"As we speak, our fellow countryman are rolling out our Kabletown Couches on the assembly line, earning an honest day's pay so they can go to the store and buy milk for their family, which costs...oh, I don't know, $90 a gallon." Jack Donaghy, "30 Rock"
NEW YORK (MainStreet) America's favorite Republican might not have been that far off: being conservative can cost you more at the grocery store. No, really. Published in the journal Psychological Science earlier this year, a study, led by associate professor Vishal Singh of New York University, found conservatives were more likely to buy more name brand products at the grocery store than their less-expensive generic counterparts. The researchers theorized that since conservatives were less likely to embrace the new and be more rigid in other aspects of life that behavior could overlap into some seemingly unrelated activities, like what they buy at the grocery store.
To test that theory, researchers used a scanner database to trace the weekly sales of products from 1,860 stores nationwide over six years, from 2001 to 2006. Using average percentage of Republican votes for presidential elections, information provided by the Association of Religious Data Archives, and accounting for factors like income, education and race, they found conservative areas preferred name brand products more than both generic and new product lines. According to Singh and his team, "conservative ideology is associated with higher reliance on established national brands (as opposed to generics) and a slower uptake of new products." These tendencies, the researchers concluded, "are consistent with traits typically associated with conservatism, such as aversion to risk, skepticism about new experiences and a general preference for tradition, convention, and the status quo." Buying a new or different product is itself a small risk, the researchers argue.
Conversely, less conservative counties bought more generic products. Researchers theorized this might be because liberals have less risk-averse life views, and are more open to new experiences, which could affect how they shop.
But Conservatives should take note more Americans are buying generic brands at the supermarket, and for good reason. Deloitte's 2013 American Pantry Study found that even if the economy improves, only 27% of those 4,047 polled said they would be switching to national brands. Last year, Consumer Reports surveyed 24,000 of their readers and found 72% had recently bought store brand products and 74% of those buyers were "highly satisfied with the quality of store brands at their supermarket."
So, whether you consider yourself liberal or conservative, generic brands should be in your grocery cart, but how do you find the "highly satisfying" ones?
Check the ingredients
Some private label brands have a "compare to" note on their product label simply because many basic generic brands, like ibuprofen and nighttime medicine, have the same active ingredients as name brands. Yet food products can be a bit trickier. For those, consider the ingredients:
"If products have the same ingredients, I'm more inclined to give the generic brand a try," says Kendal Perez, savings expert at CouponSherpa.com. "I also want to be sure I'm not buying something with more fat, sodium or sugar to save money. Some generic brands load up their products with these ingredients to compensate for lack of flavor."
Go generic with simple products
Speaking of ingredients, if you're buying simple staples, you're likely to find cheaper prices with generic products.
"Products like bleach, pasta, butter, flour, sugar and spices contain one or very minimal ingredients, making it difficult to justify paying more money for brand name when ingredients are identical," says Perez. "I purchase all these products as generic brands, along with acetaminophen and contact lens solution."
Don't be fooled by packaging
Just because a product is packaged in brown paper bags and claims to be "all natural" doesn't mean it really is. From the FDA's website:
"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, the 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."
So if you are a shopper looking for natural certification, there isn't really one. But if you're looking for organic products, remember...
Generics can be Organic, Too
Look for the "USDA Organic" seal, which is either black and white or green in color. The seal certifies 95 to 99% of ingredients by weight in a product are organic. As organic foods have becoming increasingly popular, many supermarket chains have produced their own organic product lines, like Winn-Dixie's Organic & Natural and Kroger's Simple Truth Organic product lines.
Also remember: generic isn't always cheaper
If a big label product is on sale, it could end up being cheaper than the generic. That's especially true at certain chains, like Whole Foods, whose "365 Everyday Value" products can be more expensive than other private label or national label brands. For example, ChicagoBusiness.com recently compared the "365 Everyday Value" product cost of certain items, like butter, milk, sugar, and eggs, to several other generic brands from Jewel, Dominick's, and Trader Joe's in the Chicago area. The site found Whole Foods had the same or similar prices for butter, while sugar, eggs and milk were more expensive than the competitors' store brands.
Taste testing pays
Every cook has a different palate, so there are few blanket statements as to exactly what brand one should always use. Instead, it can pay off to do some taste testing.
"The question of generic versus brand is really an individual decision based on taste preferences as much as budget," says Kay Lodgson, editor of Foodchannel.com. "The best advice is simply to take a good look at what's important to you as a consumer, and then do your own taste comparison to see what works best for your style of cooking and your budget."
For example, Consumer Reports did a blind taste test of two cranberry juices, Ocean Spray and supermarket chain Meijer's. Meijer's was a bit cheaper, but more sour than Ocean Spray. Their ingredients were similar, so at that point it was all about personal preference.
A good time to do some comparison tasting is when your go-to brand isn't on sale. Instead, try picking up the generic version, and see if it will do the job. If it does, you'll have replaced a shopping cart staple with something cheaper.
--Written by Craig Donofrio for MainStreet