Government critics have echoed comments from Environment Secretary George Eustice, who suggested that by buying quality food, people could help alleviate the cost of living crisis.
Opponents pointed out that this would hardly scratch the surface when energy bills have risen by 54% and the most vulnerable are already buying the cheapest food.
For many durable ranges, supermarkets offer several options, including increasingly a private label version and a cheaper value range.
Financially there is a lot to be gained by moving from a branded product to a supermarket own brand, and even more by switching to the value assortment.
But there are pros and cons to buying store-brand groceries. And, according to nutritionists, often cheaper does mean a loss of quality.
Take a can of baked beans you bought at Sainsbury’s, for example. Online, the supermarket charges £1 for a two-serving can of Heinz Beanz. The Sainsbury’s own version is 35p and the Hubbard’s Foodstore line is 21p.
The cans look directly comparable, but they are not: While Heinz’s weighs 415 g, the other two weigh 400 g each. But even if you take that difference out, the cost savings are big: Heinz is £2.41 per kg, Hubbard’s is 53p.
Even in the can, not everything is the same. In this case, Heinz and Sainsbury’s both boast 51% beans, but Hubbard’s can is 45%. That’s 212g from Heinz and 180g from Hubbard’s.
For a product where top pricing is a better match, the savings could be eaten up if you have to buy an additional pack to get what you actually need. However, the price difference is so big that in this case you could buy two of the cheapest and still make a big saving.
The other parts of the ingredients list are also worth comparing. Inexpensive products need some sort of topping up, and with beans, the sauce makes up more of the mix to keep costs down. A big part of the difference can be water – it’s the third ingredient in all products. Vinegar was used by Heinz but skipped in both budget versions.
At Morrisons, their best-known rice pudding brand, Ambrosia, is offered in two cans for £1.60, while the Morrisons Savers version is sold at 20p. Both are only 9% rice, but water is on the cheaper product’s ingredient list (second only to skim milk), while Ambrosia is 72% milk and lists whole milk as the top ingredient. This means it contains a lot more fat (4.4g serving compared to 1.4g in the cheap line).
In some cases, cheaper lines perform better than their better-known competitors in taste tests.
Which? has published a list of named brands that have been beaten by price ranges in their reviews – Lidl chocolate spread, Choco Nussa, costs £1.09 for a 400g jar (27p per 100g) versus £2.90 for 350g Nutella (83p per 100g) and was rated higher by tasters. It also has less sugar and saturated fat in each serving.
Another household favorite to be beaten by a budget version is Marmite – Which? taste testers scored 65% but gave Aldi’s Mighty Yeast Extract a 75%. The low-cost retailer charges £1.69 for 240g (70p per 100g), while Marmite is normally £2.49 for 250g (£1 per 100g).
Caroline Hind, nutritionist at Vitaminology, says some Value versions of products “have more sugar, processed oils, and starchy fillers that are nutrient poor and make a terrible choice for people managing weight or at risk of diabetes.”
Sugar can be hard to spot, she says, when labeled as syrup or with unfamiliar names.
The latter applies to beans. Hubbard’s version contains glucose-fructose syrup, which some studies have shown is worse for the liver than regular sugar. Aldi’s inexpensive beans have the same thing, and one of the stock lines also contains maltodextrin, another substitute for more expensive refined sugar.
But the nutritional benefits don’t all go in one direction: sometimes it’s better to trade less. Let’s say you’re trying to reduce fat in your diet – sometimes the fillers in high-quality products literally dilute it.