Let your labels hang out

Cheaper store brands are becoming as popular as name-brand food - and often taste as good. (Photo by Julie Barnett)

Store brands are rising in popularity and quality

If you're finding your shopping cart increasingly filled with Hill Country Fare and 365 label products as you make your way through the grocery aisles at H-E-B and Whole Foods, you're not alone. The private label food industry - store brands to you and me - grew at almost twice the rate as name-brand products in 2003. At the Private Label Manufacturers Association Store Brands 2025 Private Label Trade Show this November in Chicago, more than 2,300 booths will feature health, food, beauty, and lifestyle products awaiting the stamp of a recognized retailer.

Always a little behind the curve, I waltzed through Central Market weekly, dolefully passing up roasted peppers for $6 a jar until last spring, when I happened into the Olmos H-E-B and spotted their new line of pre-packaged dinner materials and fancy condiments. At the checkout stand I almost cried when I realized I could have bought a decent used car and still eaten in style if I'd been shopping like this for the past four years.

Central Market, part of the H-E-B family, has introduced its own line of upscale products, marketed under the CM Naturals tag, but these products - designed to lure you into the Gourmet and Saveur lifestyle more than save you money - cater to an emerging demographic in the private label market: affluent shoppers. This article isn't for them, unless they're thrifty, too; it's for the traditional store brand shopper, who the Food Marketing Institute found, tends to be from "larger and less affluent" households.

A 2003 FMI report noted that shoppers increasingly see improved quality in store brands. What this means to the marketers is that they can ratchet up your consumer loyalty to a particular grocery store chain. What it means to you and me, shopping on a budget, is that we can pinch pennies on things like pasta and dishwasher soap without feeling the poorer for it.

Of course, part of that perception is in the packaging, a fact not lost on H-E-B when it rolled out its newer H-E-B label products, which include roasted red and yellow bell peppers under the enticing Harvest Moon moniker (at $1.79 for a 4-ounce jar, a real steal). The older, dowdier Hill Country Fare brand is still ubiquitous throughout the store, and when it comes to detergent, cat food, and cat litter, it's more than serviceable. But where these products overlap on food items you'll almost always get better quality by paying a few pennies more for the H-E-B tag. A couple of exceptions are the instant oatmeal and the frozen vegetables, but avoid the HCF toaster pastries like the pasty plague they are.

The H-E-B pre-fab dinners are almost uniformly of high quality. Marinated chicken, pork, and beef fajita meat are tender, flavorful, and ready for the grill. If you've barely got time for the microwave, pick up an 8-ounce package of spaghetti (52 cents!), a jar of Puttanesca pasta sauce ($1.79), and frozen Italian meatballs ($2.50 for the 16-ounce package), and you have a reasonably nutritious, satisfying meal for four on the table in Olympic-record time.

Being a San Antonio-based chain, H-E-B caters to our penchant for artery-clogging foods with frozen, pre-cooked barbacoa that oozes as much rich, orange grease as the stuff from the taqueria down the street (for good supermarket tortillas, though, you'll have to scoot on over to Central Market). For dessert, serve a Turtle Cheesecake. The texture and the chocolate crumb crust are as good as most restaurants' and it's rich enough that the economical 28-ounce size ($3.50) will produce twice the six servings promised on the box.

H-E-B didn't get to be the Texas giant it is without anticipating our trends, and it has even begun introducing some health conscious foods such as soy milk made with organic soy beans. It's comparable in price and quality to Whole Food's 365 Everyday Value brand, but if you're a real label reader - the sort who cares if there's high fructose corn syrup in your soda and who buys organic as often as you can afford it - then 365, which the company introduced in 1997, will appeal to you. The 365 products are free of genetically modified organisms and contain labeling related to allergies, as well as inspiring exhortations such as, "Your heart will thank you and so will your taste buds."

Whole Foods also has upscale private label products such as Allegro coffees which will make you feel better about buying coffee from Latin American countries but won't ease the strain on your pocketbook. Similarly, the Whole Kids Organics label products are more expensive than, say, conventional peanut butter, but they will save you money compared to most other organic name brands.

Especially notable in the 365 label are the body care products, including shampoos, conditioners, and lotions of comparable quality to Alba, for instance, but at a fraction of the cost. Which could save you enough to splurge on an artisanal cheese at Central Market. •

By Elaine Wolff


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