The commitment to branded foods can be deep. According to a nationally representative survey of 2,519 U.S. adults in September 2022 CR, forty-three percent of Americans only occasionally buy or don’t buy cheaper in-store brand versions of well-known brands (PDF). But our recent tests reveal that they made a huge mistake by leaving their store brand on the shelf.
A CR panel of expert tasters found ketchup, frozen organic mixed vegetables, ranch dressing, whole wheat bread, peanut butter, plain nonfat Greek yogurt, mixed nuts, maple syrup, condensed chicken noodle soup, and cereal like Cheerios with honey—as well as store-branded counterparts. . Products were purchased from 10 retailers: Aldi, Amazon, BJ’s, Costco, Dollar General, Kroger, Target, Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Whole Foods. (Some stores didn’t have their own version of every branded product. Costco doesn’t have their own ketchup, for example.)
What CR found was that many store brands taste as good as, or even better than, well-known brands.
“76 percent of the 70 store-brand products in our test tasted as good as the brand name,” says Amy Keating, RD, who led the test. Equally important: This good taste came at a great price. We compared the average amount we pay for all products and found that store brands typically cost between 5 and 72 percent less per serving than known brands. For example, house-brand ketchup sold at Aldi, Target, and Walmart was rated as close to Heinz’s flavor but cost about 70 percent less. In the salad dressing category, we found the Kroger Creamy Ranch Dressing to be tastier than Hidden Valley Ranch and for about half the price.
When it comes to taste, there were some store brands that didn’t fit the name brand (although most were still cheaper). And in a few cases, the store brand costs more. Read on for all the info on the brands you’ll enjoy eating the most and pay much less.
The iconic Heinz Ketchup – by far the best-selling brand of ketchup in the US – is a unique blend of tangy, sweet and savory tomato flavor flavored with onions and other seasonings. Aldi and Kroger ketchup was slightly less pungent and lacked seasoning. Walmart’s version was mildly spicy with a dominant tomato flavor. Our testers thought these three tasted great, along with the Dollar General and Target versions. And since they’ll save you 62 to 72 percent per serving, a Heinz fan might be just as happy with any of these. Ketchup from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods was also good, but the taste was distinctly different. Unlike Heinz, both had strong brown spice flavors (like allspice and cloves) and tasted more like a mix of ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. Most store brands contained 20 to 30 mg less sodium than the 180 mg in a tablespoon of Heinz, but a similar amount of added sugar as the same brand of ketchup.
With its tangy buttermilk and flavors of dill, onion, garlic, and black pepper, Hidden Valley is a classic ranch dressing. Kroger’s version was that all, but with an absolutely cheesy vibe that our tasters thought could liven up your salad a little more for half the price. The taste and texture of most of the other store brands were similar to Hidden Valley, albeit slightly less tangy and spicy. Whole Foods’ sauce was thin and had a sour flavor that overpowered buttermilk and ranch seasonings. Trader Joe’s version didn’t taste like ranch dressing; It had mild mustard and nutty flavors. Both Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s dressings were slightly lower in fat and calories than other dressings. All had 240 to 290 mg of sodium—which is a lot for 2 tablespoons—so be careful how much you add to your salad.
Organic Frozen Mixed Vegetables
More than 8 out of 10 people who bought frozen vegetables in our survey said they bought a store brand — that’s more than any other food we asked. And that seems like a good move. All the organic frozen vegetables we tested were at least as good as those from national brand Cascadian Farms. They all offer more variety, add green beans to the carrots, corn, and peas you get from the brand-name, and most cost significantly less. The vegetables from Whole Foods tasted better than the name brand—but they cost more, with a slightly crunchy texture and a nice sweetness to corn and peas. Kroger’s vegetables were similar in quality to Whole Foods’ vegetables, but tasted slightly fresher than typical frozen vegetables and cost 21 percent less than the named brand.
All the store-brand breads we tried tasted the same as the established Nature’s Own brand, although they all had slightly different flavors and textures. Nature’s Own bread is slightly chewy and moist. Aldi is slightly less intense. Kroger’s and Walmart’s breads are less moist than Nature’s Own; Kroger’s whole wheat is also slightly sweeter. Target’s is a good choice for whole wheat lovers who prefer the more airy texture of white bread. For a denser whole-wheat bread, opt for loaves from Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Nutritional values vary from product to product, but all have at least 2 grams of fiber per slice and none have more than 2 grams of added sugar. Aldi, Target, and Walmart versions have the least sodium (110 to 115 mg); Whole Foods’ has the most (170 mg per slice). That’s not much, but bread is the most important source of sodium in the US diet because we eat a lot of it.
