticing, usually to adjust expenses and/or profitability. This means that when you buy Albertsons sauce, it might be made from a different manufacturer than the last time you ate it…
    .-= Giorgio Sironi´s last blog ..Practical Php Patterns: Decorator =-.

    • I never heard of that before, but that is very interesting, Giorgio! Thanks for the tip. I don’t recall noticing, but I wonder if any of my readers have noticed that the quality of store brands changes on occasion…

  • Slight departure, but I’ve noticed that people who were raised on “Miracle Whip” swear by it, think it’s the bomb. All the rest of “us” (the right-thinking people) think that Miracle Whip is crap.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Wojciech Kulicki, Len Penzo, Len Penzo, Len Penzo, Redeeming Riches and others. Redeeming Riches said: Blind taste test experiment comparing name-brand vs. store-brand products via @LenPenzo http://ow.ly/VFYX || Good stuff! [...]

  • [...] you believe as I do (although some tests are not as conclusive), that generics are just as good and wholesome (and identical) as their more [...]

  • [...] posts in which he does the blind taste tests are here; Experiment 1, Experiment 2, and Experiment [...]

  • [...] My Store-Brand vs. Name-Brand Blind Taste-Test Experiment #2 (Len Penzo): Len rocks my world with another round of the now-famous brand name vs. generic [...]

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