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Tips For Getting The Best From Generic Brands

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- It seems like we're all in the grocery store this time of year. And most of us buy a few store brands.

But generic brands, if you haven't noticed, have changed. Over the years, those boring generic boxes have been replaced by fancy labels, and new names. But they still give us a chance to save and stores an opportunity to make money.

But which generic brands are worth buying?

We went behind the scenes to learn two tricks that could help save you money.

Behind The Scenes At Supervalu

While we didn't go to a Supervalu store, we did go to a mock-up store inside the company's national headquarters in Eden Prairie. Inside, there's 20,000 square feet to test shelf displays. There's also a lab for quality control, counting, weighing and measuring just about everything. There's even a lab to test taste.

"We're testing all the time," said Ryan Briggs, Supervalu's director of private brands. "We at least have multiple tests going every day."

On the day we were in the lab, they tested a store brand fusion juice against a name brand. They didn't tell us which one was which, but we could guess.

Those who were testing the drink had to answer questions about color, texture and flavor -- everything from tartness to sweetness. The test's goal was to get it just about right (JAR).

"We have to make sure that overall score meets or exceeds the testing for the national brand," Briggs said.

He added: "And you can have a little too much, or a little too little, or you can have just about right."

That may sound like Goldilocks, but it's really about big bucks.

"It actually is a lot harder to match national brands than it is to create new products," Briggs said.

Twenty-five percent of the average grocer's sales are private labels. Without advertising or a middleman, stores can sell their own brands for less and still make more profit. But that's only as long as the products taste right. And some products are easier to get right than others.

"The shorter the list -- the ingredients list -- usually the easier it is for us to duplicate," Briggs said.

That's why short labels are good, and single-ingredient pantry items are your best bets for store brand success.

"Sugar, milk, butter, things like that...they might be made on the same exact line, and they'll just change the packaging," said Tonya Schoenfuss, who used to develop foods at General Mills.

Now she teaches food science at the University of Minnesota.

Decoding Dairy Products

And besides the "short ingredients list" trick, she says dairy products have their own special clues.

"There's this code on there that will tell you the state it was made at, and the manufacturer's plant number," she said.

The code two digits, followed by three or four. Manufactures can put it anywhere, so it's often hard to find. But it's there. It has to be somewhere. The codes are used by the FDA to track safety at dairy plants.

This was a clue Schoenfuss remembered when she was tasting cottage cheese to get ready for a dairy judging competition.

"I bought a Dean's and a Land o' Lakes...tasted the same...looked at labels, gosh, they came from same plant," she said.

The Importance Of Taste

But no matter how many tricks or tests you may try, there's always one important reason to buy or not to buy.

"We all have our own taste, so you may be perfectly happy with less expensive product," Briggs said. "Unless you try it, you won't know."


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