The generic brand conundrum

Generic brands.  They are everywhere and they are growing in market share.  When I was younger it seemed pretty simple.  On basic staples there wasn’t much, if any difference in quality, but the prices were often much lower.  And the mantra was: all you’re paying for in a branded item is a fancy label and millions and millions of dollars in advertising.  So, with my own frugal mindset, I’ve tended to buy generic brands when I couldn’t find a quality difference.

But as I’ve grown older my outlook has become more nuanced.  And  lately I’ve been hearing other ideas. About how the supermarkets  that produce the generic brands are driving what they pay to the farmers and producers down and down and down.  About how we could end up eventually with the generic brands holding a monopoly for some items, and then what happens to the price?  Or that the generic brands may out compete the local products and we have no choice but to buy imported food for certain items.

Now my frugal brain is clashing with my ethical brain.  And it seems to be coming down to an item by item choice.  I no longer buy generic brand pure soap as the only other producer is an Australian company (but I can’t tell any difference in quality between the two brands).  I still buy generic brand salt (iodised, I care about my family’s thyroid functioning!).  When I switched to organic milk, I switched to branded milk as well (I also have concerns about industrialised organics but that’s another post).  I still buy generic brand sugar (why? I think because I use sooo much of it in jams and other preserves that my frugal brain is winning).  I still buy generic brand tinned tomatoes – but I now only buy the tins labelled  “Australian tomatoes”.

Frugal, ethical, green, local, seasonal, organic, humane, free-range, fair-trade, carbon-footprint, water footprint, heirloom, slow-food….  It’s a continual labyrinth filled with my own personal experiences and preferences, scientific facts, ethical arguments, time and money constraints, and lots of grey areas.  I think the journey is as important as the destination.  Luckily, it’s a journey I enjoy!

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78 Responses to The generic brand conundrum

  1. cindy says:

    My goodness, this has really made me think and realise that I am extremely brand-loyal. Good post.

    • Bee says:

      Hi Cindy, I have to admit that I wrote this post over a week ago and have been considering whether or not to publish it since. I was a bit worried that I might lose any food street-cred that I had built up since I started blogging if I admitted to buying generic instead of brands for some food items. But then, I don’t want this blog to be just another trendy foodie blog, I want it to be real and it’s an issue that I really am currently dealing with. So, I’m glad you found it interesting and that it’s making you think too – rather than destroying my food credibility! 🙂 Bee

  2. CrystalSpins says:

    On some items I just can’t substitute the generic. Box macaroni and cheese for example. Gotta have Kraft. I don’t know if it is all in my head or what, but the other ones taste awful to me.

    Crystal
    http://www.crystalspins.com

    • Bee says:

      Hi Crystal, I agree, once you get outside basic staples, then generic branded foods don’t tend to be as good

    • LOL!!! I agree on the SAME item! I was just having this conversation last week with a friend about substituting SOME items and other items being brand name! Frozen or canned veggies, some canned foods, and sometimes bread…yea I will generic those, but pasta, cereal, and some dairy…NAME BRAND ALL THE WAY! It might be a thing of, ‘my mom used this when I was growing up’….creature of habit!

      Great post!!!

      http://www.happinesswhatsittoyou.wordpress.com

  3. Generic brands have essentially become their own brands here in Ontario. I’m not certain if this has increased the prices at all, but sometimes the quality is even better than branded items. I haven’t heard anything about generic brands causing price drops for their providers – I will certainly have to investigate this. All I know is that when I can do so, I buy items direct from farmers, and the rest is mostly about the money. Can I afford to splurge and buy real peanut butter, or is it No Name (that’s the generic brand name) again? I find that bland yellow container tends to win out more often than not. Now I have something to think about…

    • Bee says:

      Hi She.Is.Just.A.Rat – wow once generic brands are considered brands i guess that means there is a lot of acceptance of them. Interestng that quality is sometimes even better

  4. kim says:

    I think life is complicated (oh, really?!) and that there isn’t always one answer, or way of responding, for anything. I think being honest about what you’re writing about and possibly turning people on to thinking about what they’re buying, and why, only boosts your food-cred.
    Nice post. Thanks. 🙂

    • Bee says:

      Thanks Kim! Very nice to hear! I’m learning that sometimes the very fact that something is a little bit controversial or different means that is it most likely to be the most interesting. I know this sounds obvious, but it can get a bit confused when it’s you putting yourself out there into the blogosphere.

