Traffic light ratings were surprisingly similiar within each individual food category – that is to say, while individual levels of salt, sugar and fat obviously varied across brands, the green, amber or red light category they fell into was remarkably consistent within any given food category, with a few notable exceptions. We also often found little correlation between how healthy a product is and how well it rated with our taste testers. This could be down to a number of things, including the quality and quantity of ingredients used. Our previous taste tests of mayonnaise and yoghurt illustrate this point. The best tasting mayonnaises, for example, generally contained more fat and eggs than the others. So it pays to have a good scan of the ingredients before you buy – especially if you’re buying on price.
Coles vs. Woolies
Coles’ budget Coles Smart Buy (CSB) brand consistently rated poorly for taste, whereas Woolworths Home Brand (WHB) rated well for both taste and value across several categories. Both brands are very similarly priced across the products we purchased. We also found that the higher-end Woolworths Select brand had less coverage across products, yet there was a Coles equivalent in every category. Aldi offers good value for money but is hit and miss for taste.
Overall, leading premium brands proved a mixed bag in our taste tests, topping tuna, cornflakes and biscuits (equal first) for taste, but ranking bottom in ham, baked beans and cheese (equal last).
The iconic Heinz baked beans came bottom in our blind taste test, even though it topped the nutrition scoreboard as the only baked beans to get three green traffic lights out of a possible four, with the lowest sugar and equal lowest saturated fat. Yet only 7% of tasters said they would buy it. Aldi, came out top with its Corale baked beans; some of our tasters liked their smooth texture and rich, flavoursome sauce, while others thought it was too sweet.
Weet-Bix dominates the breakfast cereal category with almost 20% of grocery volume. However, cornflakes have a better coverage across the brands and so are better suited to this taste test.
Almost two-fifths of our taste panellists picked the premium brand, Kellogg’s, as the best-tasting cornflakes and the brand they would be most likely to buy, with one saying they have “the best colour, flavour and texture”. By contrast, Coles Smart Buy ranks lowest for taste, with only 7% of panellists saying they would buy this product. However, several tasters commented on the similarity in taste among all cornflake brands, so if you were to buy just on price, Coles Smart Buy Corn Flakes are the cheapest in the category at 38c per 100g – almost half the price of Kellogg’s.
According to Retail World’s 2009 Annual Report, private labels have 33.2% of market volume for block cheddar cheese compared with the premium brand, Mainland, which only has 15.2%. The cheaper WHB private label is the standout best-tasting cheddar cheese. It’s a good value-for-money option that shows up its more expensive counterpart, Woolworths Select. Once again, Coles Smart Buy comes in at the bottom of the list. One taster claimed it “tastes like a generic inexpensive cheese,” while another said it’s “salty and boring”.
Smallgoods is another fast-growing grocery category, though we were unable to find budget supermarket brand options for pre-packaged ham. The two premium private labels, Woolworths Select and Coles, were deemed the tastiest. The cheapest by far was Aldi, which half our tasters found too salty – ironic, as Aldi actually has the lowest sodium content of the lot. Aldi and Primo tied equal third for taste, even though Aldi is half the price. Our review of packaged ham may help guide your buying decision.
Coles Chocolate Surrenders were the most expensive Tim Tam-style chocolate biscuit in the group and were equal winners with Arnott’s for taste, with Aldi not far behind. Our tasters were far less impressed with both Woolworths’ and WHB’s offerings, with one saying WHB was “cheap-looking and with no real chocolate taste”.
Ice-cream is one of the fastest-growing grocery categories. One-third of our tasters picked WHB Vanilla Ice-Cream as their favourite, praising its creamy taste and smooth texture. The leading brand, Bulla, comes in next at 23%. Once again, CSB rounds out the bottom of the list. Our tasters said it lacked creamy flavour, and the flavour it does have seems fake and artificial – “like ‘milk bottle’ lollies”, said one.
It’s worth checking out where milk and cream come on the ingredients list on ice-cream tubs. For our top tasting brand, WHB, milk and cream are the first two ingredients used, whereas milk is fifth on the list for Coles Smart Buy – water being the first ingredient. Bear in mind, CSB is labelled as an ‘ice confection’ rather than ‘ice cream’.
The penne pasta we tested was cooked according to packet instructions, with no flavour added. While Woolworths Organic was the clear favourite, the sauce is the dominant flavour of any pasta dish, so we suggest going with whichever pasta is cheapest at the time (for example, if it’s on special).
The same cannot be said for tomato-based pasta sauce; our results below clearly show you shouldn’t go by price alone.
In our taste test, the Coles premium brand of Napoletana pasta sauce came out on top. Yet it was also the most expensive and scored the only amber light in its category for fat, coming in at a staggering four times the fat of its nearest competitor (5.7 compared with 1.3 for Dolmio). By contrast, the Coles budget brand of pasta sauce scored a disappointing zero in the taste test, even though it stacked up well nutritionally. Our tasters found the sauce too watery with an artificial taste and colour. A look at the ingredients was telling. The sauce had just 45% tomatoes, the lowest by far of any we looked at, with the second ingredient – you guessed it - water.
If you would rather make your own pasta sauce, take a look at our simple and delicious homemade pasta sauce recipe.
Peach slices, canned
Our tasters thought Aldi’s Sweet Valley Peach Slices in Juice weren’t sweet enough and were paler in colour compared with the other brands. WHB is the clear winner for sliced peaches; our tasters were impressed by the brand’s good flavour, texture and colour. It was also the cheapest, along with CSB. Bear in mind, however, that for WHB and CSB the fruit was only available in syrup rather than juice. CSB gets a glaring red traffic light for sugar, so we recommend avoiding this brand here.
Tuna in brine, canned
Canned tuna is an incredibly popular grocery item and comes in a range of different flavours. For this test, we focused on canned tuna in brine.
Leading premium brand John West was clearly our tasters’ favourite, with 37% saying they would buy it. However, it is the most expensive in the group at $11.51 per kg. Next best for taste is Aldi Portview, which was the number one pick for 23% of tasters and also one of the cheapest of the lot. Woolworths Select is fairly expensive in comparison, while its cheaper WHB equivalent rated poorly for taste. The worst-tasting of the lot, Coles Smart Buy, was variously described as “dry”, “flavourless” and “bland”.