If you love scooping peanut butter, you can taste the subtle differences between the classic Skippy brand and a number of store-bought brands. Aldi’s and Walmart’s were slightly thicker and Kroger’s slightly less sweet, but all had a similar roasted peanut flavor and saltiness level. Trader Joe’s was thicker and stickier and had a stronger peanut flavor. In a PB&J you probably wouldn’t notice any of these variations. BJ’s and Whole Foods brands are natural, so they’re thinner, a little runny, and not quite as smooth. They also have zero added sugars, so they’re less sweet than the name brand, and BJ’s had less of a roasted peanut flavor. BJs are also 37 percent more expensive than Skippy, probably because it’s organic. The two brands we tasted were not measured: Dollar General’s and Target’s, which have less roasted peanut flavors; Dollar General also tasted less fresh.
CR’s survey revealed that about 4 in 10 yogurt shoppers pass by store brands and instead look for names like Chobani. However, they may want to reconsider this decision. Our testers determined that most store-brand yogurts are just as good as Chobani, and you may not notice any difference, especially when served with sauces or using them in smoothies. The name brand was creamy and had a nice balance of milk flavor and natural tartness. Whole Foods’ yogurt was the closest it came to tasting like it. (Whole Foods’ yogurt is 6 percent more expensive, but organic.) Most other brands tended to be a little more sour than Chobani or Whole Foods’ yogurt, and some — Costco’s and Amazon’s — were a little thicker. Unless you really like a sour yogurt, skip Kroger’s version. All of them were close in terms of nutrition, most had about 100 calories, 17 grams of protein and 15 percent of the daily value for calcium (1,300 mg) per 6-ounce serving.
All the packs of nuts here, even their own brand Planter’s, were sprinkled with 70 percent or more almonds and cashews and other types. For Planter’s, these were hazelnuts, walnuts and pistachios. The name brand was very good, however a few nuts were bitter and over roasted. By choosing Costco’s or Walmart’s brand, you’ll get the tastiest varieties and save a lot of money. Costco’s hazelnuts had fewer broken pieces and a nice roasted flavor. The mix contained large cashew and macadamia halves, as well as almonds, walnuts, and Brazil nuts. Walmart’s nuts, priced 21 percent less than Planter’s, were similar but contained hazelnuts instead of macadamia nuts. Containing walnuts, hazelnuts, and Brazil nuts, Trader Joe’s had the same savings and had the least sodium (20 mg) but also more broken pieces. Some of the nuts in the Aldi packs were bitter and the BJs were less fresh.
Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup
This famous brand soup from Campbell’s has a nice chicken broth and lots of noodles. So does Aldi’s version, which our testers found better because the thinner noodles are tougher—and it costs 47 percent less than Campbell’s. Walmart’s chicken noodle soup tasted close to Campbell’s and was the cheapest in our tests at 22 cents per serving, but the noodles were a bit mushy. As with many canned soups, sodium is a concern, with most brands we tested hovering around 900 mg per 1-cup serving. Kroger’s has 650 mg, but our testers thought the broth was “soft” and some chicken pieces had a soft, spongy texture.
Our tasters found all the syrups they tested delicious, but there were subtle differences in taste and texture, and two things stood out. Butternut Mountain Farms’ branded syrup was thick and buttery and had a strong maple flavor. But BJ’s and Target’s syrups taste better, according to our testers. Butternut had some molasses, while the other two had more complex flavors like caramel (with just a little bit of coconut in the BJ version). Target’s cost our shoppers 3 percent more, but BJ’s was 17 percent cheaper and is organic to boot. For those who like thinner, tastier syrup, organic Costco’s, which are 25 percent cheaper than the brand-name brand, were the best deal. Most other store brands cost about the same as Butternut.
honey oat flakes
Can you fill your morning cereal bowl with a Cheerios imitation that tastes like the real thing but costs much less? The answer is a qualified yes. Our trained tasters detected slightly less intense roasted oats and honey flavors in Trader Joe’s Honey O’s, but close enough, costing 25 cents per serving versus 48 cents for Cheerios despite being slightly higher in added sugars. Walmart’s is also close, while Amazon and Kroger’s are just as tasty but slightly thicker and crunchy. Target’s sweetness was more fruity than honey. Skip Dollar General and Whole Foods cereals, which have a less pronounced oat flavor than Cheerios. And Dollar General had a slightly soapy taste. Whole Foods’ cereal is organic and 14 percent cheaper per serving, but our testers found their O’s to be a little harsh, with some toasty grain flavor.
For the prices paid, Consumer Reports says they can expect you to save money by shopping at store brands at Costco, Aldi, Walmart, and Target most, and Whole Foods the least.
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