  5. James says:

    huhmm. interesting. i always try and go for the tesco own brand but never really thought down the line … monopolization … effect on farmers etc … crazy things can happen when supermarkets dominate. for the post 🙂

  6. Tell me about it. There is so much to consider it almost takes the fun out of eating… almost. Even if you think you’re doing the right thing there are so many variables to consider you might go mad and you might still be wrong after all. For example, generic brands might be driving the price down on farmers, but who’s to say that the name brands aren’t doing the exact same thing and still charging outrageous prices? How much traveling is the product doing? In order to eat healthier and more ethically are you buying products that have been shipped around the world twice over contributing to pollution? My wife gets really worked up over these questions. I am concerned too but sometimes I just have to shut my mind up and just enjoy myself or I’d go nuts…. she’s halfway there.

    • Bee says:

      Very good point on how name brands good also be driving down the price they pay to farmers. I’m glad you’re still enjoying your food journey despite all issues. This blog is partly because I’d like to up the ante on the enjoyment side of things

  7. Mike says:

    i buy nothing but generics because i’m on such a tight budget. I will admit that its somewhat embarassing to walk around the supermarket with a shopping cart full of nothing but those “white label” goods, but like you said, there is little to no difference in many of the products. Certain things taste different and on those things i splurge on, otherwise i’ll continue paying 48 cents for cans of beans 🙂

    • Bee says:

      Yeah, when I was a student my generic brand purchases made up a larger proportion of my food purchases. And part of the reason why I keep purchasing them is because we are still on a budget. One of the great things about generic brands is that they allow people on a budget to eat a much wider variety of foods

  8. Whole Foods has a great store brand and it’s price reasonably. I’m a slave to brand names but lately (when $$ is tight) I’ve been opting for the generic if it’s a significantly lower price.

    • Bee says:

      Yeah I think part (all?) of the reason that the generic brands have been increasing in market share is because so many more people are now on tighter budgets

  9. Ya gotta make choices based upon the circumstances. Right now, I have no job – and generic is about all I can afford.

  10. I learned my lesson on generic dishwashing detergent. It wa not nearly as good as the brand name item. I think basic food staples such as sugar is fine but when it comes to cleaning, the generic brands are not as powerful. Great post!

    • Bee says:

      Oh yes, I have learnt the same lesson with dishwashing detergent. It is so weak that you need so much and so I think it works out more expensive. Yeah I generally only buy generic brand for real basic staples like sugar, tinned tomatoes, frozen peas, kitchen paper towels and not anything much that is made up of a number of ingredients

  11. Leah says:

    Great post! I too struggle with whether to buy generic. I do the bulk of my shopping at a Trader Joe’s and farmers markets. But when I do shop at the grocery stores, the generic pricing is tempting. But I’ve always wondered if it’s really the same as the name brand or not. As I’m going more organic, I too, feel like not buying as much generic. Although I did pick up a generic brand of flour the other day. Who knows!

    • Bee says:

      Thanks! I find the generic brand flour is good. Although this may be because Australian wheat is so “hard” that even the generic flour is good. Not sure on that one

  12. MYD says:

    Great to hear that this is not a lonely journey … keep on!!

  13. iafarmwife says:

    Like this a lot… people need to really research their food choices… not just spout nonsense that they heard from someone on facebook, or on a food label. As a consumer AND a food producer….I am personally thankful we have so many choices!!
    iafarmwife.wordpress.com

  14. You make a good point. Is using genereic driving down the prices too low for farmers? Should we be using local products no matter what? Should the kitchen larder be filled with in-season and locally grown produce or do we continue to depend on all of the fruit flown in from all over the world? Tough questions to ask and answer.

  15. I recently wrote about the loss of real food in our diets, and I worry that generic food takes us down the same dangerous path. A generic, unbranded food item gives very little information about where it comes from, and there is nobody standing behind the supposed quality. With a branded product, at least the brand itself is at stake – which gives some power to the consumer if they fail to deliver on their promise.

    Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  16. leavemehere says:

    What about when generic brands ARE better? Homebrand green soft drink, EPIC!

  17. ivanbissell says:

    Generic labeled foodis still food and much of it is just as great as the name brand food which is usually over-priced. Once in a while, nothing but name brands will do but there are other times when a person can nottaste the difference.

  18. I feel it really depends on the item. Generic sugar, cereal, dish soap, sauces and mixes populate my cupboards. However, in boils down to the quality. I’ve yet to find decent generic peanut butter (not a staple in Australia, I realize, but a BIG one here in Canada!) or cheese! For me-I’ll try it once, but if the quality isn’t there, I’ll pay more!

  19. Let’s hear it for what’s in the box (like maybe healthy ingredients), rather than what the box looks like!

  20. Dave says:

    Thought you might like to read this: http://rtone.wordpress.com/2008/02/09/why-consumer-choice-is-not-good/ it’s all “food for thought”, but why is it such a difficult matter? why does everything have to be MY fault? If people are not dealing fairly with farmers, if stuff is flown around the world, if nothing is seasonal, when I buy anything am I tacitly approving? Am I responsible?

