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Store- vs. name-brand cereal: What kids think

Blogger rounded up the neighborhood kids to do a blind taste test. Were name-brand cereals the winners?

By Karen Datko Mar 31, 2010 1:39PM

This guest post comes from Len Penzo at Len Penzo dot Com.


When it comes to breakfast, kids can be real cereal killers. Unfortunately, for those of us trying to keep our grocery costs reasonable, name-brand cereals can be a very expensive proposition.


When I was growing up, I remember my sister pounding down multiple bowls of Froot Loops and Lucky Charms every morning.


I enjoyed kid cereal too -- Apple Jacks and Frosted Flakes are still favorites of mine -- but I never could put it away like Sis.


Cereal is big business

Here are a few facts about cereal I found while surfing the Internet:

  • On average, Americans consume 160 bowls of the stuff each year -- that’s 10 pounds per person. Ireland, England and Australia eat even more than that on a per capita basis.
  • Cereal continues to be one of the most popular products in terms of dollars spent at the grocery stores. In 2009 it ranked eighth.
  • When it comes to television, cereal advertisers are outspent only by the auto industry. Most of that is undoubtedly focused on kid cereals.

Speaking of kid cereals, remember when the word “sugar” was not a nasty word? Although the cereal industry uses 816 million pounds of sugar per year, the word “sugar” has all but disappeared from cereal titles. For example, when I was a kid Frosted Flakes used to be called Sugar Frosted Flakes, and Honey Smacks were known as Sugar Smacks.


The experiment

Before starting the experiment I ran down to my local Albertsons grocery store and purchased six popular name-brand kid cereals and their store-brand counterparts.


Like my previous taste-test experiments, the point was simple: Determine if there was a discernible taste difference between the name-brand and store-brand equivalents. In this case, the focus was strictly on kids' cereals. No Shredded Wheat, Special K, 100% Bran Flakes, or anything else that would make a kid turn up his nose in disgust.

As with all of my store-brand vs. name-brand taste test challenges, I convened a panel of experts to sample the cereals in a blind taste test. Of course, for this challenge I could think of no better panel of experts than the kids in my neighborhood.


To ensure a one-to-one comparison, I chose only name-brand items that had identical store-brand counterparts; package size and item type had to be identical, or virtually identical.


Furthermore, to ensure the taste test was a blind comparison, each sample was marked only as either "A" or "B." The panel was then asked to taste and record which product they preferred; they were also free to give me any accompanying comments they had regarding a particular product. When comparing cereals, panelists who could not discern a clear winner were allowed to give a vote for both products.


As always, before we get to the results, I want to introduce our distinguished panel of experts:

  • Matthew, 12, seventh grade. Favorite color is purple.
  • Jordyn, 11, sixth grade. Favorite color is purple.
  • Nina, 10, fifth grade. Favorite color is midnight blue.
  • Rohaan, 9, fourth grade. Favorite color: “Can I pick two, Mr. Len, because I really like red and blue?” No, Rohaan. You can’t. (Troublemaker.)
  • Brennan, 9, fourth grade. Favorite color is black.
  • Jameson, 9, fourth grade. Favorite color is red.
  • MJ, 9, fourth grade. Favorite color is blue.
  • Mariah, 8, second grade. Favorite color is red.
  • Makayla, 7 (and a half!), second grade. Favorite color is pink.
  • Keiva, 6, kindergarten. Favorite color is red.
  • Rekshne, 5, kindergarten. Favorite color is pink.
  • Major, 6, dropout (but promises to start working soon on his GED). Favorite color: black (and white).
Editor’s note: Major is the Penzo family dog.

Here now are the results of my fourth blind taste-test experiment:


Kellogg’s Corn Pops vs. Albertsons Golden Corn Nuggets:

  • Price comparison: Kellogg’s, $4.89; Albertsons, $1.99 (a savings of 59%).
  • Panel scoring: 9-8 in favor of Kellogg’s.
  • The verdict: Basically even. To deem Kellogg’s Corn Pops the winner on such a narrow margin would be ear-responsible.

Gotta have my pops! This cereal has had more facelifts than Joan Rivers. The name-brand cereal was called Sugar Pops when it debuted back in the early 1950s. Sometime in the '80s or '90s they changed the name to Corn Pops. Wikipedia notes that in 2006 the name was changed to Pops, but then reverted back to the Corn Pops label after a few months of poor reception. 


Almost half of the expert panel showed no favoritism to either brand, saying they tasted equally good. Of the seven panelists who did have a preference, the Corn Pops squeaked out an unremarkable 4-3 majority over the store brand. Of those showing a preference, Keiva and Makayla liked the store brand better because it tasted sweeter. However, Mariah and Jordyn disagreed: They thought the name-brand pops had the sweeter taste. Nina agreed, noting that the Golden Corn Nuggets actually tasted “kind of like sticky Cheetos but without the cheese.” (Try and get insight like that from Consumer Reports, people.)


General Mills Lucky Charms vs. Albertsons Magic Stars:

  • Price comparison: General Mills, $2.99; Albertsons, $1.99 (a savings of 33%).
  • Panel scoring: 8-6 in favor of General Mills.
  • The verdict: A slight edge to the leprechaun, but the kids think both brands are magically delicious.

Ah, yes, who doesn’t like a big heaping bowl of “Me frosted Lucky Charms"? According to our expert panel, it was a very close call between the name-brand favorite and Albertsons Magic Stars knock-off. That being said, the panel was sharply divided: Only Rohaan and Major admitted to liking both cereals equally. OK, only Rohaan was able to articulate his thoughts to me verbally, but the dog inhaled both of his samples so quickly you’d have to be a fool to think otherwise. 


