/ 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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Sophie Gilbert says:
20 July 2011

Before reading Shefalee’s article, I thought, “budget vs premium food – can you taste the difference?”: sometimes yes, sometimes no, it’s a case of trial and error. And the article bears that up.

I would also agree with Ryan’s saying that you need to think what you’re going to use items for. I made onion soup the other day and stuck a tablespoonful of my cheaper brandy in it, not of the good stuff I like to drink.

As a diabetic who reads the nutrirional information on food labels, I got the impression some years ago that UK producers add sugar to cheaper products while European suppliers reduce it. Has any research been done on attitudes to additives?

Anne says:
20 July 2011

I also buy food, including meat, from ‘budget supermarket’ Lidl. They have reasonably priced, good quality meat and the offers on their fresh seasonal fruit and veg can be stunning. I try to go there to shop first, then pick up whatever else is left on my list from Sainsburys or Morrisons afterwards.

harryjoe says:
20 August 2011

Lidl lean steak mince has “typically” <7% fat. Tesco's is 10 or higher from my checking.

Sheila H King says:
20 July 2011

I shop in Sainsburys and buy their budget fruit – bananas, apples, pears – their pasta and muesli – and their denture tablets. We can’t detect any difference in the quality between these standard and budget items.

Ray Dunn says:
20 July 2011

This seems a good policy if you don’t have to travel miles out of your way. We do the same. However, in our case we have 3 Lidl stores within a few miles of us. We also have 2 Aldi stores within a couple of miles or so. What is left on the list can be obtained from the local Tesco, Morrisons, Asda or Sainsburys. Whatever its other shortcomings, Bradford is not short of food stores.

I try Sainsbury’s Basic Range for any new product I buy.If I like it-and 9 times out of 10 I do-I stick to it.
The yoghurt is great as are their avocados.
Basic toffees and chocolate are fine too and the Basic tinned tomatoes are excellent.
A friend swears by the basic tea bags but in this case I am sticking to Yorkshire tea..

Norman Taylor says:
20 July 2011

Blow the budget lines at the posh supermarkets. We prefer the budget supermarkets Lidl and Aldi for 90% of our food shopping and smaller retailers including our village shop for the rest. Most of the products in the aforementioned supermarkets are as good as and often better than Tesco Sainsburys or Morrisons and certainly better priced. Some might consider the limited range of goods a disadvantage but it seldom inconveniences us and is easily rectified by creeping into the other establishments occasionally.

I have shopped at Morrisons (Blackpool) since it opened 12 or more years ago. In those days I considered Morrisons to be the best of the 4 big supermarkets, especially for their value range. However, since the arrival of Aldi and Lidl I find their prices to be lower and the quality higher. In recent years there has been a change in Morrison`s policy, their prices have risen and the quality has deminished. What is more the staff are not trained in the manner in which they used to be. Well done Aldi and Lidl, lower prices do not necessitate poorer quality.

Edith McLaughlin says:
21 July 2011

In Northern Ireland we pay more than UK mainland and we have no Aldi or Morrisons.
Lidl and Dunnes stores are certainly cheaper and just as good quality, than the BIG Stores.
You are not tempted to avail of the “in your face” (so called offers eg 3 for 2, buy one get one free).
I know it’s old advice but making a list of what you actually need and sticking to it, makes all the difference!!

Thanks to a helpful email we have now added in the option ‘None’ to our poll for those who would not buy any of those foods from a budget range. If you’ve held back to vote before now because of this, please vote now. And remember, it’s a multiple choice poll so you can vote for more than one type of food! Thanks.

What the government should do is stop misleading the public about the inflation rate by including high price electrical goods (e.g. plasma screen televisions that the person on a budget cannot afford) in the RPI shopping basket. Conveniently, of course, high price electrical goods invariably tend to be reducing in price as technology develops. Government should bear in mind that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. We KNOW that the real inflation rate for the products that we buy is not 4% to 5%. I suppose the policy works for government if they can fool enough of the people enough of the time.

Mike says:
22 July 2011

Can anyone inform me the cause of the ballooning cost of food? Seems to be some sort of hiccup between what supermarkets are paying for produce and what the farmer receives! Is it another example of rip-off Britain? Supermarkets have decimated ‘corner shops’ to such a degree they can now charge what they want, confident in the knowledge there is no effective competition. I thought we were supposed to be in the grip of a recession? If customers identified ‘comfort’ spending and set about reducing their overall checkout bills we would see a sudden decline in price rises. Once again we are being taken for donkeys, if you are serious about reducing your expenditure buy only what is absolutely necessary and steer clear of 2 for 1 offers unless both products are to be used immediately.

