/ Food & Drink

Budget vs premium food – can you taste the difference?

Budget supermarket vegetables

Almost nine in ten respondents to our latest survey said that, compared with a year ago, their grocery bill has increased. So, can you save cash by swapping premium for budget supermarket food without sacrificing taste?

We also found that four in ten shoppers now buy more food from supermarket own-brand economy ranges than they did 12 months ago.

So we decided to test over 200 everyday items from the big four supermarkets (Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco) to see whether their discount ranges could compete with their more expensive, premium offerings.

We put supermarket’s premium and budget ranges head-to-head by comparing nutritional value, ingredients and their origins, and animal welfare standards. We also conducted a taste-test with The Good Food Guide award-winning chef, Ryan Simpson, to see whether differences were obvious.

Budget meat, vegetables and yoghurt

Before we started this investigation I had never bought budget, as I assumed ‘you get what you pay for’. However, following the results, I’ve bought budget butter for cooking and budget cheese to use in a sauce – both were perfectly fine.

However, I still won’t buy budget meat. We found that premium meats had fewer added ingredients (including water) and were generally from prime cuts of meat. For example, premium sausages contained twice as much meat as their budget counterparts.

Whereas differences between premium and budget versions of plain yoghurt and vegetables were difficult to spot. In fact, when it came to spaghetti, Ryan actually preferred Tesco’s Value range over its Finest spaghetti range, finding the former ‘less rubbery’.

The differences between budget and standard vegetables are mainly down to appearance – standard veg (class 1) is more uniform in appearance and budget veg (class 2) allows more irregularities in size and some broken pieces.

It’s actually quite possible that the two vegetable ranges come from the very same farm! Surely it’s all the same once a carrot has been chopped up and put in a stew?

What budget foods would you buy?

So, as you can see from our research, there are plenty of foods you can buy cheap without sacrificing taste. In fact, you may not even notice the difference.

Ryan also said it’s a good idea to think about what you’re going to use an item for. Using premium cheese to melt into a sauce is a waste, as you’ll lose the texture you’re paying extra for. But if you want it for a cheese board, it’s definitely worth paying a little bit more.

Do you regularly combine value and premium supermarket foods in your shopping basket, and if so, how do decide which ones to budget on?

Which of the following foods would you buy from a budget range?

Store cupboard groceries (24%, 685 Votes)

Tinned food (22%, 625 Votes)

Fresh fruit and vegetables (22%, 623 Votes)

Dairy (13%, 386 Votes)

None (5%, 154 Votes)

Fish (5%, 144 Votes)

Meat (5%, 140 Votes)

Ready Meals (5%, 135 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,018

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Morag R H says:
23 July 2011

After shopping a few times at Aldi I realise that there are many good alternatives to well-known brands, especially amongst tinned foods and also washing powders, detergents etc. I think it’s always worth trying out these unknown brands as they are invariably cheaper.

Walderslady says:
23 July 2011

Supermarket “basics” ranges are often excellent, but I cannot for the life of me work out why things like crisps, avocados, sweets and snacks are included. These items are luxuries, and are not essential in any way.

Ralph Morton says:
23 July 2011

Most people don’t take the time to look to see what the contents contain. Most brands of tinned foods are far more expesive from the main supermarkets than from such as Aldi/Lidl. We have found that such as beans/ tomatoes are just as good if not better than most well known brands.(Tip just buy one tin) if you don’t like it you have not lost much however if you do you can save loads.

Pete says:
23 July 2011

There is more to consider than Branded vs Economy cuts. Global demand for food is rising which drives up commodity prices, especially meat. Processed food markups are exorbitant as demonstrated in this year BBC programs about bottled water, packet cereals and yogurts. Bottled water has to be the biggest health hype of them all and comes with a massive packaging cost to the environment for a commodity that is piped to you door. Then as being discussed here, there is price positioning by supermarkets and other retailers with ‘best… & budget price (quality?). On the other hand Branded manufacturers invest in research to improve products. There is good value in eating unpopular food, tinned sardines are fantastic. I tried Sainsbury’s basics trimmed smoke salmon with my cucumber sandwiches and the were pretty good. I likes my fish and would like to see all those discarded fish that are thrown back dead into the sea turned into fish cakes. I’ll eat them, who else will. Maybe rising food prices is a good thing!

KC says:
23 July 2011

Food prices have inevitably to increase as production costs and world commodity prices increase. Supermarkets and food manufacturers may find ways to reduce costs but this must not compromise nutritional quality, or standards of production where animals are concerned.
I wrote to my MP in 2008 warning of the eventual effects of supermarket food price wars creating unrealistically low staple food prices.
As a result of continual price wars, food is grossly undervalued and consumers expect cheap food.
The increases needed to keep food businesses viable now come at the same time as economic turmoil both in this country and worldwide.
Retailers complaining about negative growth while their profits still increase must share the pain like everyone else.
They should return some of the substantially increased margin over retail prices they have greedily gained over the last 10 years instead of transferring increased costs to producers or consumers.
If retailers had kept food prices realistic in the first place and not screwed down producer margins to increase their margins and pay for loss-leaders like milk etc, this would not have caused such a “double whammy” for consumers.
If farmers who produce food in the UK go out of business due to greedy retailers continually taking a disproportionate amount of the money consumers pay for their food, then consumers really will see huge rises in food prices.

