During Lifehacker's Mastercheap experiment, I reached the conclusion that house brand foods were often indistinguishable from their mainstream counterparts, despite only costing half as much. A cross-brand comparison by Choice goes one step further and suggests that in some categories store-brand products actually taste better than their big-brand rivals.
Picture by eltimbalino
The nature of Mastercheap -- surviving on a $25 budget with goods bought from a single supermarket -- meant that I didn't get the opportunity to rate how the different house brands (Home Brand or Select for Woolworths, Coles or Smart Buy for Coles, No Frills for IGA, Black & Gold for IGA, and more than I can list for Aldi) compared with each other. Choice's test, which involved 163 products across 10 categories and 30 taste testers, covered that off pretty neatly (though it didn't include anything outside Woolworths, Coles and Aldi).
Choice reinforced one obvious-but-worth restating point: you invariably pay much more for branded goods. If I'd purchased the Mastercheap shopping list with branded goods instead, I'd have paid more than $55 instead of less than $25. Choice's typical basket went up from around $65 to almost $126, SBS reported in its round-up of the survey. (It also found Aldi slightly more expensive than Woolworths, reinforcing that Aldi isn't always cheaper.)
In general, Choice found that Home Brand goods tasted better than Smart Buy, while Aldi's products were "hit and miss". On the taste in specific categories, the results were pretty diverse, but store brand goods were often the champion. For baked beans, Heinz' product ranked at the bottom of the taste results, despite being the premium brand in the space. Home Brand cheese topped the cheese category, and Home Brand ice cream topped that table. On the other hand, tuna and pasta sauce -- two products that were on my Mastercheap list -- ranked poorly for store brands.
There is one important catch in those taste conclusions: Foods that taste better aren't necessarily better for you, since they may well have higher fat and salt content. As such, reading the labels remains an important activity, especially if you're trying to reduce your intake in those areas (which was also one of the minor goals of the Mastercheap project). Choice broke out those items which have similar nutritional value regardless of how much money you spend:
Tim Tam-style biscuits, white and multigrain bread, butter, cornflakes and Weet-Bix-style cereals, apple juice, milk, frozen mixed vegetables, penne pasta, ham, tinned tuna in brine and spreads are all nutritionally comparable between brands, so for these items you should buy on price or taste.
The ultimate strategy for cheap shopping remains the same: sample cheaper goods, and stick with those if they deliver what you want. They won't always do so, but presuming they're automatically inferior will cost you a lot of money. Hit the link for Choice's full results across all the categories.
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