Grocery prices in Australia have skyrocketed this year. Thus, people may be tempted to switch to private label foods to save on their weekly food bill.
Private label foods are certainly less expensive. But are they healthy?
Here’s what we know about the nutrients they contain compared to the more expensive name brands.
What are private label foods?
Private label foods go by different names. You may hear them referred to as supermarket own brand foods, private label, private label, private label, or private label.
These are foods made specifically for a supermarket (you can’t buy them from a competing store). They are advertised as low cost alternatives to more expensive items.
Private label foods are widely available in Australia and other countries, making Up to 30% of what you can buy in a supermarket.
Some people once considered them to be inferior products. But their nutrient content and wide availability in supermarkets can play a role in improving people’s health. Some evidence shows private label foods increase the availability and accessibility of more affordable food options and help improve food safety standards.
Why are they cheaper?
Cheaper prices associated with private label products are possible due to lower costs associated with research and development, marketing, and packaging. This means that we cannot assume that lower prices mean cheaper or lower quality ingredients.
In fact, supermarkets can influence the ingredients and processing of private label foods by comparative analysis against name brands.
Before a private label product is made, stores will also tell manufacturers what it should cost consumers. Manufacturers often choose to use the same ingredients and processes as brand name products to reduce costs through economies of scale.
This means not having to clean or reprogram equipment between manufacturing different products. This also means that most private label products are very similar to branded products except for the packaging.
However, for mixed foods, such as breakfast cereals and pre-made sauces, the manufacturer may modify the ingredients, such as using less expensive or fewer ingredients, to help reduce costs.
How much can I save?
Private label products can go up to 40% cheaper than the named brands. So yes, private label products can make a real difference in the total cost of groceries.
However, some products have greater cost savings than others, as we show below.
Most supermarket shelf labels show the cost per 100g (or equivalent) of an item, which can help shoppers choose the most cost-effective option, especially useful when items are on sale.
But are they healthy?
For simple, unprocessed products such as milk, eggs, and pasta, there is virtually no difference in nutritional quality between private label foods and branded foods. Manufacturers can’t do much to change ingredients to reduce costs.
But sometimes cheaper ingredients are used in higher concentrations in private label products. For example, house brand pre-made pasta sauces may contain fewer plant ingredients and higher amounts of sugar, sodium (salt), and additives (such as stabilizers, colors, and flavors). It can change the quality and taste.
Very few studies have explored how private label products may differ in nutrient profile.
For example, portion size is usually smaller in homemade pizzas, canned legumes, cereals, cookies and ready meals. In fact, edible oil is the only type of food for which the serving size is larger for private label foods.
Sodium levels of house brand breakfast cereals, cheese and bread are higher than branded products. But sodium levels in cooking sauces, frozen potato products (like baked fries), and cookies are lower in store brand foods.
When it comes to energy and fat intake, again it seems that there are inconsistent differences between private label foods and branded foods.
And the sugar? Unfortunately, studies have not looked into this.
In fact, on the whole, Australian private label products are not consistently nutritionally different from branded products.
Health Star Ranking
On a related note, unhealthy house brand products – such as juices, meat pies and muesli bars – are more likely to include a star health rating, in relation to nutritious foods. This may mistakenly imply that they are a healthy choice.
This means that no matter which brand you choose, remember to check the food label to ensure you get the quality of food you love for the price you want.