Store brands to savor

By Tod MarksConsumer Reports

It's one thing to save money by buying store-brand paper towels or trash bags, but do you dare replace a name-brand favorite—Heinz ketchup, say—with a store brand? Sure. Our expert tasters judged 33 of 57 store-brand foods as good as or better than the national brand. (Check our supermarket buying guide for details on ways to save at the store.) In categories such as ice cream, trail mix, mozzarella, mixed vegetables, and more, we found at least one store brand from the national grocers Costco, Kmart, Sam's Club, Target, Trader Joe's, Walmart, and Whole Foods that was equal in quality to the big name. Every store-brand jar of cashews was better than the national brand, for example; and among frozen shrimp, every store brand was at least as good. To be sure that our results weren't an anomaly, we tested two samples of each brand. (Note that products that are equal in quality don't necessarily taste the same: They may have different seasonings or a different mix of ingredients.) When we pitted store brands against Heinz ketchup and Hellmann's mayonnaise, we found at least one near-twin for each: Market Pantry (Target) ketchup and Market Pantry, Great Value (Walmart), and Kirkland Signature (Costco) mayos. All are more than one-third cheaper than the name brand. Watch the video below for more details. Moreover, when we had about 50 staffers who usually use Heinz or Hellmann's do a blind taste-off of their brand against the two Market Pantry brands, 45 percent of staffers preferred Market Pantry ketchup (13 percent had no preference) and 41 percent preferred Market Pantry mayo (4 percent had no preference). Store brands account for about one of every four products in a supermarket— and they're branching into niches that lack national-brand competition: balsamic vinegar, for instance, or chocolate-covered raisins. Their popularity is understandable, considering that they typically cost 15 to 30 percent less than name-brand counterparts, according to an industry expert. As the table below shows, some of the store brands we tested were more than 30 percent cheaper. The name-brand premium is largely the result of advertising and promotional costs that are passed on to consumers. Costco, Sam's Club, Target, or Walmart were among the low-price winners in every category. Most of the Sam's Club products were 50 percent or even 60 percent cheaper than the name brands, but you'll need to buy warehouse-size packages. However, store brands aren't always a bargain. Trader Joe's and Whole Foods usually contended for most-expensive store brand. In fact, five of the 10 tested Whole Foods products—cranberry juice, trail mix, ice cream, shrimp, and nuts— actually cost more than the national brand. That's no surprise to Consumer Reports survey respondents, who have told us that Whole Foods has some of the highest prices of any major chain. Rising commodity costs may ultimately lead to a narrowing of price gaps between store and name brands, says Neil Stern, senior partner with Chicago-based retail experts McMillanDoolittle. In the meantime, take advantage of the lower prices. After all, if you're not satisfied with a store brand, most supermarket chains will return your money. Based on our tests, though, that shouldn't be necessary.

Price comparison

Continue Reading Below

Check our supermarket buying guide for more ways to save at the store.

Take-away: With nuts, freshness is key. Emerald fared worse than store brands because some of its cashews tasted slightly stale. The roast level varied slightly among products but not enough to matter. Let price be your guide. A serving of nuts contains about 160 calories and 14 grams of fat. Walmart, Costco, and Kmart have the most sodium, about 115 milligrams; Trader Joe’s the least, 60.

Also-rans: None.

Take-away: Ocean Spray has balanced sweet and tart flavors with some fresh notes; Kmart has good cranberry flavor and fresh notes, and is a touch less bitter—but it costs more. Walmart and Costco are decent and about 30 percent cheaper than Ocean Spray. It’s harder to make a case for the other also-rans, which taste watery, slightly bitter, or pruney. Nutritionally, most juices are similar, with 110 to 140 calories and 26 to 35 grams of sugars per cup. Trader Joe’s, which is sweetened with stevia, has just 40 calories and 10 grams of sugars per cup.

Also-rans: Whole Foods 100% Juice Cranberry Cocktail, Great Value (Walmart), Kirkland Signature (Costco), Market Pantry (Target), and Trader Joe’s Low Calorie.