  21. I had never thought about generic brand products this way… I’m a student, so I almost always go for the generic brand if there is one available (with the exception of tuna. I only buy tuna that promises to be dolphin friendly, and still feel bad about it). I guess I always just thought generic brand is cheaper because there are no advertising costs or design costs for the packaging, and more “innocent” stuff like that. Thanks for opening my eyes.

  22. Good points! I’m currently in the process of going organic so I’m paying more attention to labels than ever. I’m pretty sure people think I’m crazy as I pick up every box, read the back, put it back on the shelf, pick up the next box…etc. But that’s okay, because as you said, the journey is important.

    I look forward to a post on industrialized organics – I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

    Thanks!

    • Bee says:

      I’m there with you in the box label reading. Ingredients, where the food came from etc.

      The industrialised organics post may be a little while off. I’m not sure I could add a unique angle at the moment that goes beyond what has already been so well said by people like Michael Pollan or Joel Salazon

  23. sayitinasong says:

    With the times being very hard and seriously, money does not seem to last that far anymore- especially in the supermarket- I have switched to generic brands many times- and I have to say- most of the time- the product itself is just as good as the brand product… even if the packaging is not… so much so- that there are some items that I now refuse to buy the branded versions…

    • Bee says:

      Yeah budget has a big impact on our food choices. Luckily a lot of the generic food is good quality though and all we’re missing out on is the labelling etc.

  24. Ishana says:

    Sometimes I wonder when I should buy generic or name-brand, especially being a poor student up to my eyes in loan debt. I really had no idea about the issues surrounding that, though, so thanks for mentioning it. I think I take a similar path to you and buy some things generic and others not, it’s something to think about.

    Thanks for the read.

  25. Bee says:

    It’s morning here in Australia. I woke up and decided to check my little ol’ blog to see if anyone had left a comment and I was blown away! Over 600 views of this post and counting. Over 20 comments waiting to be approved. What had happened? I read through the comments and found out I’d been freshly pressed. Wow, wow, wow! And on a post I had almost been too chicken to post! I’m so glad that I posted it and that this post is ringing true to so many of you. Seems like we’re all similar beings underneath the different exteriors. I’ll have more time to read the comments properly later and reply a bit more personally. But I wanted to say, Thank you! 🙂 Bee

  26. bagnidilucca says:

    It bothers me that Coles is edging out other brands and replacing them with their own. I want a choice. The coles own brand broad beans (for instance) are just awful, and they don’t stock any other brands now. I actually try to buy as little a possible from the large retailers. I go for the smaller, independently run businesses where I can.

    • Bee says:

      Yeah Coles and Woolworths/Safeway have so close to a duopoly (spelling?) in Australia, it’s a problem! Supporting the independent retailers is a good idea. Pretty much the same idea as supporting farmers’ markets

  27. There are times when the generic does taste awful, but that’s true with brands too. Generally I can’t find any real difference. Some of my friends only buy brands because they say ‘it’s false economy to buy generic.” I’ve never understood what they’re talking about, and they haven’t been able to explain it. What they really mean is that they are too snobbish to be seen with anything other than brands. I don’t care what other people think. I’m lucky in that I don’t have to be frugal and could buy all the brands, but why would I want to spend extra money for a package that I’m only going to throw away?
    Until I read this post I wasn’t aware of the pressures that farmers and producers are under from supermarkets. I happily pay more money for free range food to (hopefully) give animals a better life. Now will I have to start buying brands to give food producers a better life?

    • Bee says:

      Hi Poetry for laughs. They only example I can think of that is false economy is dishwashing liquid. Wen I’ve tried the generic brand it tends to be so dilute, you need t use so much that you don’t really save any money. But I can’t see how say generic brand milk is false economy compared with branded milk – it’s nto as if they dilute the milk – that would be illegal.
      I don’t think you *have* to buy brands (I still buy some generic). I think it’s more about making a conscious decision and balancing out budget with other concerns (when you have enough money to do so of course!).

  28. Oh yes have to go with the Kraft!

  29. I love generic (Shurfine) ranch, but will never again go cheap on flour. What a difference it makes in baking.

    • Bee says:

      Yeah I think it really comes down to an item by item choice. And in some places the flour is probably completely fine – I tend to use it a lot in Australia- but then our wheat is naturally “hard” so tends to be good for baking

  30. herby says:

    Shopping ethically / frugally is such a difficult conundrum isn’t it. Thank you for making me feel less alone in struggling with this issue.

