Amy Keating, a senior product tester at Consumer Reports, prepares to conduct a taste test.
Amy Keating, a senior product tester at Consumer Reports, prepares to conduct a taste test. - 
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Listener Daniel Reed in Sacramento, California, has always wondered about the difference between name brand and store brand products.

First, a little history: A&P, America’s biggest grocery chain during the late 19th and early 20th century, sold a much-loved store brand called Ann Page. But store brands didn’t proliferate until the 1970s and the oil crisis. At that point, supermarkets started giving customers the option of a lower-priced product under a simple label, according to food industry consultant Edward Salzano.

“But they were very plain Jane,” he said. “They didn’t look good, and the problem was there was no consistency.”

Then retailers like Walmart, Target and Costco started selling food, too. Supermarkets felt threatened, Salzano says, so they began to concentrate on making products under their own name that would be so good people would return to the store to buy them.

According to Consumer Reports, almost three-quarters of Americans now feel the store brands they buy are as good as the name brand. 

Amy Keating, a senior product tester at Consumer Reports, met me in a lab at the magazine’s headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y. Keating and Tod Marks, a writer for the magazine, let me participate in a ketchup tasting. We sampled a name brand and a store brand, and tried to work out which was which.

Inside the Consumer Reports lab, ketchup and cranberry juice are set up for a taste test.
Inside the Consumer Reports lab, ketchup and cranberry juice are set up for a taste test.   - 

I liked the first ketchup I tasted, and found the second brand a bit too strongly flavored. But Marks carried on about the second ketchup as if it was a fine wine. “It’s very harmonious,” Marks said, savoring a final taste. “It’s in your face, without being a punch to the face … it’s very balanced, very flavorful.” 

That second brand, it turns out, was Heinz. The one I liked? It was Target’s brand, and it was 40 percent cheaper. A store brand can taste just as good as a name brand — at least to some of us.

But there are some trade-offs. For example, some store brands taste like imitations. Store brands also tend to be behind on innovation, so the packaging may lack finesse.

A lot of different food manufacturers make the brands: some you’ve never heard of, but others are well known, Marks said. For instance, Sara Lee, famous for its pound cake, is huge in the private label cold-cut market.

In the food market, there is little regulation regarding keeping ingredients consistent across brands. But in the drug market, the FDA requires retailers to include the same active ingredients in the over-the-counter remedies as the brands they’re imitating. For example, Theraflu and CVS Severe Cold and Cough contain the same active ingredients. 

But the Theraflu costs $7.99, and the CVS brand is only $5.99.

If store brands are good quality and cheaper, why do we keep buying name brands? 

The answer is a combination of advertising and human nature, Marks said. “A lot of people just blindly accept this is the best because it’s what they’ve always done,” he says. “People are creatures of habit.”

Sometimes there’s nothing more comforting than familiarity, even if it comes at a cost.

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