Store brand products can compete with their name-brand counterparts and save shoppers more than a thousand dollars a year on grocery bills, according to a new study fromConsumer Reports. The Yonkers, N.Y., firm said that in 21 recent "head-to-head taste match-ups," national brands won seven times, the store brand came out on top in three instances, and the remainder resulted in ties.

"The study reaffirms that store brands are worth a try," said Tod Marks, senior projects editor forConsumer Reports. "For a family that spends $100 a week on groceries, the savings could add up to more than $1,500 a year."

Marks saidConsumer Reports' price study evaluated five supermarket chains and compared store-and name-brand prices for 30 everyday items at five chains, collecting a total of 283 price quotes.Consumer Reportsfound the average savings with store brands was 30 percent, but shoppers saved as much as 52 percent on some items.

Store-brand stigma

Although the savings are significant, some shoppers are still reluctant to try store-brand products, saidConsumer Reports. The top reasons for those who don't buy store brands are: "I prefer name brands," "The name brand tastes better," and "I don't know if store brands are as high in quality." Respondents 18 to 39 years old were particularly likely to question the quality of store brands.

Still, 84 percent of Americans purchased store brands in the past year, and 93 percent of store-brand shoppers said they would keep buying as many store brands after the economy recovers. Nationwide, store brands accounted for almost one of four products sold in supermarkets and a record $55.5 billion in sales last year.

Consumer Reportssaid it found nutrition similar for most of the tested products, despite the perception among 17 percent of survey respondents who said that "name-brand foods are more nutritious." The most notable differences: Mott's applesauce has more sugar than Publix, Ore-Ida fries have more sodium than Jewel, and Kellogg's Froot Loops have 3 grams of fiber vs. 1 gram in Stop & Shop Fruit Swirls.

Shoppers are devoted to certain categories as well, Marks noted. Though they'll purchase store-brand paper goods and plastics, at least half of respondents rarely or never buy store-brand wine, pet food, soda, or soup. ButConsumer Reports'trained testers found that when it came to products like soup, the name brand didn't always reign:

*Chicken soup: Food Lion's (36 cents per serving) Lotsa' Noodles soup beat out Campbell's Chicken Noodle (41 cents per serving) for having a little more intense flavor. Campbell's had oily broth, with fatty pieces of chicken.

*Orange juice: Publix Premium won over Tropicana for having a bit less of a cooked flavor with slightly less bitter taste.

*Hot dogs: America's Choice (A&P, $2.64 per package) beef hot dogs trumped Oscar Mayer ($3.65 per package) for their juicy and flavorful franks.

Marks said name brands won in seven of the categories, including mayonnaise, mozzarella cheese, and frozen French fries, but the majority of the match-ups found that the store brand and name brand were of similar quality.

A tie doesn't mean the taste was identical. Two products may be equally fresh and flavorful, with ingredients of similar quality, but taste dissimilar because the recipe or seasonings differ. Some products that tied include:

*Ketchup: Heinz ($2.76 per bottle) is spicier, while Target's Market Pantry ($1.174 per bottle) brand is more "tomatoey."

*Peanut butter: Tasters detected more deeply roasted nuts in Skippy (19 cents per serving), while Albertsons (15 cents per serving) has a hint of molasses flavor.

*Potato chips: Both Lays (29 cents per serving) and Walmart's Great Value (15 cents per serving) have a nice balance of real potato flavor, fat, and saltiness.

Significant Savings

Marks said national brands are generally pricier than store brands, not so much because of what's in the package but because of the cost of developing the product and turning it into a household name.

There's no reason store brands shouldn't hold their own, since some companies manufacture both, including Sara Lee, Reynolds, 4C, McCormick, Feit, Manischewitz, Joy Cone, Stonewall Kitchen, and Royal Oak. Plus, most grocers offer a money-back guarantee if their products can't meet the consumer's expectations. (National brands stand behind their products too, of course).

Despite the savings, the price advantage may be narrowing, noted Marks. In recent years, some national-brand makers have lowered prices and stepped up promotional activities. Marks said the full results on how all the brands stacked up are available inConsumer Reports' October issue.

Consumer Reportsis published by Consumers Union, which says it is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves.