Our brains think brand names taste better than generics

The Brand Name Deception

You should avoid most name brands and go straight for the generic.

There, I said it. Post over.  …If only it were that easy. The fact is, we all know that we are deceived by a name brand. We know we shouldn’t get addicted to the brand, but we do anyway!

Penny’s annual science fair was this month. As I was perusing the other boards, I came across this one:

Our brains think brand names taste better than generics

I love the anecdote. This kid is eating 2 cakes, which are both delicious, and his parents start talking about money and quality. The adults have been trained. They spent hard-earned money on those cakes. If the cheaper one is really as good as the expensive one, think of all the money they’ve been wasting over the years! Thanks to intense loss aversion, we would rather maintain the delusion that the cake is better if it costs more money than admit we’ve been wasting our money all this time. We also believe in the delusion so much, I’m convinced we actually experience a difference! Thanks to the young scientists out there, we can test it!

This kid gave people the SAME chocolate. One, he told them cost more than the other. Then he had them rate the chocolate. His hypothesis? The would be rated the same. No one could be fooled into thinking the exact same chocolate was better because they told him it cost more money!

So how did they actually do? His words: “My hypothesis was wrong. Cost can affect taste because when something is said that another thing is different a switch goes off in your brain telling you that it taste different [sic] just because of what the person told you so yes cost does affect taste.”

“Well, that’s crazy,” we think. What fools were tested in this elementary school science fair project? It turns out, it could have been any one of us. When it comes to grocery store products, the generic version is often EXACTLY THE SAME as the branded one. It just comes in a different box. Lifehacker has covered how generic products work with a list of products and their identical, cheaper versions. It’s time to stop assuming we’re getting the best stuff because it costs more.

I wish I could end my post with a simple call to action to re-think your grocery shopping, but the problem goes deeper…

Brand Name is Not Always Better!

In February, a study was published looking at the impact of brand names on placebo drugs. 87 students were given 4 pills and told to take one dose for the next 4 headaches and then fill out a questionnaire about how well it worked. 2 of the pills were labeled “Nurofen,” a fake brand name. The other 2 were labeled “Generic Ibuprofen.” Also, half of them were placebo pills. So, each participant was given:

  1. A Branded Ibuprofen (still Ibuprofen, but with a fake label)
  2. A Generic Ibuprofen (regular ole’ Ibuprofen)
  3. A Branded Placebo Ibuprofen (a fake, branded pill)
  4. A Generic Placebo Ibuprofen (a fake pill indicating a generic ibuprofen – your standard placebo)

Now the placebo effect is real. Doctors don’t test if a medication or treatment does better than nothing. They always test if it does better than placebo, because placebos work. So, we know that if we take anything, we will feel better than taking nothing. So here were the results:

  • “branded tablets worked similarly well at reducing headache pain whether or not they contained an active ingredient.” – Yes, you read that right. If a pill was labeled “Nurofen,” it worked. It didn’t matter if there wasn’t any medicine in it. The branding was more important!
  • “generic tablets that contained a placebo were significantly less effective than generic tablets that contained an active ingredient.” – When they took away the brand name, the actual medicine went back to working better than the fake stuff! Phew! Ibuprofen works.
  • “Participants attributed significantly fewer side effects to brand name tablets containing placebo compared to the same placebo tablets with a generic label.” – Our immediate thinking is “something must be wrong with the cheap one,” so we make up problems. The pills were the same. One had a fake brand name put on it and one didn’t. The one without the brand caused side effects.

If it wasn’t clear, this is a problem. Requesting generic drugs can save both the individual and the healthcare system major money over brand name drugs. But it seems we’re fighting a losing battle. If we can’t get people to buy the exact same spaghetti sauce at the grocery store without a brand on it, how can we expect them to make those choices when it comes to their own health?

But you’re different. You’re a wise consumer. And you question everything. Do you think you can beat the odds?

What generics have you found that are the same or better than the brand names?

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55 Comments

  1. The most interesting part of the brand-name/generic debate to me is the fact that, in the case of some products, generic and brand-name items are actually the same thing…just in different packaging. A family friend works for a cookie company – they sell some of their product as a brand-name item to higher-end grocery stores. And they sell the same thing to Aldi for a lot less.

    • MaggieBanks

      Exactly! – though with electronics, they often take stuff out for Walmart, etc. so it breaks earlier.

  2. We buy generics on most things, and what I notice is that with generics you may have fewer options ( with Cheezits, you can get cheddar or white cheddar generics at our regular grocery, but with the name brand you get something like 15 varieties). Otherwise, the main difference seems to be less attractive packaging. I see no reason to buy anything but store brands on things like milk, butter, cheddar cheese, paper goods, etc without a coupon or sale, but I will pay a bit more to get a particular flavor or variety of something if it’s not available otherwise.

    One thing I’ve noticed at our regular grocery is they are now carrying two generic brands. One has the store’s label and the other is a cheaper generic in ugly orange packaging called “Ka-Ching”. My daughter won’t eat the Ka-Ching macaroni, even though we add extra cheese to it, and she has no clue which box I used to make dinner. She has no problem with the regular store brand, though.

    • MaggieBanks

      Obviously not all generics are created equal! (In your daughter’s defense, “ka-ching” macaroni sounds disgusting! – See how much a dumb box can do?!)

  3. The Green Swan

    Awesome science project!

    We buy everything we can generic or store brand. I’ve found the store brand honey bunches of oats cereal actually tastes better, I like it a lot more. And same goes for the store brand crunchy oats and honey granola bars.

    I just realized I have a fair amount of oats and honey in my diet…

    The Green Swan

    • MaggieBanks

      ha! – I’ll have to try those oats and honey generics!

  4. I prefer some of ALDI’s cereals, baked chips, and paper towels to brand names. I agree that generics are often the same, and sometimes better or at least sufficient compared to their counterparts that often cost twice as much.

    • MaggieBanks

      WHY DON’T WE HAVE ALDI? Sorry… #AlaskaProblems

      • I gave Aldi a second chance a few weeks ago. I was overwhelmed by the packaging. So. Much. Packaging. At least Trader Joe’s lets you buy individual produce. But then again, you don’t have Trader Joe’s either. I’ll shut up now. Don’t want to make you feel worse 😉

        • MaggieBanks

          GAHHHHHHH! Are you TRYING to kill me!? 🙂 I’ll just rub it in that my freezer is full of fresh salmon and halibut!

  5. Our local grocery store in Texas (HEB) has the most amazing store brand products. So they are my default for almost everything. Although – I did buy some cheaper toilet paper a couple months ago, and my husband is still teasing me about it. We had guests over last weekend, and he made me switch out generic with the good stuff for them.

    Oreos – nothing can beat name brand Oreos. I used to like Trader Joe’s Jo=Jo cookies more than Oreos, but the last few years, Oreos have been winning.

    • MaggieBanks

      Oh I hear you… there are definitely some things that haven’t been repackaged! I agree on the Oreos front! Since we buy pretty much everything at Costco, if Kirkland Signature doesn’t have it, we buy the branded. 🙂

  6. I think it depends on what the product is and where you buy it. With most food products I try to buy the store brand and if unsure it is good or not I usually just buy the generic and make my decision if I should buy it again based on how I liked it. Household items are a toss up and it depends on where you buy them. I have found that Kirkland (Costco) toilet paper and paper towels are perfectly fine, but I won’t by the Great Value (Walmart) version in those products. Kirkland cleaning products and laundry detergent are also good. I think the only thing I tend to by the name brand on without question is electronics and appliances. I have found out the hard way those things are worth the extra money on.

    • MaggieBanks

      always worth doing a blind scientific test! Not everything is equal. But it’s the idea that nothing is equal that’s the problem.

  7. I used to be a sucker when it came to brand names. Then, Mr. Smith worked in an ice cream factory for a little while. He told me about how the same exact ingredients were used for the brand name and generic ice cream. There was one small difference – the butter fat percentage. The higher butter fat made the brand names a bit creamier. Knowing this information made me realize that the tiny difference isn’t worth my money.

    And, to answer the usual questions: Yes, it was pretty awesome getting some free ice cream brought home. No, I did not gain 50 pounds, because it wasn’t as much of a treat when it was always there in the freezer.

    • MaggieBanks

      Yum! I knew one of the food scientists at Tillamook for a little bit – coming up with new ice cream flavors. What a cool job that would be!

  8. What a great science project! It’s good to be reminded how easily we can be fooled and that we need to protect ourselves from the false idea that generics are inferior. We try to focus on quality and cost regardless of the brand, but I’m sure branding/marketing affects us more than we think.

    I agree that real Oreos are better than the knock-offs and remember hating generic Doritos as a kid. Not sure if they’ve improved them yet or not.

    • MaggieBanks

      I’m also really loyal to Trader Joe’s brownies… are those already store brand?

  9. I cannot shake my head in agreement hard enough. I despise the fact that we were convince to purchase certain brands over no name and pay double the price! I always buy no-name products for pasta, rice, canned vegetables, and honestly about 75% of my groceries.

  10. I actually have a story about the OPPOSITE – I take a medication every week to treat a condition. That medication was recently developed, and only within the last year has a generic version been available.

    The generic version uses the same medication, but a very slightly different medication delivery system. The differences are imperceptible to most people, but for me, I notice some differences. In particular, some of the symptoms I’m taking the medication for to begin with have returned (and it’s not an in-your-head thing – it is visible). I looked up some medication studies, and they confirmed this: the generic medication does not deliver consistent doses of the medication to your bloodstream like the name-brand one.

    Currently, the generic medication is free with my health insurance and the name-brand one is $100/month. So, even though it’s annoying for now, I’ll be taking the generic one.

    • MaggieBanks

      Oh it’s true. When I first realized I was lactose intolerant, I got the generic pills (it’s just the enzyme… they must be the same, right?) Not so! I had horrible gas and cramping. Decided to go with name brand. They work great. Kept trying generics and realized only Costco’s generic is as good as the brand name. So that’s what I use now. Sorry your insurance won’t cover it!

  11. That kid is going to go a long way! Agree most of the brands at Aldi are heaps cheaper and the chocolate is better. And most things you make yourself are better too. Well maybe not if I cook but what my husband cooks is better!

    • MaggieBanks

      Again… so angry we don’t have Aldi’s!

      • Yes it saves us about $50 a week. But a house in the city I live costs $1m so I’d rather not have Aldi he he. Our larger supermarkets also have generic brands which are often cheaper for same quality / ingredients.

        • MaggieBanks

          Yeah, the cost of living isn’t great up here either! Costco helps tremendously!

  12. Last Thanksgiving, we were at a big extended family gathering, and this exact scenario came up, minus the adorable run-on sentence from the science fair. 🙂 The whole thing was catered, and one set of pies came from a fancy pants famous bakery and one set came from the grocery store. The expensive pies were in fact bigger and prettier, but everyone agreed the cheap pies tasted better — I was so proud! (Sadly, because of my celiac, I could only pretend to participate.) 🙂 Back when we drank more wine (we drink hardly any now because headaches), we made it our mission to find the cheapest wine we could actually enjoy sipping, because wine is one of these areas where people for sure get fooled by price. (Sadly we couldn’t go through with swallowing Two Buck Chuck. Too bad!) And placebo effect — I love that it works, and I definitely use it to my advantage! I have this “headache balm” I make that’s basically coconut oil and beeswax with lavender and eucalyptus essential oil in it, and I rub that on my temples and neck when I get a headache. I know it doesn’t do anything medically (I KNOW this), but yet it still works because of the ritual, placebo effect, or whatever else is happening. 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      Oh totally. Basically every pediatrician everywhere says: “Just because there aren’t effective cold medications on the shelves for children doesn’t mean do nothing. Do ANYTHING. Magic lotion to make the cough go away. Anything.” Band-aids for any owie works wonders!

      • But that’s a pediatrician. I’m a grown ass woman. And I make the magic lotion myself! Hahahaha! 😀

        • MaggieBanks

          I have a “headache pillow” made of silk with lavender in it. I’m with you. The thing works!

  13. That student touches a very good point…!

    TO us, it requires testing before making up your mind. I do the shopping in the household, based upon the list I get. I regularly throw in a non branded or generic item and we test. If it passes, we take it again next time. IF it fails the taste test, we return to the branded item.

  14. I feel positive that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream tastes better than generic supermarket ice cream. But I’d be willing to do an experimental blind taste test to confirm this. 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      OOoooh! I wish we lived closer! (I’m kind of a snob about my Tillamook chocolate peanut butter ice cream as well!)

  15. I am dying over how adorable that one long run on sentence about the two cakes is. So cute.

    And good for that kid for realizing early what we all should know! I’m definitely guilty of leaning towards the more expensive thing, just because something in my mind says it’s “better”. Now, I’ve started comparing ingredients in generic products with the brand name version before I buy, particularly with drug store products. It’s insane how many of them are exactly the same, but at a vastly different cost.

    • MaggieBanks

      It’s crazy and awesome. I always feel like I’m getting away with something when I know I’m buying the exact same re-packaged thing!

    • MaggieBanks

      Also, I found the whole project pretty adorable as well. Kids, amiright?! 🙂

  16. My opinion on generic drugs depends on the drug since while the active ingredient is the same, the formulations are different which can affect uptake and prolonged circulation time. I will usually get the store brand for groceries though since, at the store I go to, they’re usually just as delicious as the name brand stuff.

    • MaggieBanks

      My vote is: always try generic. Sometimes it really is terrible! But then you’ll know!

