Advertising has a powerful effect. Even toddlers’ desires are formed by exposure to TV commercials. For many of us, advertising is the source of the information we use, consciously or unconsciously, in making decisions about what to buy. But blind brand loyalty can be costly because, more often than you might imagine, the only meaningful difference between a national brand product and its generic version is the price.
To find out if people with expert knowledge shop differently from the rest of us, researchers examined 66 million shopping trips in 2015 and published their results in a paper, “Do Pharmacists Buy Bayer? Informed Shoppers and the Brand Premium.” They found that pharmacists who bought headache remedies purchased store brands 91 percent of the time. The average household, in comparison, chooses brand-name headache remedies 74 percent of the time. The researchers arrived at similar results when looking at how professional chefs shop for groceries.
Sometimes brand-name products have something unique to offer. Often, though, they don’t. Here’s how to draw your own conclusions:
- Read labels. Hold the brand-name product next to its generic counterpart and compare the lists of ingredients on the labels. In the case of over-the-counter medicines, look for “active” ingredients — the components of the medicine.
- Run your own comparison. Experiment by purchasing a brand-name product and using it alongside a generic. Diapers, for example, or paper towels. Generics differ, so give several off-brand products or store-branded versions a try to draw your own conclusions about when it’s worthwhile to spend extra on a national brand.
Here are 22 generics we think are the best choice — or definitely worth considering even if you’re skeptical:
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Choose store brands and save money — that’s if you must buy bottled water. But for serious savings, forget bottled water entirely and drink tap water — the quintessential generic! If you’re still not sure, get a good filter and run your tap water through it.
Here’s why tap water trumps bottled water. Even generic bottled water is a lot more expensive and not necessarily any safer than tap water. In fact, about a quarter of the bottled water sold in stores comes from a tap, according to the National Resources Defense Council, which adds:
It’s important to note that the federal government does not require bottled water to be safer than tap. In fact, just the opposite is true in many cases. Tap water in most big cities must be disinfected, filtered to remove pathogens, and tested for cryptosporidium and giardia viruses. Bottled water does not have to be.
Bottled water also contributes greatly to environmental problems. “Each year making the plastic water bottles used in the U.S. takes enough oil and energy to fuel a million cars,” according to The Story of Bottled Water, a video featuring Annie Leonard, creator of The Story of Stuff Project. And then there are the environmental costs of transportation and landfills for all those bottles.
2. Over-the-counter medications
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that generic and brand-name medications conform to safety standards and that similar products have identical ingredients. As the FDA website says:
“Most people believe that if something costs more, it has to be better quality. In the case of generic drugs, this is not true,” says Gary Buehler, Director of FDA’s Office of Generic Drugs. “The standards for quality are the same for brand name and generic products.”
See for yourself: When you’re in the store, line up the labels of a brand-name drug — Advil and ibuprofen, for example. Their active ingredients are identical.
3. Prescription drugs
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As with over-the-counter medications, generic prescription drugs must conform to strict federal guidelines.
The FDA says generic prescription medicines “are copies of brand-name drugs and are the same as those brand-name drugs in dosage form, safety, strength, route of administration, quality, performance characteristics and intended use.”
Best of all, generics save you up to 95 percent of the cost of the medicine, according to Consumer Reports.
4. Baby formula
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Baby formula also is governed by the FDA, which holds generics to the same standards as brand-name products.
Here’s the back story: In 1978 a national formula producer caused a health crisis when it changed the recipe in two of its soy-based formulas, omitting salt (sodium chloride). Chloride is essential to growth and development in infants, the FDA says, in a recap of the issue:
By mid-1979, a substantial number of infants had been diagnosed with hypochloremic metabolic alkalosis, a syndrome associated with chloride deficiency. Development of this syndrome in these infants was found to be associated with prolonged exclusive use of chloride-deficient soy formulas.
To resolve the crisis, Congress in 1980 passed the Infant Formula Act, giving the Food and Drug Administration power to regulate and oversee the quality of infant formula.
The upshot: Your baby may prefer some formulas to others, but all formulas made in the United States — brand-name or generic — must meet FDA standards for quality and safety.
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The more local your dairy, the fresher your milk will be. Read labels on milk cartons and bottles to see where the milk originates. Often, a store-brand product comes from the same dairy as a costlier brand-name product. Otherwise, all homogenized and pasteurized milk is subject to identical USDA safety and cleanliness regulations. When Consumer Reports ran a taste-off comparing store-brand and brand-name groceries, store-brand milk was popular among readers.
A tip: Generics may not be the best choice for all dairy products. As the Kitchn advises: “[S]kip the generic yogurt; it usually features extra additives and sugars, and distinct quality and texture differences distinguish brands.”
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When shopping for sunscreen, look for an SPF rating of 30 or more and a product that protects from both UVA and UVB rays. When a store brand or off-brand sunscreen meets these tests and costs less, you’ve got a good deal.
7. Seasonings and spices
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Freshness is what counts when buying herbs and spices. Brand names do not necessarily guarantee freshness. Try your store’s generics, and see what you think. Or, better yet, buy in bulk from a spice shop or food cooperative, buying only as much as you need. High turnover is more likely in bulk purchases, ensuring that you’ll get the freshest ingredients at considerably lower prices.
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Some shoppers automatically reject the idea of buying generic meat, but, in fact, the chances are excellent that you already have used a store-brand version of chicken, beef, luncheon meat, ground meat or frozen seafood.
As always, read labels to confirm ingredients and the source of the product. Depending on the product and the source, store-brand meats can be just as good as heavily advertised brands.
