Mastercheap: Why House Brands Matter So Much

Mastercheap: Why House Brands Matter So Much

Just how much difference would it have made to the Mastercheap project if I hadn’t relied almost entirely on store brand products? An enormous amount, it turns out.

Of the 18 items which I bought on the Mastercheap shopping list, only two weren’t Home Brand items: the cucumber and the bread. (It turns out that I apparently could have purchased Home Brand bread as well, though it’s a rare sight in my local Woolworths.)

I’ve already explained at some length how I could have bought the same shopping list at virtually any major Australian supermarket for the same overall cost. In the world of house brands, price competition is keen. But there’s a related issue I haven’t yet addressed: just how much money would I have spent if I’d decided not to go with house brands?

While this clearly isn’t an option if you choose to shop at Aldi, it’s eminently possible in many other supermarkets. One study earlier this year suggested that nearly one in ten Australians refuse to buy house brands as a matter of principle, either because they don’t believe the quality is adequate or because they prefer to support independent brands.

Whatever the reasoning, this can prove to be a very expensive decision. As a research exercise, I priced how much it would have cost me to purchase the Mastercheap shopping list at the same Woolworths supermarket while shunning any Home Brand items. I didn’t automatically select the most expensive item on offer: I opted for the one I’d buy myself if price wasn’t an issue. (In a couple of cases, that still meant a store-brand product, albeit a premium-branded one.)

The difference was quite staggering. A shopping list that cost me $24.83 rocketed upwards to $55.03. Remember that this was to purchase exactly the same foodstuffs in practical terms: I wouldn’t have been eating any differently in terms of number of meals or snacks or additional flavourings. I’d just have paid more than twice as much.

That figure ought to give you pause the next time you automatically reach for a “name brand” product. But there’s another important element, of course: the question of whether you get the same quality for the money. (For the sake of this discussion, I’m ignoring questions relating to country of origin, organic status or the like: people who plan their shopping on that basis aren’t looking at it in terms of dollars in their pocket.)

When this issue was last discussed on Lifehacker, the general consensus was that house brand products needed to be judged on a case-by-case basis: some were fine, others were unpleasant, and the only way to learn was to try them. On that basis, I figure it’s worth talking about how the generic products I’ve sampled so far this week stack up against name-brand products I’m familiar with. Here’s my take:

  • Margarine: I like the flavour of olive oil-based spreads better, but actually didn’t find anything to object to with table spread.
  • Tinned tomatoes: My step-aunt told me she shunned Home Brand tomatoes as they were a bit too “green” and “endy”, but I didn’t find that myself.
  • Tinned kidney beans: No difference.
  • Eggs: I normally buy free-range eggs, and I do think they taste a little better — but quite honestly they don’t taste twice as good, which is what they cost.
  • UHT skim milk: No difference to the name brand (and no difference to fresh milk for my purposes, though I know some people say they can taste a difference).
  • Unsalted peanuts: No difference.
  • Packet cake: It’s so long since I purchased a branded packet cake I can’t really compare, but I can note that conventional brands (White Wings, Greens et al) are three to four times the price and generally aim for rather more complex cakes.
  • Jelly: No difference
  • Dry pasta: No difference.
  • Mixed vegetables: I don’t buy frozen mixed vegetables enough to have a basis for comparison. Haven’t found them at all objectionable though.
  • Mustard: No difference.
  • Pasta sauce: As I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s pretty salty. Given a free hand, for once I’d rather make my own.
  • Tuna: No difference.
  • Tropical muesli: No difference.
  • Tea bags: A bit hard to compare as I normally don’t drink tea black, but they taste fine.

For the record, there are definitely house brand products outside this list that I shun at all times (not all of them food), and plenty of items where you’ve got no choice but to plump for a brand item anyway (Vegemite, exotic spices). However, on these kinds of staples, it seems evident to me that going with the store brand will save you a bundle and won’t make a difference to the quality of what you eat.

Which house brand items do you find particularly good value? Share your finds in the comments.

Lifehacker’s weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money. The Mastercheap experiment sees editor Angus Kidman trying to survive with a weekly food budget of just $25.


  • Problem with a lot of store brands is they do not cater for allergies. My partner, a coeliac frequently finds third party brands that she can eat, replaced by store branded items that she cannot. This proves that they’re cheaper for a reason, and sometimes you simply have to pay for the more expensive product.

  • I rant here a lot about the bad things about living in rural Australia, but the best thing is I pay $2.50 a dozen for eggs, I can meet the chickens who lay them, they are delivered to my door by a local farmer, they are big, have really yellow yolks and are quite regularly a “double yolker”. Best eggs ever? I think so. I miss the days when you could get milk out of the vats, but regulations wont let you any more. There was nothing nicer than the super creamy milk. Ah well. I’ve still got me eggs!

