ATK Reviews

How to Be a Better Private-Label Shopper

Private labels are cheaper, but how do you know if they’re good? 

Published Sept. 12, 2023.

In the supermarket aisle, you’ve probably asked yourself this question: private label or name brand? It’s a decision that involves cost, flavor, and quality.

Although private-label products are generally cheaper than name brand items, you don’t want to sacrifice taste or quality. 

But how can you tell what’s good before you buy it? 

Our team has a lot of experience shopping for ingredients from years of conducting taste tests. We compiled some best practices so you can become a better private-label snoop. 

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What Exactly Is Private Label?

Private label, also referred to as store brand, is a product that’s manufactured by one company but is made to be sold under the name of a specific company or store. Everything from frozen seafood to crackers can be sold as a private-label product. 

These brands can be found at any major grocery store and wholesaler—such as Good & Gather from Target or Kirkland Signature from Costco. Some stores, such as Trader Joe's, have gained popularity from selling mostly private-label products. 

Are All Private-Label Products Inferior to Name Brands?

No, not all store brands are inherently lower quality. Some popular name brands also manufacture private-label products. However, the formulation may differ slightly from the name brand. Other times, that popular name brand has excess inventory and will sell off that product to another company under a different label. In those cases, it’s the same product.

There are some private-label products, such as smoked salmon or Parmesan from Costco, we love almost as much as (if not more than) the popular name brands. 


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Start with the Ingredient List

In our taste tests we look at products’ ingredients to understand why one may taste better than the other. You can do the same while grocery shopping. For example, when we tasted cottage cheese, we found that when the product had fewer ingredients and stuck to the basics, such as milk, cream, and salt, it was more flavorful, bold, and tangy.

Side by side of ingredient lists of two containers of cottage cheeese
We often compare ingredient lists to see what makes our winning products so good.

Along with the number of ingredients, take note of what type of ingredients are listed. In our boxed brownie tasting, we preferred brownies made with a combination of Dutch-processed cocoa powder and other mix-ins such as chocolate chips or syrups. 

Ghiradelli boxed brownie mix

Private label products sometimes have the same combination of ingredients we like in our winners.

The private label mix from Trader Joe’s was a very close runner-up to our winner from Ghirardelli because of its use of multiple types of chocolates. 

Nutrition Facts Tell You More About Flavor

Along with ingredients, sugar, sodium, and fat content can be useful information when trying to determine a product’s flavor. We found that canned diced tomatoes with 170 milligrams or more of sodium tasted fresher, brighter, firmer, and were overall better preserved. 

When tasting fontina, we found that even a small difference in fat content affected flavor. Our winner rose to the top of the ranks mainly because it had just one more gram of fat than the others.

Look at nutrition facts side by side to point out similarities and differences. You’d be surprised how many store and name brands have nearly identical nutritionals.

hand holding two mustard bottles with the nutrition labels facing forward.
Sometimes nutrition facts of store brand and name brand products are almost identical, such as these bottles of mustard.

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Private-Label Products Can Change

Sometimes, private labels can frequently change manufacturers, formulations, or the quality of ingredients without notifying consumers on the packaging. That’s why, historically, we havent included store brand products in our taste tests. 

The one thing we like about a product may change a few months down the line. However, we recognize that many of our readers enjoy and even prefer private-label products, so we’re figuring out how to incorporate them in our reviews when we can (such as in our boxed brownie review mentioned above). 

Bottom line: If you’re unsure about a private-label product, compare and contrast ingredients and nutritionals. In the end, you may find an item that tastes just as good but saves you some money.

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