There's no real science behind knowing when to buy generic or store-brand foods, and when to stick to your favorite (and probably more expensive) name brand. But we all know that you'll do your grocery bill a serious favor when you shun labels. Think of it this way: name brand foods are subsidizing their own marketing, so you're often paying for more than what will end up on your plate.
Over the years and with countless taste tests, I've compiled my own list of when to buy brand and when to buy the item at the bottom of the shelf with the lowest price tag.
A recent study, released by NPR, surveyed a group of chefs in hopes of discovering what the pros prefer. In general, chefs buy more generic items than the average grocery shopper. Baking items, frozen foods (except ice cream), and condiments are common generic choices, but ice cream, yogurt, and cereal were preferred name brand options. So maybe there is a science to this. And maybe it's only taught in culinary school.
Deli & Dairy
There are always pros and cons to buying generic or brand. We put a lot of trust in our favorite brands and have higher expectations for the quality or flavor. Dairy products are usually some of the easiest products to pass the taste test, especially cheeses, creams, and milks. I always check ingredient lists before going generic, and dairy products are usually pretty straightforward. Often, the milk used in the products comes from cows in a similar area or region.
One general rule, however, is to skip the generic yogurt: it usually features extra additives and sugars, and distinct quality and texture differences distinguish brands.
- Cheese (always)
- Sour cream
- Cream cheese
- Milk (usually shipped from similar areas)
- Fruit juice (depends on the type of juice)
- Iced tea
Almost every major grocery store today offers generic meat. Sounds questionable, but it's really usually very comparable. Generally, I've never noticed a difference, unless I'm specifically looking for hormone- and antibiotic-free meats, which are always name brand.
- Lunch meat
- Frozen seafood
- Ground meats
Pantry & Baking
Stocking your pantry with generic is probably the easiest way to cut back on your grocery bill. If you're skeptical, try baking products first. Generic flours, sugars, salts, nuts, and grains (such as oats) are almost always indistinguishable from name brands. Canned beans and vegetables can be half or less the price of brand cans.
- Condiments (especially yellow mustard)
- Cereal (this one can go either way; a favorite granola is generic)
- Raw oats
- Dried fruits, such as raisins and cranberries
- Canned beans
- Canned vegetables
- Canned fruit
I use frozen fruits in smoothies or baking and frozen vegetables in stir-fry, so I always buy these generic. The flavors of those foods make any differences in the fruit or vegetable impossible to detect.
- Frozen fruit
- Frozen vegetables
Do you buy generic? If so, which foods? Which items must always be name brand?
(Image credits: Michaela Cisney)