  • I’m surprised you’ve found no difference in the tuna. I regularly buy tuna and have tried the home brand options from time to time only to be very disappointed each time. I find it is always very bland in flavour, not very well held together – more little pieces then chunks, and not very pink, actually quite grey at times.

    I used to buy home brand UHT milk mainly because I use so little of it, but one day I was forced to buy the name brand stuff because they were out of home brand and I found that while the taste is similar (the 4 drops in my coffee anyway), the name brand stuff lasts a lot longer. I know your only supposed to keep it for 5 days after opening, but I keep it in my fridge for up to 6 weeks without it going off, couldn’t to that with the home brand stuff.

    • With the tuna, it might well depend on the context it gets eaten in — mine was well blended in with veges and pasta so I wasn’t so concerned about the structure.

    • I’d imagine you have some funky bacteria fighting stomach juices… not to mention a damaged palate.

      I find name brand UHT milks go off within a week – two if you’re lucky.

      6 weeks sounds like too much of a health risk <_<

  • I try to steer clear of artificial flavours, colours and preservatives in my food and have found myself buying more and more Woolworths Select products as they seem to be fee of these things or have less in them than their third party cousins, other than that for me it depends entirely on taste, if I like the taste and its cheaper I’ll buy it.

  • I think it’s good that we have cheep House brands options but have you looked at how supermarkets are affecting growers? It’s a big issue in NZ and I know the Ozzie farmers and growers are feeling the push for cheaper everything.

    • It’s definitely a problem from the grower/supplier perspective, but (as noted in the FAQ and in this article) if you’re shopping on a very tight budget, it’s frankly not an issue you’re likely to consider.

      • Angus your right it’s not and issue when your on a tight budget. But when your talking about pros and cons House brands it’s something to consider. D

  • I noticed that my local BP has dropped the price of a loaf of bread back down to 99c. Not bad bread, especially since they have a wholemeal and multigrain option…

    This is in Adelaide, not sure if other states have the same advantage… 🙂

  • I found myself comparing name brand with low-end house brand tinned tomatoes last week. To my surprise, the house brand ones contained tomatoes and tomato juice, while the brand name one contained sugar and “thickeners” as well… The energy content was about the same, which has me thinking there could even be less tomato in the brand name one (given the sugar would increase kj’s).

    I bought the brand name in the end because I didn’t want to risk the unknown product but next time I’ll probably give the house brand a go.

    • Shane, that’s very true.
      I came to AU some time ago, and the first thing I noticed was the price of bread. While other products cost in average the same, bread is 3-5 times more expensive than in my home country.
      Now I’m considering buying a breadmaker, but concerns about my figure stop me from an immediate action 🙂

  • When I was younger and used to service forklifts for a living, I noticed that many name brand food manufacturers simply placed their same name brand products into supermarket brand containers. The food was the same, just the containers or wrappers were different.

    So I now almost always buy no name or house brand products in preference as I often see no difference. And I swear the black and gold plain potato chips taste just like Smiths (a lot cheaper though).

    However, when it comes to Earl Grey Tea, I just have to have Twinnings. It tastes better. Oh yes, and Vegemite.

  • My issues are with how local the Supermarket brands are. If they’re not made as much from Australian ingredients as they reasonably can be and a name brand is, that’s a reason for me to take the name brand, it’s a massive cut to the energy consumption in my food and a boost to the Australian economy.

    Supermarket-brand milk I will now never touch at Coles and Woolworths after seeing a documentary on how the lower price is taken from the farmers not the Supermarket’s profits, meaning the farmers get almost nothing for dealing with the big two Supermarkets.

  • I know that this was an exercise in cheap living, but there is absolutely no way to justify buying cage eggs. I cannot understand how you could advocate this. Someone else said it earlier in the week: if money is too tight in your budget for (genuinely) free range eggs then you just don’t buy eggs at all.

      • I agree. Improving chicken living condition is a luxury ideal. Same as buying a non-petrol car to save the environment, or riding to work instead of driving, or not eating any meats at all to save the animals, or not buying anything packaged in paper to save the trees, or plastic to save the environment, or buying fruit because the tree was hurt from the picking, or never buying from a shop that opens with workers on a sunday (yes that is a no no for some people).
        If I were a millionaire that could live on air alone and not produce any wastes, never need to travel more or faster than I could walk, I would indeed keep almost everyones principles satisfied! But even then I would be pissing off someone.

    • Everyone keeps harping on about the eggs, I’m surprised these same people aren’t concerned about the tuna. Unsustainable fisheries and all… Just sayin’.