Charlotte says:
23 July 2011

We need to be doing more to support UK farmers, I agree. I have to watch my finances (no exotic holidays or luxury splurges) but I am lucky enough to not be struggling. Good quality food is really a priority for me. I try to eat organic, free range whenever possible, that’s for the taste but even more because it does make a difference to my health. But I think it is even more important to support local UK farmers and go to farmer’s markets for as much as I can. I’ve had a good attempt at growing my own this year, even using the front garden. It’s not the Good Life and it’s not the answer to everything but black-thumbed as I am, I managed to get loads of rhubarb and courgettes, with no effort and they taste just amazing. Herbs are a good economy, if you buy that kind of thing in supermarkets. Seeds cost less than a single bag of fresh and it’s very satisfying. My favourite, Basil, was not so easy to grow but I think I’ve figured out it needs a lot less water than I think. To quote the dreadful supermarket tag line, every little ‘elps. But really growing these few things myself really has helped.

KC says:
23 July 2011

Take an interest in the food you are buying, look at where it was produced and what it contains, use seasonal food, go for quality, taste and nutritional value. To save money on food, plan your meals, waste less and cut out the expensive junk food. Don’t fall for the Bogoff’s if they aren’t what you really need, and make sure larger sizes are actually cheaper. Stick to your list and keep your eyes peeled for distractions eg Look at this then you won’t notice that. Support UK food producers as they circulate money back into their local economy and also contribute billions indirectly to the UK economy.

Most of my shopping is done at Lidl or Aldi. I occasionally shop at Morrison’s to use up Vouchers obtained from petrol purchases and am shocked at how much more expensive things are in comparison.
Although some items like yeast or wholemeal flour aren’t available at Lidl/Aldi I rarely shop elsewhere. There tinned foods are very good, particularly fish products. Products are often aimed at the continental market and are more varied and probably better quality. Vegetables are cheaper especially the weekly special offers. I subscribe to weekly newsletters from Lidl and Aldi and have purchased many electrical,household, sportswear and DIY items which don’t appear in Which? reviews as they are only available for a limited period. I have never been disappointed.

i always used to by premium/branded products bit of a food snob,but not now.the difference in price can be quite a bit.cereals i 99% buy supermarkets brand oh apart from cornflakes you just can’t beat kelloggs.if you buy buscuits try basics,we shop at sainsburys mostly and get basic rich tea and bourbons.lol.very cheap and just as good.what a price to.as i read before try something that are cheaper like basic if you like it great if not try the next price range above it.trial and error.you’ll ba amazed at somethings and the savings esp in these worrying financial times.

David S. says:
29 July 2011

I am late submitting my comments because I have just returned from a family holiday in Greece.
Things are pretty desparate there. Prices have rocketed. 95 octane unleaded petrol hovers between £1.55 and £1.65 a litre, and food prices have never been higher. Also the Greek government has tightened up the taxation system, so that everyone now pays tax, businesses and individuals alike. Unemployment has already reached record levels. Strikes are frequent and unpredictable.
So much for my holidays — let’s talk U.K.
My regular food shopping takes me to Tesco, Asda, Lidl and Aldi. It really is getting difficult to keep the food bills within sensible limits AND maintain a healthy diet. Supermarket special offers seem always to favour food high in fat, salt, and sugar. Meat prices have increased by up to 50% in the last 6 months, and those of us who depend on increasingly infrequent supermarket special
offers to stock our freezers with meat are rapidly running out of ideas. Lamb is ‘off the menu’ altogether (other than bony ‘stewing packs’) because U.K. producers (farmers) find it much more
profitable to export both animals and carcases to other EC countries, leaving U.K. prices sky high.
Short-dated (yellow label) supermarket meat is discounted, but even this is often over-priced. Quite how pensioners and the rapidly increasing numbers of unemployed people afford to feed themselves and their families, I really do not know. I can only surmise that the diet quality of poor people will deteriorate to an extent that even health experts could not predict: not just excessive fat,salt, and sugar, but actual nutrient deficiencies (viz.WWII). If we were lucky enough to have a leader with true vision, perhaps government action on food prices would take priority over temporarily reducing the price of petrol! Meanwhile let us hope that our government does not see fit to inflict on all of us the extent of hardships that my Greek friends are currently experiencing.

harryjoe says:
20 August 2011

your greek friends are getting the start of a long cold shower by paying taxes paid in other countries. basically their government lied/defrauded the european union. greece should be left sink, but it would drown the frence banks big time and almost a big the greman, italian and british. socialism is for the many, capitalism is for the few. we are the many, we have the power. turn off the telly; listen to nature or the noise about you. some medtation music and declutter the brain from the ad. noise and lights. give yourself space and time to think…not but told how to think!

