Q: Are store brands as good as name brand foods? (Or even better?)
A: The answer is basically yes.
There are three different ways to look at store brands:
- Commodities. These foods will be very similar or the same no matter who makes them. Examples are butter, milk, orange juice, fruits, vegetables and similar items.
- Foods where you don’t have a strong preference. If you would not mind brand switching between name brands, throw the store brands into your rotation. Whether you are buying corn chips, cereal, frozen foods, jam, bread, frosting or anything else out there on the store shelves, go for it. The taste of food will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer whether it’s a store brand or a name brand.
- Foods that you love the taste of and won’t compromise on. These, you should buy from your favorite manufacturer whether it is a name brand or store brand. But if you notice that a brand suddenly tastes different, it’s because manufacturers sometimes quietly reformulate their products to make them more competitive (though inevitably some people don’t like the new taste), so there is no guarantee that store brand or name brand products will stay exactly the same over time. In fact, even people who regularly buy a specific name brand may eventually like the store brand better. 
There are a few exceptions where a manufacturer has a patent on a specific process or product, so you can’t get the item anywhere else (e.g., Dreyer patented slow-churn ice cream or probiotics in tea and coffee). Otherwise, even though the recipes are different, there is not much difference between name brand and store brand food.
What isn’t on my list? Safety or quality. The USDA and FDA have rules about food manufacturing and safety where everyone has to meet the same basic criteria. And regardless of whether a product is a store brand or name brand, all food products are subject to the same labeling requirements when it comes to claiming health/nutrition benefits:
- Health Claims: All health claims involve a component and a disease and may be a qualified health claim, NLEA authorized claims, or claims based on authoritative statements (government research). If you try to imply a claim by putting a heart on the package or saying a food is healthy that counts too.
- Qualified health claims: These claims tend to be very wordy and are very specific. For example, here is the claim for nuts and heart health: “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts [such as name of specific nut] as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. [See nutrition information for fat content.]” 
- Authorized Claims: These are more common since there are more approved claims and a list is available on the FDA site, but they are still very wordy. 
- NLEA claim: These let you make a claim about a food component and a disease. For example, consuming calcium is necessary for healthy bones. 
- Structure/Function Claims: This is the easiest type of health claim. If a food component is known to have an effect on the human body you can put a structure / function claim on the package. These claims can be as simple as “fiber maintains bowel regularity,” or “antioxidants maintain cell integrity.” 
- Nutrient Content Claims: Rather than going through the work of proving a health claim, it’s easier to put a nutrient content claim on the package like “low ___.” These claims are limited to the required or voluntary nutrients on the nutrition facts panel and include all of the “free,” “low,” and “good source of” claims you see on packages. 
- Other Claims: There are a number of other claims you may see, such as:
- Organic: This is strictly regulated by the USDA. 
- Gluten Free: The food must contain 20 ppm or less of gluten 
- Natural: This is not strictly defined in the US. As long as the “natural” food does not contain synthetic ingredients and isn’t colored, it meets the FDA’s definition:
“From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” 
In conclusion: Because all food is regulated and meets basic safety criteria you are left buying based on the taste, price, and marketing. Often the best value will be the store brands and they are just as good as the name brands. Some stores have multiple tiers of store brands: a low-budget brand, a brand intended to compete with national brands, and a premium brand that may be better than the leading national brand. So the next time you have a choice between a store brand and name brand, you might want to try them both out side-by-side. The results may surprise you!