9. Frozen fruit and vegetables
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Especially in cooking, baking and smoothies, it’s unlikely you’ll notice a difference between store-brand and nationally advertised frozen fruits and vegetables.
10. Canned vegetables and beans
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You can routinely save on groceries by buying your grocery chain’s canned beans, vegetables and fruit. If you are wondering about the generic version of a particular item — canned tomatoes, for example, can vary widely in flavor — try a can of each and compare.
11. Plastic wrap and aluminum foil
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You can find great savings on these generic cooking aids. Some — not all, admittedly — are as good as their brand-name cousins, others are not. (Plastic wrap has to cling, of course.) But experiment because good generic foil and wrap will save you a bundle.
12. Baking and cooking supplies
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The researchers who wrote the “Do Pharmacists Buy Bayer?” study also looked at the shopping patterns of chefs and other food professionals. The pros, they found, use store brands more often than the average grocery shopper. (NPR made a chart from the research showing how likely chefs were to purchase certain foods as either generic or brand-name.)
Considering purchases of salt, sugar and baking soda, the study found that chefs purchased store brands 77 percent of the time, while the average consumer bought store-brand versions of these products 60 percent of the time.
If generic salt is good enough for professional chefs, consider that it’s probably good enough for you too. So is baking powder, condiments like mustard and ketchup, flour and baking powder. Tea was another pantry staple the chefs preferred to buy generic.
13. Snack foods
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Who doesn’t love frozen pizza, chips and other snacks? In many cases you can save money and go with store brands. Professional chefs in the “Bayer” study favored generic snacks over branded products by a small margin.
14. Cleaning products
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Many people use generic or brand-name cleaning products interchangeably, depending on the availability of coupons and sales. Unless you’ve got a favorite cleaner that you believe outperforms all others, you’ll get the job done and save money with generics.
If you like the DIY approach, make a few of your own products, saving money and eliminating toxins from your home.
15. Makeup and personal-care products
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Some store brands of personal-case products have the same active ingredients as name brands and work equally well. Every expensive name brand you can drop from your routine, substituting a less-expensive generic version, adds to your bottom line. Try generic or low-cost versions especially of soaps, hand and face creams and moisturizers, facial cleansers, bubble bath and hair products. “Does Bargain Toothpaste Work Just as Well?” explains how to spot cheap but high-quality toothpaste.
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The Orange County Register examined whether cheaper gas really hurts a car’s engine, as advertising sometimes claims.
“Buy the cheapest gas you can get that’s convenient and close,” said Steve Mazor, chief automotive engineer with the Automobile Club of Southern California Automotive Research Center, speaking to the Register. Mazor has been testing gas for 30 years.
Highly advertised additives don’t matter, the Register found.
“As long as you’re getting the right octane level … you might as well use the gas that’s the cheapest,” William Green, a chemical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the paper.
17. HDMI cables
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When ZDNet writer David Gewirtz’s wife, on a late-night errand to Walmart to replace a failed HDMI cable, spent $112 for two 12-foot cables — $56 each — he compared prices at Best Buy, Walmart, Target and GameStop and found that the costs were similarly high. In fact, at Best Buy he found a house-brand 3.3-foot cable selling for $495.99.
After returning the Walmart cables he found a 25-foot cable on Amazon for less than $10. He concludes:
Don’t believe all the hype from some of the in-store salespeople. Most HDMI cables will work just fine.
18. Fresh produce
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Prices for fresh produce vary enormously. Local, no-brand fruits and vegetables usually are your best bet. They don’t have to travel as far to reach your table so can be fresher and more flavorful. Find them at farmers markets, food co-ops, independent grocers and farm stands. Generic produce found at Trader Joe’s and in big-box stores like Costco are often an excellent deal for the money.
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Try out generic versions of your favorite cereal — be it flakes, loops, nuggets or oat O’s — and the chances are good you’ll find that store brands and off-brands have the same look and taste — for as much as $1 less a box. What’s not to like?
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Many generic diapers do the job as well as brand-name ones, but at huge savings. To save most, buy Target or Walmart generics, which tend to run about 4 cents apiece less than generics at a warehouse club, CreditDonkey.com research analyst Lauren Ward tells Kiplinger.
“And while saving just a few cents per diaper might not seem like much, the spare change can add up if you’re buying hundreds of diapers per year,” Kiplinger writes.
Of course not all generic diapers are created equal. Test the off-brands for yourself, buying a small package before investing in bulk purchases.
21. Soda pop
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Is brand-name soda really better-tasting? The answer, it turns out, is quite complicated. We are not suggesting that all generic cola is as good as Coke. But consider this: Repeatedly in taste tests, subjects tell researchers they prefer a brand-name drink when it’s really a generic but they think it is a brand-name product.
Of one study, Huffington Post writes:
Interestingly, when the scientists scanned the subjects’ brains using MRI technology, drinking what they thought was name brand soda created activity in the reward center of their brains. But drinking what they thought was generic soda triggered activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex of test subjects’ brains, the part of the brain used to make value judgments.
Scientists believe that when we use “brand name” products, we already assume that they’re of good quality, so the part of our brain used to assess whether something is worthy of appreciation shuts off, so we take more pleasure in the experience.
If you ignored the common prejudice toward famous national soda brands, could you enjoy a generic soda as much as your favorite brand? Why not give it a shot. You’ll certainly save money.
22. Packaged salad and fruit mixes
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As you probably know from experience, buying a national brand’s cut fruit or prepared salad does not guarantee freshness. Many grocery stores offer their own salads and cut fruit, often prepared on-site. If the price is better, give the store-brand a try.
What generics do you recommend? Are there more expensive name-brand products you swear by? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.