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“Value” or “Taste the Difference”?

Posted by on Wednesday 27 July 2011 in Featured, frugal | 13 comments

This month’s Which magazine* includes a section about supermarket food prices (apparently 57% of people are looking for reduced price food more now than they were a year ago, and 60% are using offers more – but 43% think most supermarket promotions are on unhealthy food) and an article about whether we should pick the value version, the standard one or the premium brand of various food products.

The Which people compared the prices and made relevant ingredient comparisons (eg, the amount of meat in a lasagne ready meal) between each of the different levels, and also did taste tests.

I obviously won’t type out the whole article here but they did recommend the budget option for: butter, natural (not fruit) yogurt, frozen peas, spaghetti and for use when cooking stews etc, carrots, frozen fish, cheddar cheese, kidney beans and tinned tomatoes.

And they suggested the following premium products were worth splashing out on: bacon (less water), beef mince (less fat), sausages (less bulking agents), ham (less water/additives) and ready-meal quiche. They added that you should go premium or at least standard on teabags, fruit yogurts, cornflakes and ready meals like lasagne.

Funnily enough, this roughly matches where we spend our money – John has a thing about expensive bacon & sausages but we’re happy with cheap yoghurt and butter, and use budget carrots and cheese for cooking.

One thing I’d possibly disagree on is the tomatoes: I find the cheapest ones tend to include a lot of “stalk” ends (not a problem in a curry, more of a problem in a quick sauce) and more citric acid & other acidic preservatives (John has an intolerance to lots of acids like that), so we tend to go for standard or premium ones if they’re on offer so as cheap as standard.

Aside from the things they looked at, I often buy value plain flour for basic baking (especially for dusting) and in the non-food sphere, the cleaning products I buy (including washing powder) tend to be the basic range too. Back in the day, when we used to buy them frequently, I also used to rate value oven chips over branded ones. We also buy a lot of super cheap brand stuff – the cost equivalent of value brands, just not from the major supermarkets – like rice, vegetable oil and pickled vegetables or chutneys (mostly from shops specialising in Asian or Mediterranean food stuffs).

Having said that, a peek into our cupboards to “research” this post showed me that by far the most common label is Morrisons standard own brand. I know from experience that most things were bought on offer so they’d have been cheaper or about equal to the budget brands – but bearing in mind Which’s findings, I think we could swap to budget in a few more areas.

What do you think? Do you always go for one product class or mix and match for different things? Do you actually prefer the value option of anything? And is there anything you always pick premium for?

I would love to hear people’s value product recommendations – and ones where the extra money really is worth it for premium!

* I don’t buy Which magazine, or any magazines, regularly but signed up for a subscription in June when we were buying a few things for the house. I don’t swear by Which but lacking any other up-to-date information sources, we thought it was worth at least checking out. I like that Which is about buying quality items that will last; I dislike that it promotes consumption, often in the form of gadgets – whenever John & I read it, we both feel “well, maybe I do need a new camera…” pangs. Baaaaaaaad.


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  1. Rachel

    I always buy value flour, pasta and tinned tomatoes. I agree – I’d noticed the stalk bits as well, but put up with them. For bacon I sometimes buy the very cheapest and sometimes buy expensive stuff from the butcher. I don’t really have a problem with the cheap stuff, but I like to buy local at least some of the time. We would pay more for decent squash, if Morrisons ever stocked it! These days they only seem to have sugar-free, which we can’t stand. GRR! We also buy mid-range frozen peas, for the sake of getting the smaller ones. Now we’re harvesting from the garden, so hopefully won’t need to buy any for some time :-)

  2. strowger

    the more ingredients it has, and the more processed it is, the less good the cheapest option will be. whereas – flour, orange juice, bottled water – no-one can tell the cheapest from the dearest.

    in general the “basics” / “value” / “economy” option is usually ok, and where it isn’t, or there isn’t one, you should be looking to lidl/aldi rather than “trading up” within the same supermarket.

    there’s no substitute for trying out the value/basics/economy instance of everything you need, though. processed things vary a *lot* between supermarkets too – for instance sainsburys basics tuna is excellent, whereas tesco and morrisons cheapest tuna is foul. simple things (one ingredient) tend not to.

    there’s a long thread on the moneysavingexpert.com forums about which “value” products are good, which is interestingish.

    at any supermarket i’ll always take the cheapest/basics/value porridge oats, dried pasta, flour, raisins, rice, bleach, washing-up liquid, toothpaste, tinned tomatoes, bread for toast, bogroll, shampoo, soap, handwash, dishwasher tablets, kitchen paper, tissues, baked beans, mushy peas, orange juice, any fresh fruit & veg, brown sauce, ketchup, vinegar, salt, ground pepper.

    the cheapest tea is surprisingly adequate for the have-it-with-milk-and-sugar brigade. cheap disgestives/jaffacakes/biscuits always seem to be good.

    ime the existence of a value/basics option in a fresh fruit/veg line (eg strawberries just now) indicates just that they are in season/glut rather than any difference in quality. where there is a difference, it’s nearly always cosmetic.

