The Taste Test Showdown: Generics vs. Name Brand

January 13, 2016

The economy of generics

A secret lies hidden between rows of products on grocery store shelves: many generic products are exactly the same as their name brand counterparts (other than the packaging). Most Americans didn’t figure this out until the Great Recession. After the market crash of 2008 and the ensuing economic doldrums, many Americans became open to buying—or at least, trying—generic store brand products. In some ways, this was helped by the fact that retailers spent much of the previous decade or more figuring out ways to rebrand beyond the clichéd generic product—you’ve probably seen it in movies or TV shows: white label, black writing, and matter-of-fact product names. Stores rolled out brands dubbed “private selection” or other marketing techniques aimed at convincing consumers their cheaper alternatives didn’t represent a drop in quality.

Personal finance experts usually point to things like medication, cleaning supplies, or paper products for examples where generic versions are preferable since so many of those products are highly regulated by the Federal government. I don’t know about you, but that’s not really where most of my grocery bill goes. I came to a realization: ultimately, if I’m to believe generics can offer adequate substitutes for products I normally go to the grocery store to buy, I would need to buy some (gasp) generic food.

This wouldn’t be easy. Try telling a kid their fruit rollup is about to be replaced by a “fruit-flavored gelatin strip” or whatever they’d call it, and see how calm they stay. Even though I’m an adult, the vestige of that sentiment is still ingrained in my mind. Having acknowledged my fear of the unknown, I immediately ruled out my own fragile palette as the arbiter of generic flavor. Fortunately, I was able to turn to two people who I knew would give me good answers. They also happened to be the only two people in the room at the time: my wife, Kate, and her mother, Margaret.

The taste tests

The first test would be between Jif Natural Creamy Peanut Butter, and the generic competitor would be Target Market Pantry Natural Creamy Peanut Butter. With about a $1 difference in price, if the generic could somehow pull it out, saving money on this rich, creamy pantry staple would be a big help to our weekly grocery budget. I put about a tablespoon of each spread on a small plate, and gave each of them a graham cracker to spoon it up.

Peanut Butter
Margaret: “I like a more solid peanut butter, and the generic was better. They were both good, but I preferred it over the name brand”
Kate: “I knew right away which PB was which, and although they were both fine, I preferred the name brand.”
Verdict: Split decision

The next test was between Green Giant Baby Sweet Peas and Target’s Simply Balanced brand Organic all-natural peas. The generic was cheaper by around $0.50. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law was unavailable, so the challenge would fall once again to Kate, and this time to someone potentially even more discerning: our 8-month old son Simon. I gave Kate a spoonful of each brand, and our son got a couple ounces of puréed, bright green goodness.

Frozen Vegetables
Kate: “I really couldn’t tell the difference, they tasted pretty much the same.” 
Simon: [not altogether displeased gurgling noises]
Verdict: taste being equal, generic takes the victory

After seeing the results of the first two tests, I determined it would be irresponsible of me not to take part in the final test—that, and the fact my wife pointed out our infant did it, and if our infant can do it, I should probably do it. The final product was yet another staple, and one wrought with pitfalls: pasta sauce. The two contenders were Newman’s Own Marinara and Target’s Market Pantry Traditional pasta sauce. I spooned a bit of sauce onto a small portion of spaghetti, and the results were dramatic.

Pasta sauce
Kate: “You can tell the difference. The generic is really gross.”
Me: “It’s really, really bad. I wouldn’t feed this to my worst enemy.”
Verdict: name brand all the way

There you have it. A scientific(ish) study has determined—drum roll please—it really matters which product you’re talking about when it comes to generics. Individual taste plays a role as well, and ultimately it comes down to your own willingness to venture into the unknown. Hey, if I can shrug off my inner picky eater, you can too.

Do you have any generic products you swear by? We’d love to hear about them, so leave them in the comments section below!