How I decide between generic vs brand name foods at the supermarket

Grocery shopping is an eternal balancing act between cost and quality, which is why I've created a personal guide to what I pay more for and what I buy cheaply.

Grocery shopping is an ongoing balancing act. On one hand, I want to reduce the weekly bill to its absolute minimum, but on the other, I don’t want to scrimp on quality. Much of this comes down to the debate between brand names vs. generic varieties of food. The latter saves a lot more money than the former, but it’s interesting how attached we human shoppers become to our preferred brand names and are willing to pay more just for a label.

Professional chefs, according to a study cited by NPR, are more likely to buy generic baking ingredients (i.e. flour, baking powder and soda, sugar, mixes), soups, spreads, dips, and tea than the rest of us; but when it comes to yogurt, ice cream, dried grains, and cereal, they’re all about the brand names.

While there’s no right or wrong, I think it comes down to personal experience with the individual ingredients. Over years of cooking, I’ve compiled a list of what I’ll buy for the cheapest prices and what I always pay more for. The important thing is to read the ingredient lists and know that the cheaper brands are loaded with additives, fillers, and other unnecessary gunk.

Finally, because of my Zero Waste aspirations, I do shop based on packaging. If a cheaper, generic item comes in a non-recyclable plastic bag versus the more expensive brand name in a paper bag, I’ll go for the second option.

DAIRY

I lean toward brand names while selecting dairy products. I’ve had bad experiences with plastic-textured blocks of cheese that melt in strange ways when I buy generic brands. Buying a brand also allows me to support a local dairy.

Generic:
Cottage cheese
Milk
Ricotta
Sour cream

Brand name:
Block cheese (mozzarella, cheddar)
Butter
Cream cheese

FREEZER AISLE

When it comes to frozen produce, there’s no difference between generic and brand name, and the former is half the price. I just make sure it’s still a product of Canada (where I live).

Generic:
Frozen vegetables
Frozen fruit
Juice concentrate
Phyllo and puff pastries

Brand name:
Ice cream

CANNED GOODS

I’m a finicky shopper in terms of ethics, as many of my shopping decisions revolve around where an item was produced, under what circumstances, how far it has travelled, and whether it meets certain standards. With canned fish, I buy pricey brand names because I want MSC-certified and dolphin-friendly.

Generic:
Beans (same for dried)
Canned vegetables
Baked beans

Brand name:
Smoked herring
Sardines
Salmon and tuna
Coconut milk (free from additives)

CONDIMENTS

Generic:
Ketchup
Mustard
Relish
All vinegars, except balsamic
Spices

Brand name:
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Mayonnaise
Coconut oil
Peanut and almond butters

BAKING

This is the biggest area of generic shopping for me. The only difference is when I can source fair-trade ingredients (which is difficult in my small town), then I buy those specific brands.

Generic:
Flour
Baking powder and soda
Shortening
Raw oats
Coconut
Nuts

Brand name:
Sugar
Chocolate (always fair trade)

MEAT

There’s nothing I buy generic when it comes to meat because, basically, I think it’s unethical. Aside from the obvious arguments that certain people will raise as to whether I should be eating meat in the first place, I prefer to buy small amounts of high quality, hormone-free, grass-fed meat from a local butcher shop that sources everything within a 50 mile radius of town. Eggs comes from a friend's free-range chickens.

Tags: Food Miles | Food Safety | Fruits & Vegetables | Shopping

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