    the cheapest eggs, butter, cheese are always fine too – but doubtless animals suffer enormously to make them, if that bothers you. i can’t tell the cheapest feta (“greek style salad cheese”) and mozzarella from the priciest *once cooked* either.

    at sainsburys, we like:
    basics pasta sauce (18p for 440g) – substitute for tinned tomatoes (30p for 420g) in most recipes. nothing scary in it.

    basics chocolate (dark especially) – though the ingredients list is a bit scary.

    basics tuna (really big chunks, not dust/flakes).

    basics smoked salmon trimmings – the only affordable way to eat smoked salmon.

    basics plain yogurt – my favorite of all the yogurt in the shop, really good.

    basics frozen soft fruit – use to add to bowls of museli, saves a fortune over buying fresh – mrs strowger can’t tell the difference.


    frozen peas (very variable, have been solid like little green bullets in the past)

    tesco and morrisons value/basics chocolate – all awful

    fizzy pop – invariably the cheapest stuff is undrinkable

    booze of any sort – not worth it

    crisps – ugh

    smaller branches of supermarkets tend not to have all the cheapest lines – and they’re increasingly managing inflation by not restocking the loss-leading cheap lines in a timely manner. we’ve discovered that getting our sainsburys shop delivered – rather than driving to your branch, or the most convenient one form here – saves money because the deliveries come from very larger and much better-stocked branch.

  3. Attila

    I tend to buy Napolina tineed toms when they are 2 for £1 (thick and juicy) or Asda own brand otherwise (44p I think). The posh ones are great but not at 87p a tin! I like them for spag bol/chilli/curry/lentils. Value toms are far too watery for me, but I have in the past tipped out some of the juice and/or added some tom puree. But I do buy value ones if I was using them for a casserole or soup and add less stock/water.
    We have to buy a lot of wheat free stuff nowadays, but in the past found value pasta and flour to be fine.
    I like mature cheddar and especially like Wyke Farms, but go for whichever is nearest to £5 a kilo – never available less than that for several years.
    Basics chocolate – yuk – but Asda own brand same as standard Cadbury’s etc and 50-60p 100g, brands much more expensive.
    Squash/juice – own brand but not value.
    Fresh peppers – I generally get value pack – less choice of colour, odd sizes but just the same as 60-80p each. Sometimes you can pick out a bag with different amounts of green or red or whatever.
    Won’t buy battery eggs, unless poverty stricken, but will buy basic meat – would love to be able to afford free range/organic. I do usually buy free range chicken as it tastes much better but stretch it further/eat smaller portions.
    Used bubble bath as hand wash and find value range as good as standard.

  4. Louba

    We’re a bit of a mix like the Which report. Basics for tomatoes – usually Asda and I haven’t noticed any stalks! Kidney beans, pasta, apple juice, liquid soap – and then put it in a nice dispenser (!), cheddar cheese, peppers. I tend to spend more on bacon, ham, chicken, sausages, beef and I don’t buy battery eggs.

  5. louisa

    I knew Strowger would have a good answer to this question – he regularly turns up at our house with value chocolate, proclaiming it to be the BEST CHOCOLATE IN THE WORLD. ;)

    Rachel: I don’t particularly have a problem with cheap bacon either – and when I’m buying, I rarely buy premium from the supermarket — although like you, I will pay extra for premium from non-supermarket sources. (We currently get our bacon as part of our Swillington Farm meat box – organic, rare breed bacon – expensive but very much worth it.)

    Le Strowger: while I obviously do bow down to your knowledge in these matters, I do have issues with a few of your suggestions – mostly just taste issues (baked beans, tea & digestives – although I agree on other biscuits) but I find that the cheapest toilet/kitchen rolls are wound more loosely and you get considerably less sheets per roll than you do at the standard ones.

    Attila: yes, I’ve noticed value tomatoes being watery – but good point about stews/soups where water/stock would be added anyway! We nearly always buy bags of value peppers too – so much cheaper. Also an interesting suggestion about bubble bath – we don’t use it these days but have got some half bottles leftover so we’ll use that as liquid handwash now :)

    • Attila

      I meant to include loo rolls; we buy Asda smartprice about £1.50 for 12 and use about 2 packs a month i.e. 24 loo rolls at about £3. If we buy own brand, Andrex type…how much? £4 for 12 or is it 16? We wouldn’t use 24 of them in a month, but we would use more than 12, so either way the cheapies ARE cheaper…but then I suppose it depends on how fussy your rear end is!

  6. Tasmanian Minimalist

    I found this blog at just the right time. I am making my own bread from now on and found it exciting to see you ahve bread recipes. Yee hah ! Thanks so much for all the inspiring work you do. Your fan for life, TM

  7. Alison

    Wow, lots of you really know your brands don’t you? I’ve got to say, I am a ‘food snob’ and I know that it’s probably all in the mind but I can ‘taste the difference’. I mainly by organic meat, eggs and milk but that is purely an animal welfare thing. Up until when we moved I was lucky enough to shop at Waitrose (via Ocado home delivery) and it has been said that some of their ‘value’ range is far better than the ‘branded’ stuff. I did spend time then, checking out salt/sugar content and value for money but now I have to go out and shop I seriously can’t be bothered to spend the time in the supermarket checking it out. I do want to rely less on supermarkets eventually but obviously we ‘need’ them for the essential items! I’ve tried cheap toilet roll and I’m sure a roll doesn’t last as long.

