Advertising has a powerful effect. Even toddlers’ desires are formed by exposure to TV commercials. For many of us, advertising is a source of information we use, consciously or unconsciously, in making decisions about what to buy.
Blind brand loyalty can be costly, though. More often than you might imagine, the only meaningful difference between a national brand product and its generic version is the price.
A study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2015 — titled “Do Pharmacists Buy Bayer? Informed Shoppers and the Brand Premium” — found that pharmacists who bought over-the-counter headache medications chose national brands instead of store brands only 9 percent of the time. By comparison, the average consumer chose brand names 26 percent of the time.
The researchers arrived at similar results when looking at how professional chefs shop for groceries.
Sometimes brand-name products offer something unique. 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.
- Run your own comparison. Experiment by purchasing a brand-name product and using it alongside a generic — diapers or paper towels, for example. Generics differ, so give several off-brand or store-branded products a try to draw your own conclusions about when it’s worthwhile to spend extra on a national brand.
Here are 20 generics we consider worthwhile:
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Choose store brands and save money — that’s if you must buy bottled water. For serious savings, forget bottled water entirely and drink tap water — the quintessential generic. If you’re still unsure, get a good filter and run your tap water through it.
Even generic bottled water is a lot more expensive and not necessarily any safer than tap water. An estimated one-quarter or more of bottled water comes from a tap, according to the National Resources Defense Council. The nonprofit 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.”
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Buying generics is generally a great way to save on medications. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, requires that generic and brand-name medications — whether over-the-counter or prescription — conform to safety standards.
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.”
In “10 Ways to Get Your Medications for Less,” we explain how you can use the database to confirm whether the FDA considers a particular generic prescription drug equivalent to its brand-name version.
3. Baby formula
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Baby formula also is regulated by the FDA, which holds generics to the same quality and safety standards as brand-name products.
Here’s the back story: In 1978 a major formula manufacturer caused a public health problem when it changed the recipe in two of its baby 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.”
In response, Congress passed the Infant Formula Act of 1980, giving the FDA power to regulate and oversee the quality of infant formula.
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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.
Generics may not be the best choice for all dairy products, though. For example, The Kitchn advises that you skip generic yogurt. The blog says generic yogurt “usually features extra additives and sugars, and distinct quality and texture differences distinguish brands.”
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Like medications and infant formula, sunscreens are regulated by the FDA.
Look for an SPF rating of 30 or more and protection from both UVA and UVB rays, known as broad-spectrum protection. To be sure a product offers the latter, look for sunscreens with the phrase “broad spectrum SPF” followed by an SPF number on the front of the product. Under federal law, manufacturers can use that phrase only on products that pass a broad-spectrum testing procedure.
So when a store brand or off-brand sunscreen meets these tests and costs less, you’ve got a good deal.
6. 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.
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Depending on the product and the source, store-brand meats can be just as good as heavily advertised brands. As always, read labels to confirm ingredients and the source of the product.
If you must buy brand-name meat — or to save more on store brands — consider buying meat at a wholesale club. We cite meat in general in “18 Best Buys at Warehouse Stores.”
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. Plastic wrap and aluminum foil
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Some of these kitchen aids are as good as their brand-name cousins, others are not. (Plastic wrap has to cling, of course.) But experiment with generics because good generic foil and plastic wrap will save you a bundle.