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The results are in and they're ... inconclusive

Unscientific experiment pits generic vs. name-brand food products

Unscientific experiment pits generic vs. name-brand food products

August 13, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

With food prices on the rise, The Herald-Mail wanted to see how generic brands measured up to their name-brand counter parts.

The consensus? There was no consensus.

Four panelists -- three Herald-Mail staffers and one loyal reader -- volunteered for a fun and thoroughly unscientific experiment that aimed to see whether certain name-brand foods were better than their generic brethren. Generic was defined as the store-brand, lesser-known alternative brand or seriously cheaper product. The foods were purchased from six Hagerstown-area grocery stores over the course of a few days.

The panelists tasted unlabeled samples of 11 kinds of foods (see side bar on page C3), tasting a generic and name-brand version of each. There was not a single case in which the majority of panelists preferred the generic food item over the name-brand version. That was because nearly half the time it was a split decision or people did not favor one over the other.

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The fact that generic brands seemed to hold their own could be taken as good news, given the concern over rising food prices. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates food costs will rise 4.5 to 5.5 percent, as retailers pass on rising energy costs and as global demand for food increases.

The consumer price index for all foods, according to the USDA, rose 4 percent between 2006 and 2007 -- the highest increase since 1990.

Panelist Ellen Silverman, a hairstylist in Sharpsburg, said she usually veers toward name brands when she goes shopping because she's a picky eater. She says she's willing to pay more for good-tasting food.

"I was afraid to try anything generic, thinking it's junk," Silverman said.

But she will get processed foods like chips and other snack items from dollar stores.

When asked to pick favorites among fruit bars -- Nutri-Grain vs. Giant brand -- and ice cream -- Breyers vs. Weis brand -- she couldn't. She thought the generic tasted the same as the name brand. She also preferred Wal Mart's Great Value brand mild Italian sausage to Johnsonville mild Italian sausage.

As a whole, the panel preferred name-brand toaster pastries, chips, salsa and soup. But there were split decisions for pop -- Dr. Pepper compared to Food Lion's Dr. Perky -- and cereal, fruit bars, cookies and ice cream.

The only unanimous opinion was that name-brand orange juice, Minute Maid, was better than the generic brand purchased from Aldi Foods, which panelists described as "sour," "flavorless," and tasting "reconstituted."

The results for the Italian sausage were inconclusive because someone ate all the sausage before one of the testers could try it.

In the end, the 11 generic items cost $23.09 with tax, $11.45 less than the name brands -- one-third less. Silverman said if food prices continue to rise, she might have to change her shopping habits.

"Now, maybe I will get generic food," Silverman said.

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