  31. cvlgrl says:

    It’s funny. Even as a student, I’m so brand-loyal that I only buy generic brands if I can guarantee that it will taste/work the same. And I’m quite skeptical, at that. Brand name cereal, milk, pasta, soup, frozen food, juice, most sauces (obviously Heinz Ketchup)… Basically, generic-brand toilet paper. And I probably only *think* that there is a difference because it’s the brand I’ve eaten my entire life.

  32. Olivia says:

    I enjoyed reading your post; not because it was entertaining because that’s hell of an eye opener.. I too buy a mix of both 😦

  33. TamrahJo says:

    One point that sticks with me when I can’t find a local source for foods we like or when I haven’t figured out how to make it myself yet, from local sources is the ingredient list.

    Oftentimes, the ‘generic’ or house brand of an item contains a shorter, real food list of ingredients EVEN when compared to touted Organic brand names.

    My list of things I prefer generic brands for will display my tendency to not always have my larder stocked and planned ahead like I should: Ketchup – generic brand beat all the brand names with short list of real ingredients and soy oil near bottom of list, instead of top.
    Pasta – haven’t perfected either whole wheat or kamut pasta making yet, so I still buy – generic spaghetti has short list and pronounceable, easily identified ingredients. Even the ‘whole wheat organic’ brand name pasta does not compare.

    My search for what to buy when I end up at the supermarket instead of my neighbor’s farm or ranch starts with the ingredients list.

  34. cheneetot08 says:

    Good Post! Somehow slapped my in the face though, and made me realize how brand conscious I am as well.

  35. Interesting blog, enjoyed the different angle of your approach to the subject of brands.

    Would love to know what you think of my brand of blog?…; )

    CHEERS
    joe.

  36. Love a good conundrum. I too try out some of the generic brands for ‘frugal’ reasons but I’m not wedded to them. Sometimes it is through loyalty to buying local grown items (yeah for Australian grown lower GI sugar or the best Tasmanian cheese or locally baked bread).

    Or it may simply be because I want food that tastes like real food. I used to always buy the generic tinned tomatoes. Then for some reason one day I bought real Italian tinned tomatoes. The flavour! Mouthwatering! Outstanding! That is what had been missing from my pasta sauces for some time – real tomato flavour. Definitely a lesson learnt.

  37. bilal says:

    this is so tasty

  38. I would not worry too much about a future “generic-brand monopoly”: What businesses tend to do is to strive for a segmentation of markets into price ranges (if needed by artificially creating them)—if the prices of the generics were to rise, there would be an unfilled niche for cheaper brands, which would promptly be filled by someone else (or, very often, a different brand by the same producer).

    A greater problem could be that the quality of the generics is kept artificially low in order to keep the niche for non-generics open.

    (A good example of this is pocket and hard-cover books: Why are pocket books released so long after the hard-cover version? The disturbing answer: To earn more money on the hard-cover books, by making those too impatient to wait for the pocket release buy a hard cover.)

    I would also not make e.g. farmers a concern for my buying: Yes, they might suffer through price pressure, but this is not really specific to generics, but a more general development. The counter-measure would not be to stop buying generics, but to cut out as many middle-men as possible.

  39. branding, switching from this to that… it’s a roadtrip of changes!

  40. mariomitte says:

    switching from this to that… it sure is a roadtrip of changes!

  41. Who do you think makes generic products??? There aren’t separate factories that make generic peanut butter or cheese or whatever. They are just brand name goods in plain wrapping. I dont know about any other country, but here in Australia Woolies brand cheese is made by Devondale, their juice is by Berri. I dont know who makes Black & Gold peanut butter, which is a huge staple in my pantry, but its really good! Conscience sometimes makes me buy the locally made product, but on an off pay week I lean towards the generic. Never, though, will I buy generic vegetables, they tend to use end of season, undersized, substandard product…..and the frozen mixed vegetables often dont even contain the vegetables you are lead to believe they contain…. the frozen ‘peas’ are actually broccoli core, and the ‘potato’ may be cauliflower core!!

  42. analogmutant says:

    I find that many of the generics are BETTER than the nationals…i really like the generic cereals a lot…when i do buy cereals that is

  43. Pingback: Home economics of farmer’s markets | Tales from a Well-Stocked Larder

  44. J says:

    I sue the generic brand by Sally for my shampoo etc. I must admit that I have a marketing degree so I know that there is no major difference between the to except marketing dollars.When I was younger I cared no …. not so much. I will now consider how it effects the whole cirlcle of life if you will:0) www. nomam.wordpress.com

  45. Pingback: The Haunting (2009) | Horror movie Blog

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