I think Which should do more serious research on this. This idea that you can substitute cheaper items for more expensive ones without any loss of quality as prices rises is the very basis if the government’s switch to CPI. Since this switch will essentially rob existing pensioners of 20% of their pensions by the time they die (50% by the time you reach pension age if you are a 20 year old today) this is clearly an important matter. Basically if the government is wrong, which I think it is, they are just using a mathematical trick to steal our pensions. They key questions are how reliably could you do this replacement without losing quality and how long could you do it without running out of road – the government assumes forever – and can you do it for non supermarket goods. As I say this is a vitla argument to us all.

Graham Cox says:
10 August 2011

as a member i expect Which to set up consumer panels to taste value/own label and report differences in ingredients.

This more important that other goods as we spend most on food!!

Please, get cracking

harryjoe says:
20 August 2011

from someone with their nose to the “coalface” i.e. dairy farming 6.5 days/wk( yearly average 10.5 hrs/day) on father’s farm; food has got dearer but about 18 mths after disel, fertilizer and electricity. food is controlled in general by a few large compananies, their names aren’t even on the products but they are the advertisers, lobby and donation lists.the you have the supermarkets. 3 for X pounds! how much a pound/KILO?similar with none food stuff. low price—low quality. mostly impossible to repair.. . should have a label…”scan bar code before throw in bin and replacement on fast boat from china”. dont worry you or your family or neighbours will still have jobs. in the growing bin & import services sector. don’t worry about the toxic chemicals, well for a while at least, new almost legal slave workers, soil, water and air(hopefully) can be found to replace. sorry repair not an option at this “CHEAP” price.

Luke says:
8 June 2012

While of first appearance value biscuits seem as good and have the exact same ingredients as named brands but I would advise you to look at the saturated fat content per 100g. It is astonishing the difference. Although if you only have a few biscuits at a time then you don’t need to worry but having a pack at once!

I cannot remember off the top of my head but it is around 6-8g difference from value to brand.

One thing I do like to do when in supermarkets is when there is a busy isle i will pick up two products, one value and one brand and try to make it obvious i am comparing. You then later see the same people having a look. Curiosity kills the cat 🙂

Joanne says:
19 October 2012

I absolutely applaud Lidl and and Aldi, they have saved me by selling high quality food for a decent price. I can no longer afford Sainsbury’s and Tesco prices, even though they claim to be cheaper!

I think Which needs to be careful what it is saying here. The government has been arguing that people can shift to cheaper goods without any loss of quality – it’s called substitution – as the reason for preferring CPI over RPI. CPI is lower than RPI and so all state employees, state pensioners, benefit recipients and about half of private pensioners will see thier pensions slowly but relentlessly eroded. They could lose as much as 20% over theirpension life. Govt workers could lose 30% of their pensionsbefore they even pick them up and more later. The enthusiasm for Lidl/Aldi and supermarket budget lines here plays into their hands. My view would be that both have good things but not consistently and they keep changing products so knowing what to buy to maintain quality at a lower price is nearly impossible. Morrisons goes for sugary starchy type foods. I see little quality there. Ditto supermarket budget lines. If they were as good why would they cahrge less (though personally I am happy with nobbly fruit and veg). So the government line of sustaining quality at lower prices is I think hard to maintain. I think you need to be careful not to lend them credence for a larcenous policy. PS Actually even they don’t really believe it now and are trying to massage RPI down to CPI by changing the formulae. PPS It’s bored with not bored of (bugbear of mine)

Aldi have stopped their wholewheat bread flour which was good flour and have resorted to going to non tax payers Amazon who have teamed up with Bacheldre mill to supply 16kg bags at a £1 a kilo.
I have only tried it once and it was amazing
I have assuaged my guilt by e-mailing amazon to stop their immoral tax avoidance.

Daniel says:
24 February 2013

I shop at Tescos, and what I can’t understand is why Tescos value cornflakes sell for 31p, and the normal Tesco cornflakes sell for 1.80 when as far as I can tell there is no difference between them. They are both fortified with the same amount of vitamins and minerals. The sugar and salt content slighty varies with the cheaper brand if memory serves me right actually having slighty less. They are both produced in France for Tescos. The only difference as far as I can tell is that the cheaper brand perhaps has a slightly blander taste, but certainly not tasteless. I don’t understand it, as essentially surely they are made from the same basic ingredient, and yet one is 5 times the price of the other. Can anyone explain this.

Derek H says:
26 September 2014

No, no, no WHICH?. Real premium pasta costs more than £16 per kilo – as in Filotea linguine and Giusppe Cocco tagliatelle. They take 3 and 4 minutes (respectively) to cook and WOW can you tell the difference.

Forget the supermarkets. Meat from the local butcher, fish from the Fish Van (straight from Brixham), bread from the bakers (maybe not cheap but 10x better), fruit and veg from the market, cheese from the cheese stall. You get the idea. Washing/dishwasher tablets from Home Bargains. Cat food and store cupboard stuff from Aldi (cat loves Aldi cat food). Save enough to treat ourselves in Waitrose