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Store brands often beat name brands in flavor taste test

Ketchup taste test at Consumer Reports.
Source: Consumer Reports
Ketchup taste test at Consumer Reports.

Store-brand foods can save you a bundle at the supermarket—but are you trading quality for price if you substitute them for those name-brand favorites?

Not according to Consumer Reports.

In a blind taste test by expert tasters, the magazine compared 57 store-brand foods from five major retailers— Costco, Sam's Club, Walmart, Kmart, Target, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods—to iconic brands such as Heinz ketchup, Birds Eye mixed vegetables and Breyers ice cream.

The result: 33 of the 57 store-brand food items tasted as good as or better than the national brand, the tasters found. Not only that, when the magazine had staffers who regularly purchased Heinz ketchup and Hellman's mayonnaise do a blind taste comparison with store-brand alternatives, more than 40 percent preferred the store brands.

(Read more: Shoppers less loyal to big brands, survey shows)

Not all the store–brand items were exact replicas of their name-brand counterparts. "When we say a store brand is as good as a national brand, that doesn't mean it is necessarily a carbon-copy of the national brand," explained Tod Marks, a senior editor at Consumer Reports. "They may be equal in quality, but have a different flavor profile based on ingredients or recipe."

Still, in a few notable cases, the private-label brands were virtually carbon-copies of the well-known national brands. Target's Market Pantry ketchup was a "virtual dead-ringer" for Heinz ketchup, the tasters said. They noted that Heinz ketchup has a "full flavor that balances sweetness, saltiness and sourness. There's also a hint of onion powder." They found Target's Market Pantry ketchup to be "remarkably similar."

(Read more: Warren Buffett on Heinz)

The mayo from Costco (Kirkland Signature,) Target (Market Pantry) and Walmart (Great Value) were "near-twins" for Hellman's mayonnaise (called Best Foods mayonnaise on the West Coast), which the tasters found to be "well-blended, creamy, slightly sweet and salty, and eggy, with a hint of vinegar."

The results were "a real eye-opener," Marks said, "especially since all are more than one-third cheaper than the name brand."

A few more findings from the taste-off:

– Walmart's Great Vanilla ice cream came pretty close to Breyers.
– All seven store-brand cashews rated better than Emerald, the national brand.
– Trader Joe's mixed vegetables were crisper and fresher than Birds Eye.

(Read more: Store brands to savor)

The findings have the potential to spur a big change in your grocery spending.

Supermarket brands typically cost between 15 to 30 percent less than national brands, and in some cases, the difference is much greater. Consumer Reports found that many private-label food items at Walmart and Sam's Club are 50 to 60 percent cheaper.

But store brands aren't always a bargain.

"We found that store brands by Whole Foods were often much more expensive than the national brand," Marks said. "And some of Trader Joe's store brands were also more expensive. So it always makes sense to check the price."

Store brands now account for about one out of every four products at the supermarket—everything from shredded mozzarella and balsamic vinegar to trail mix and cranberry juice. Stores use private-label products to build customer loyalty. You can get spaghetti anywhere, but you'll only find 365 spaghetti at Whole Foods.

(Read more: Why the crop crunch won't cut your food bill)

"Over the last couple of years we've seen store brands with better packaging and better quality," said Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com. "We should continue to see store brands steal market share away from the national brands."

If ingredients are important to you, be sure to check nutrition labels. You may find a difference, like a cheaper store brand substituting high fructose corn syrup for sugar, but there is little downside to trying a store-brand alternative.

"There's no risk to the consumer here," Lempert reminds us. "Store brands come with a money-back guarantee. If you don't like it, just bring it back."

—By CNBC contributor Herb Weisbaum. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @TheConsumerman or visit The ConsumerMan website.

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