  17. Fascinating stuff! I’m a big fan of some of the Whole Foods 365 brand. When it comes to Mac and cheese, ranch dressing and sandwich pickles the 365 brand is head and shoulders above brand names.
    Very true about the generic drugs. Formulation can affect how quickly the drug acts for example, or how long it stays around. Brand names often reformulate to reach a new market. However for most day to day OTC meds, there won’t be a noticeable difference.

    • MaggieBanks

      Sometimes just the dosage changes on the branded medications. The whole system is so weird!

  18. Oh yes. Very much this. My default is generic. Hubs loves name brands. When I took him to Aldi last month, he couldn’t handle it. He walked around with his arms crossed over his chest. Ha! He’s been trained well to only accept name brand. I’m working on it.

    I’ve noticed some differences between generic and name brand, but not enough to do much about it. I typically shop by price. I need to get better about buying quality (more organic, meat especially) over price.

    • MaggieBanks

      Tell your husband there are poor sad people in Alaska that don’t even have an Aldi! He needs to uncross those arms and dive into the wonder that is re-packaged name brand stuff in Aldi boxes!

  19. Kim from Philadelphia

    Great post!

    I am only brand name picky about two things… coffee beans and ketchup!
    Other than that I always buy generic; the exception being when a sale places the name brand product at a price lower than that of the store brand.

    My mom always bought store or “no frills” brand (as the older folks here might remember them). I remember going to a friend’s house in high school and his mom gave us name brand Doritos to snack on. Apparently that was a big deal because I still remember it to this day!

    My son, now almost 10, is starting to take more if an interest in clothes. All of a sudden he’s been taking up the Nike brand. Initially I was somewhat horrified as I really try to make “brands” a nonissue. Then I realized it’s better for me to teach him about brands instead of ignoring the issue, as I had been up to this point.
    I let him do several internet searches of Nike brand sneakers and tops versus the price of Sketchers sneakers and a generic tee shirt. He quickly suggested that the thrift store might be the ideal place for him to find some of these items. A great idea which I fully support. So he now has a pair of gently used red Nike sneakers ($4.50) and a Nike tee shirt ($1.50).

    • MaggieBanks

      Kim! That’s an amazing story! Teaching your children cost and value and trade-offs is awesome! You win!

  20. Great post! I remember hearing about a shampoo that was priced too low and no one bought it because they figured it was substandard and terrible. They raised the price and changed nothing else and then people bought and liked it.

    I try brand names if the ingredients look appealing. I frequent the organic aisle but an organic generic is still organic! Ie maple syrup, soy milk, etc. – they all taste fine. I have a harder time skimping on food than on other items, but any bit helps.

    • MaggieBanks

      Oh shampoo… I’ve stopped buying it completely and am using all the travel shampoos I found in a bag in my bathroom!

  21. thejollyledger

    I agree. You could have ended your post with the first sentence. However, I would have added, “Drops mic” at the end.

    • MaggieBanks

      I’m not that dramatic. 🙂 (Just kidding. I TOTALLY should have done that!)

  22. I am a little late to the commenting here, but I do have some expertise to add. I worked in the food industry running branded products businesses for almost 25 years. I would tell you that the leading food companies blind taste test their products very regularly against the storebrand competitor, and work hard to ensure that they have a clear taste test advantage. If one’s product falls behind the storebrand competitor, the business team puts a huge focus on reestablishing their superiority. I would say that about two-thirds of leading brands in the store have a clear taste test preference with private label alternatives. Some people, of course prefer the taste of private label – it is hard to formulate a recipe that everyone likes.

    • MaggieBanks

      Fascinating! There are some private label alternatives that are terrible and definitely some brand names that are succeeding with a wide margin over the generic… but then there’s a whole subset in the middle where there isn’t much of a difference in taste. Out of curiosity, with your background, do you tend to buy more name brands? Are there a few you are partial to (like Oreos, as has been mentioned previously)?

      • We do tend to buy branded products for the most part. I can’t think of any categories where we typically buy the store brand except for products that are almost commodities. The businesses I led included the Pillsbury, Progresso, Totino’s and Yoplait brands.

  23. I’m a nurse and I used to work for one of the biggest pharmacy benefits managers (the people who authorize medications for your insurance company). Most generic drugs are bioequivalent, however not all are. If it’s over the counter, like Tylenol or Advil, I always buy generic. I buy generic for our allergy meds without issue. There are some prescription drugs which do not appear to be bioequivalent. I know a lot of neurologists that will insist on brand name seizure medication, particularly Lamictal, because they tell me they see an increase in seizures in patients who have taken the generic. The generic form of ADHD medication Concerta also has bioequivalence issues with two of the 4 generic manufacturers.

    • MaggieBanks

      Yes! True! Thank you for chiming in. Bioequivalence is important.

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