We all wonder if there is really a difference between name brand products and their generic counterparts, and that question doesn’t stop when we enter the grocery store. Instead, it runs rampant as we are confronted with choices that range from store branded products of all kinds alongside their name brand equivelents. As our wallets get thinner, we question it even more.
Is there really any difference between name brand and generic products?
I would have answered the question far differently in the past than I would today, but today, I would have to say yes, there is often a difference. The real question is whether or not the differences will matter to you, the consumer.
Recently, I compared products, sticking to products that theoretically would have no difference: salt and sugar.
In salt, there was very little difference when comparing iodized table salt. Sometimes there are more lumps or slightly larger crystals in the generic, but the overall comparison showed almost no difference in appearance, taste or texture. This is also a very cheap product, with even the brand name not being particularly expensive.
Sugar showed more variation in price and in quality. There was a more noticeable difference between generic and name brand (domino’s) sugar. The name brand was more consistent in granule size and there were virtually no lumps, and certainly no large, excessively hard lumps. Past experience with generic sugar has shown me that it may have large lumps that do not break up easily and require liquids to dissolve, but the comparison bag didn’t have any of that size. It did have many lumps that broke up with a small amount of pressure applied. Once again, it is up to the consumer to decide whether the lumps are an acceptable inclusion for a less expensive product.
In powdered or confectioner’s sugar, the difference was still there. There were virtually no lumps in the name brand (domino’s) confectioner’s sugar, and no need to sift to remove them, making its use in such things as glazes and frostings a simple process of measuring the sugar. Generic, on the other hand, was impossible unless it was sifted. It had many pea sized lumps and some lumps of larger size. These lumps did not break up in the sifter, nor did they immediately dissolve in liquids, retaining their shape as a “lump” in the finished product. It was unattractive and annoying to use it without sifting. Therefore, your choice of generic versus name brand would hinge on final use: if you are dusting donuts with powdered sugar, the lumps are not a problem. If you are making glazes or frostings, the lumps are unacceptable. What’s the point of paying less if the finished product is not right?
Overall, my experience has indicated that name products are consistent in taste and quality, and generic products are more of a hit-and-miss option. Most store brands are produced at the same factory with the same ingredients, so once you have sampled them, you can expect them to remain largely the same. Often, the factory is noted on the side of the can or package, helping the consumer to ensure that it is the same product previously purchased.
If the slight differences are acceptable (they are often merely cosmetic differences) then the generic product CAN be a great asset in staying on-budget for your groceries. I typically purchase store brand dairy products such as milk, whipping cream, half and half, butter, and cheese, without noticing any difference in quality in comparison to the name brand products. There IS a difference that can be noticed and tasted when comparing either name brand or generic products to a “premium” product. Premium products are often small production, locally produced products. In the dairy department, they often specify that they are obtained from a particular kind of cow such as “Jersey” or from a particular type of farm such as “organic” or “free range”. Premium products are rarely sold in mass market stores such as chain groceries.
Are the premium products really worth the extra money?
That’s a tough question–it depends. They often have better taste and texture, and are often better for the environment. Advocates also claim that the premium products contain fewer additives or are safer because of reduced chemical exposure. Scoffers claim that how the product is produced does not result in chemical differences that are passed on to our bodies. Going on purely taste, texture, and appearance, seasoned by my own budget, I typically will purchase premium products to use in situations that taste matters a LOT, as in butter for a holiday meal’s fresh bread, premium cheese for a cheese board over the holidays, or creamery produced cream for those first fresh strawberries of the season. These are all situations in which the product is used as it comes from the source, and it is then served uncooked or unaltered from its original state. Example: That small batch butter DOES have a wonderful taste, but would it really be passed on if I’m using it to fry eggs?
Some products, due to chemical exposure, are of more benefit to buy organic than others that are normally not exposed to many chemicals along the way to the market. Even so, buying organic vegetables that are sad, tired, wilted and obviously aging faster than a rock star…are a poor buy compared to fresh, mass produced vegetables that are still as perky as a college student. Each and every trip to the grocery store is an evaluation of value, and the shopper needs to choose according to price and product.