  • I usually buy the house brand of tinned tomatoes, but I’m thinking of reconsidering. Often the house brand is just as good (and often, it’s lower in salt, which is a plus, too), but the quality seems to vary quite a lot. Perhaps it’s seasonal? In any case, because this makes a big difference to the final taste of my sauces and stews, I’m starting to think it might be worth forking out for the consistency of a premium brand.

    • For tinned tomatoes I just buy a good 20 tins when they are super cheap. Homebrand where I am sits at 99c a can. The nicer ones go for 69c a can every now and then and thats when I stock up 🙂

  • I would have to disagree on a number of items:

    – pasta: I tried no-name pasta, assuming that there can’t be that many pasta manufacturers, and even if there were, how different could the recipes be? I was wrong… the no-name pasta definitely tasted different to the brand names like Barilla and San Remo.

    – tuna: I agree with the other commenter that no-brand tuna can often be disgustingly grey and slimy. And often very broken up.

    – muesli: big, big range of quality between no-names and certain brand names. There’s no comparison between no-name and Carmen’s for example.

    – Tea bags: no-name tea-bags might be tolerable but they’re nowhere near as nice as T2 for example.

    • Tea-bags versus T2 isn’t exactly like with like — the relevant comparison would presumably be with Lan-choo or Twinings or other bagged tea you could buy in a supermarket.

  • Teabags: home brand vs. Dilmah. 😉

    I think your argument is valid: in some cases you will find that generic-brand items aren’t much different from other choices, and that you can save a significant amount of money by buying them.

    Now I can afford it, I find a product which supplies what I want, and stick to it unless it changes. So far, I’ve always found key differences between generic-brand and some name-brand products, but those differences wouldn’t count as much if my budget were pinched.

    The area I’ve found where the difference between generic and brand names is highest is paper products: tissues, kitchen paper and toilet paper. Although I have a long-standing beef with Kleenex for associating Swan Lake with toilet paper in my mind at a formative age, I have to admit that their paper products are superior.

  • I was recently told that the Homebrand fresh milk contain – thickners, mainly flour and this is why they are able to sell them so much cheaper than the more expesive brands. After looking at the ingredients label, I found that there was nothing to suggest this to be the case. Does anyone know anything on this idea?

    • It reeks of urban myth to me. I can’t imagine that any major supermarket chain would think it could flout labelling laws and get away with it (especially on a product such as milk, which is already politically sensitive).

      The usual reasoning behind store brand milks being cheaper is that the supermarkets have got farmers tied into highly restrictive and often only marginally profitable deals.

      • I think you’ll find that Milk is one of the most highly regulated products in the country. The milk wars are Coles and Woolies selling the milk close to cost to gain market share and devalue the product. Before long Pura and the other milk brands will have to give up milk to go to value added products or drop their prices to compete with the big fellas. The farm gate price has a set miniimum and the milk itself has presecribed minimum levels of fats, proteins etc in various types of milk (full fat (whole milk) skim, lite etc.

        What you will find is that the supermarket brands, actually the big brands too, where milk is processed in the same factory as cheses and other dairy products a byproduct of cheesemaking (permeate or whey) is added back in to the milk. The milk will still meet the standards because the 3.8% of fat or whatever percentage of protein is there, but it is using up an otherwise waste product therefore making the cost of the milk cheaper = greater profit margin. The beauty is that the consumer never gets to know because as permeate whey came out of the milk during the first filtering process – where the cream gets taken to go to make cheese the remenant whey from the cheesemaking goes back into the milk. taken out then put back in = not an ingredient.

        All this to make a natural variable product (Milk direct from cow differs in the spring to the milk of other seasons) be standardised, the same no matter what time of year.

        There are very few dairys that produce milks that are permeate free. One of them is the Aussie Farmers Direct dairy at Camperdown, another is Sungold from Warnambool – there will be other small brands around the country but you’ll have to do actual research to find them.

        So in short. Yes substances are added to the milk to “stretch it” but because of the source of the substance it’s not required to be labelled as an addition.

  • I always get supermarket branded tissues (from Coles). Granted they’re not foodstuffs, but they’re still “home brand” products. There may be a little difference in the quality but not for the 2-3x price increase you’d get from a packet of Kleenex.

  • Free range eggs are the one thing I wont skimp on. Yeah, it will cost more, and the taste is not that much different, but for me, it’s about the welfare of the chicken more than the taste of the egg.

  • There are some “brand name” brands whose product is no better than, and in some cases worse then, the home brands (store brands). For example, in a contest between Coles brand and Edgell tinned goods, I think the Coles brand will be the better product. Same with Patties pies. And a few other things.

    Coles brand in some cases will aim for some kind of competitive edge, like having lower salt or preservatives, or the frozen party pies being 100% beef, not mutton. In not all cases will they beat some other brand, but there are some like this.

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