  8. kaye

    the own brand products have huge variations in quality , weve tried them all over the last year and would nominate tesco home brand custard creams and asda chicken nuggets as the foods from hell….lol…but for the most part its food and when your budget is zilch you will be able to eat it , just redeem the quality with homegrown fruit and veg where possible

  9. PipneyJane

    Has anyone noticed how inedible Tesco’s Value Kidney Beans have become? About a fifth of every can consists of hard bullet-like beans. I’ve gone back to processing dried kidney beans instead. (I do them in 500g batches, divide it into portions and freeze.)

    Since the price of virtually every value product has sky-rocketed this year, I’ve started buying my tinned chopped tomatoes at Costco. I can get a named brand (sorry, can’t remember which one) for the same price per can as Tesco’s Value and the quality is much better. There is more tomato and much less water in the can. (We probably don’t get our money’s worth out of our Costco membership but they’re great for coffee, fresh and frozen fish, and some cleaning products.)

    I buy a lot of my dried goods from WingYip (rice, flour, dried beans, noodles, baking powder, spices, etc). Yes, they’re bulk purchases (10kg of rice at a time/500g bags of spices) but the unit price is considerably cheaper. A 500g bag of, say, cumin costs about the same as one of those little bottles of Schwartz spices.

    We set aside £40/month to spend at the butcher’s and visit them every 3-4 months. We don’t eat meat or fish at eveyr meal – I’d rather buy quality meat and not use as much. It’s leaner too. For your typical chilli or bolognese sauce, I only use 250g of mince. I can make that into something which feeds 6 by padding it out with vegetables and/or pulses; it will look, taste and feel as if there is a lot more meat in there.

    Most of our veg comes from a local farmer. We only buy the things he doesn’t grow at the supermarket, mainly peppers (always Value) and aubergine. His stuff lasts so much longer than the supermarket equivalent and is often cheaper.

    On the toilet paper subject, I stick to my principles. I can’t see why any toilet paper should be made with virgin paper product (i.e. not recycled paper) so only buy Nouvelle. We stock up when it’s on 2-for-1 (usually annually).

    Excluding meat, our grocery shop budget is £120/month. We set money aside for Christmas (£10/month) and also have a “bulk” fund for the trips to Costco or WingYip (£20/month). The budget covers all breakfasts, most lunches and most dinners. There’s only two of us but we entertain regularly and I think we do pretty well on this budget. I can’t remember the last time we bought a take-away (2 or 3 months ago, I think).

    – Pam

  10. Hazel

    Like many other posters, my main deviations from value foods tend to be for animal welfare reasons, so I don’t buy any supermarket bacon, for instance. I have no idea how much better the top-end stuff tastes than value, but unless it says free range, it’s all made from battery pork (and I don’t think I’ve ever seen free range bacon in Tesco or Sainsbury’s here.)

    I also only buy recycled loo roll (supermarket own unless Nouvelle on special offer. My children are impressed by the pictures (read: pattern) on Nouvelle. I keep their life expectations low.) Or use (shh!) cloth…

    I do buy value tinned tomatoes etc. If I’m not going to buy the organic version and there aren’t lots of scary additives, I’ll often get the value version. Value cornflakes are grim though. I bought them for chocolate cakes and they were most peculiar.

  11. Chiot's Run

    Very interesting post. I love hearing other people’s views on how they spend their grocery money.

    I can’t remember the last time I was in a supermarket and priced items as I grow my own & purchase from local farmers (plus the grocery is a 45 min drive, so it takes lots of gas & extra time – the farms are a few minutes). When it comes to food and what I’m putting in my body I don’t go by price but by quality. I try to buy items from local farmers so I know what’s going in to the food. As for saving money to pay for this – I did away with just about every other extra in my life. The funny thing is, I find that the better quality food and the less processed food I buy, I’m actually spending less on food. I have found that I also eat eat less when I eat real food as opposed to premade items, I appreciate it more, and I waste less. Plus now that I don’t go to the grocery I don’t find myself buying things I don’t need! Overall, after switching from grocery store to local organic farm/home garden eating I’m spending about the same amount that I spent 2 years ago when buying grocery store, non-organic conventional normal food. I’m also spending far less time acquiring my food since I don’t have to drive to the store anymore!

    As for toilet paper, I don’t shop around – I have a box of 48 rolls of recycled TP delivered to my front porch from Amazon every 4 months or so.

  12. Su

    I don’t buy biscuits, chocolate, cakes, cheese (I LOVE cheese!), fiizy pop or squash (it’s amazing how having a weight problem makes you frugal!). I have been buying organic tinned tomatoes for 25p recently from a value store, unfortunately all gone now. Most of my purchases are from value ranges, except tea,I don’t drink cheap tea, urghh!!! Loo rolls £1.39 for 10 recycled from Lidl.
    I don’t rely on one supermarket or place to do my shopping I really do shop around, but I admit it takes some time.

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