Take-away: Heinz has a full flavor that balances sweetness, saltiness, and sourness. There’s also a hint of onion powder. Target is remarkably similar; Sam’s Club tastes a bit more cooked and a bit less spicy. Sam’s Club and Target are about half the price of Heinz. We’d steer clear of Whole Foods (thin and dark, with harsh flavors) and Trader Joe’s (low tomato taste, with unbalanced flavors). Per tablespoon, most products have 15 to 20 calories, about 160 milligrams of sodium, and 4 grams of sugar. Sam’s Club has a bit more sodium; Trader Joe’s, slightly less sugars.

Also-rans: Great Value (Walmart), Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s Low Calorie.

Take-away: All of the syrups (medium or dark amber Grade A) are very good and would be delicious over pancakes. But Maple Grove and Target are slightly thicker than others and have bigger, bolder, more complex flavors—caramel, vanilla, and roasted notes, with a hint of coffee. Pure maple syrup is expensive regardless of brand, so let price be your guide. Costco, costing 36 percent less than the name brand, is a good value. All of the syrups have 200 calories, 50 grams of sugars per quarter-cup, and negligible sodium.

Also-rans: Whole Foods 365 Everyday Organic, Great Value (Walmart), Kirkland Signature (Costco), and Trader Joe’s.

Take-away: Hellmann’s is well blended, creamy, slightly sweet and salty, and eggy, with a hint of vinegar. The better store brands are cheaper by at least 25 percent, and you’d be hard- pressed to taste a difference in a sandwich. The also-rans have a big pickle-relish taste or other drawbacks.

Also-rans: Sam’s Club Bakers & Chefs and Trader Joe’s.

Take-away: Birds Eye vegetables (carrots, peas, corn, and green beans) are crisp, with fresh notes; Trader Joe’s are even crisper and fresher, as if they’ve been quickly blanched in hot water. And they’re about 10 cents less per serving. The also-rans just tasted a little less fresh. The products have about 60 calories per serving and 20 to 70 milligrams of sodium. All are fat-free.

Also-rans: Whole Foods, Sam’s Club, and Great Value (Walmart).

Take-away: The Sargento is creamy and slightly sweet, with fresh dairy notes. Sam’s Club and Walmart cheeses also taste fresh. Sam’s Club is slightly firmer than Sargento, and Walmart is somewhat crumbly. When melted, even the also-rans are close to Sargento in quality. Sam’s Club and Costco are cheapest—less than half the price of Sargento per serving.

Also-rans: Whole Foods, Kirkland Signature (Costco), and Trader Joe’s.

Take-away: You’d be unlikely to mistake frozen shrimp for fresh, though neither is cheap. Per pound, prices range from about $6.50 (Walmart) to $15 (Whole Foods). Tastee shrimp are soft and watery; Costco, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods shrimp have a firmer, chewier texture and aren’t waterlogged. At $7.25, Costco offers the best mix of price and quality. The products have 75 to 100 calories per 3-ounce serving and about 1 gram of fat. Costco and Whole Foods have the least sodium, about 175 milligrams.

Also-rans: None.

Take-away: The Planters is a flavorful mix of peanuts and some almonds, plus raisins and mild milk-chocolate pieces. The Whole Foods mix should attract lovers of dark chocolate. It also has raw almonds, toasted peanuts, white chocolate, chocolate-covered raisins, and dried cherries. Those as good as Planters tend to be flavorful, with peanuts, almonds, tender raisins, and tasty candy-coated chocolate pieces. Sam’s Club and Kirkland Signature (Costco) are the clear bargains—about half as expensive as Planters and Whole Foods. Per ounce, most products have 150 to 170 calories, 9 to 10 grams of fat, and 25 to 60 milligrams of sodium. Planters, which has no added salt, has just 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Also-rans: Kmart Smart Sense Chocolate & Nut and Trader Joe’s Rainbow’s End.

Take-away: Breyers melts cleanly in the mouth and is moderately sweet, with a strong vanilla-bean flavor. Walmart is closest in taste and costs almost 30 percent less. Costco has a host of problems: It’s overly sweet, tastes slightly medicinal, and is gummy. Most of the products have 130 to 160 calories and 7 to 8 grams of fat per half-cup. Trader Joe’s, a superpremium French vanilla, is denser and carries more nutritional baggage (260 calories, 16 grams fat, 23 grams sugars).

Also-rans: Whole Foods and Kirkland Signature (Costco).

This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Copyright © 2005-2013 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.