Ivano says:
22 July 2011

Food price increase does impact on our budget because we are pensioners, the worry is that not only price has gone up but quality has gone down in order for Supermarkets to maintain margin when it should be a shared loss. Do they not make enough profit already? Vegetables and fruit I find are nowhere as good as they should be, perhaps they are also cutting down on buying skills!
We really ought to teach them a lesson in one way or other, Which could lead the way, I would follow for sure.

Drib says:
22 July 2011

Choice would be nice but our local Tesco has dropped brand after brand and then reduced the packet size.
Anyone else able to find a choice for store cupboard essentials like Wholemeal Plain Flour. My Tesco only supplies Allinson in 1Kg bags at a scandalous £1.57.
No own brand.
Its own brand Wholemeal Bread Flour is £0.98 per Kg and in the standard 1.5 Kg bags with 4 alternatives namely, Dove Farm, Carrs, Hovis and Allinsons.
Plain flour is milled from local soft wheat (little transport cost) but Strong or Bread flours are milled from hard wheat which we in Britain do not produce. Russia has stopped supplies so we now depend on the USA & Canada.(at least 5000 mile transport costs) Yet as you can see Tesco is blantantly profiteering.
If there were an alternative store I would gladly move custom but as is normal the alternatives are at least a further 12 miles away and therefore impracticable. I repeat. Choice would be nice.

Lidl and Aldi have appeared in this conversation but no-one has mentioned Pound Shop yet. Does this say something about where Which? readers draw the line when admitting to saving money on food?

Zoe says:
23 July 2011

I think it probably says more about where Pound Shops are. I, for instance, have never heard of them.

Catriona Morgan says:
1 September 2011

Very little of the food offered by Poundland could be described as basic (with the exeption of canned fish which does occur occasionally) Most of it is the kind of food you would do well to avoid anyway (chocolate, sweets, crisps, biscuits etc) especially if you are on a budget. I get the impression too that both Lidls and Aldi are cheaper and have better quality (chocolate certainly). Other things at Pound Land are great though. Books especially – just keep your eye in

59% price increase by Walkers Crisps.
Brands that are strong in the marketplace will inevitably find it easier to impose price increases.
About 2 years ago the unit cost for a packet of Walkers Crips in a special offer multipack worked out at around 7 pence. Today the best unit price around works out to around 11 pence per packet (£2.00 for an 18 pack): TIME TO TRY CHEAPER LESS STRONG BRANDS.

PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES stoking up inflation.
Lacri-lube 5g price £2.43 on 10 April 2009.
Same product costs £6.45 on 28 May 2009.
Such products inevitably have little competition and pharmacies don’t seem to recommend cheaper alternatives (maybe cheaper alternatives don’t exist because of limited product demand).


“28 May 2009” should read “28 May 2011”.

165% price increase in two years.

Pringles tubes of crisps appear to be a product that has an inflated “normal” selling price – of around £2 per tube. This is how some retailers can profitably sell the product at “buy one get two free” (Sainsburys £2.39 per tube buy one get two free recently) or £1 per tube (Tesco yesterday).
Muiller yoghurts might be a further example of inflated “normal prices” with regular “buy one get one free” and “buy one get two free” offers on a product with a “normal” (=inflated) price of £3.29 [for a 6-pack].
Chicago Town Pizzas regular price (two pack) around £1.75, some retailers from time to time offer this product at £1.00 indicationg that £1.75 is another possible inflated “normal price”.

Some of the best deals don’t seem to get reported on Which?

Rechargeable AA size NiMH batteries 4 pack.
Aldi stock these regularly @ around £2.79, and also (but intermittently) Lidl at a similar price. These bargain prices didn’t get a mention in the recent Which? report on rechargeable batteries, people could therefore get misled into paying a lot more elsewhere.

Hi David, thanks for the tip off. We can’t always test every battery on the market, and selecting which ones to include is always a challenge. We do try to focus batteries that are always widely available but perhaps these will make it into our next test.

Tesco and Sainsburys issue loyalty cards which enable them to gather personal information as in shopping habits.
It would appear that by by NOT shopping at one shop or the other can prompt them, from this gathered information, to issue discount coupons over and above the points. For example £10 off a £50 spend or £10 off a £60 spend being recent examples.