Among the panelists who didn’t have fleas, Matthew gave the Lucky Charms props because he preferred the flavor of the toasted oats. For most of the younger panelists, though, the focus was understandably on the marshmallows. MJ and Rekshne both said they chose the Lucky Charms because the marshmallows had a better taste. Jameson dinged the Magic Stars’ marshmallows because they were “too crumbly.” But Makayla disagreed, saying that she liked the marshmallows from the Albertsons-brand cereal because they “melted in your mouth better.”


Kellogg’s Rice Krispies vs. Albertsons Crispy Rice:

  • Price comparison: Kellogg’s, $5.29; Albertsons, $1.99 (a savings of 62%).
  • Panel scoring: 10-8 in favor of Kellogg’s.
  • The verdict: Kellogg’s by a nose, but even the store-brand managed to rice to the occasion.

I just love the old Yo Momma joke that went something like “Yo momma’s so ugly, even Rice Krispies won’t talk to her!”  Heh. That one snap-crackle-and-pops me up every single time. In this head-to-head comparison of one of the all-time classics, our panel of experts gave a very slight edge to the Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. For the most part, the kids were indifferent. The only passionate response came from my son, Matthew, who was quite adamant when he complained that the store-brand Crispy Rice was “gag-me bad.” Considering the store brand offers a savings of 62%, the odds are pretty good that I’ll be trying to slip those by him again sometime in the future anyway.


Kellogg’s Apple Jacks vs. Albertsons Apple Dapples:

  • Price comparison: Kellogg’s, $4.99; Albertsons, $1.99 (a savings of 60%).
  • Panel scoring: 11-8 in favor of Albertsons.
  • The verdict: The Albertsons Dapples were the apple of the experts’ eyes.

Apple Jacks, like grape candy, are one of those gastronomical enigmas: Neither tastes like the fruit it proclaims to imitate. Recognizing this, Kellogg’s decided to go on the offensive by asking kids in its television ads, “Why are they called Apple Jacks if they don’t taste like apples?” Beats me. To tell you the truth, I really don’t care because Apple Jacks are still my all-time favorite cereal of all time and forever. Did I mention for all time? Then again, what do I know? 


If you ask the kids, a slim majority said they would rather eat the Albertsons Apple Dapples. Of those who did prefer the store brand, they said they liked the sweeter taste. Mariah was our only expert who gave Apple Jacks the nod. She thought they were “just tastier.” For the record, I did my own blind taste test and still preferred the Apple Jacks. There definitely was less sugar.


Quaker Cinnamon Life vs. Albertsons Crunchy Oat Squares with Cinnamon:

  • Price comparison: Quaker, $2.99; Albertsons, $2.39 (a savings of 20%).
  • Panel scoring: 7-6 in favor of Albertsons.
  • The verdict: Too close to call. Neither cereal was oat of the ordinary.

Remember the commercial with Mikey, the finicky kid who wouldn’t eat anything? That is until his brothers put a bowl of Life cereal in front of him. It spawned one of the biggest catch phrases of all time: “He likes it! Hey Mikey!” Well, I bring that up because this test was a dead heat, 6-6, when the dog stepped up to the plate (pun intended). With apologies to Quaker, Major just wouldn’t eat the Life cereal. He chewed it a few times, seemed to dislike the texture of the oat squares and then spent the next 46 seconds trying to dislodge the apparently irritating shards of oats from off his tongue. The dog did gobble up the Albertsons oat squares.


As for the kids, like I said, it was a dead heat. Most of those who voted for the Life agreed with Keiva, who said it was “more cinnamony.” Nina preferred the Life because the store brand was “too hard.” Not everyone agreed. Makayla said the Life was “bland.” But most of those who praised the Albertsons brand used terms like “thicker” (MJ) and “not as fluffy” (Jameson). I guess my dog prefers his oats not as fluffy too.


Kellogg’s Froot Loops vs. Albertsons Fruit Rings:

  • Price comparison: Kellogg’s, $4.99; Albertsons, $1.99 (a savings of 60%).
  • Panel scoring: 10-7 in favor of Kellogg’s.
  • The verdict: Here’s the juice on the fruit loops: Kellogg’s ran rings around the competition.

Just like their elementary school teachers, most people never forget the name of their childhood pediatrician. Mine was Dr. Papazian and he was a wondrous man to me. One year during our annual physical, Dr. Papazian was feeling my sister’s abdomen, pushing and probing as all doctors are wont to do. “I know what you had for breakfast!” he told her. My sister asked him to prove it and he immediately said “Froot Loops!” You should have seen the look on both our faces! How did he know?


Anyhoo, the Froot Loops are the only cereal in this experiment the kids preferred to the store brand by a margin of at least 3-to-2. Jordyn preferred the Albertsons brand because “it had more flavor.” Somewhat ironically, the kids who preferred the Froot Loops all said they liked them because they were less sugary. I bet Dr. Papazian wouldn’t have predicted that.


Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!

Ironically, even though the name-brand cereals won more challenges, I think the store-brand labels won the experiment.


Yes, the name-brand cereals won four of the six challenges, but only the Kellogg’s Froot Loops won by even a moderately sized margin. I think the other three wins were really too narrow to justify paying price premiums between 33% and 62% for the national labels. In fact, one could argue that even in the case of the Froot Loops, the victory was nowhere near decisive enough to justify paying 2 1/2 times the cost of the store-brand knock-off.


My recommendation is simple: If your kids are already used to eating the name-brand kid cereals and you’re afraid they’ll balk at trying the store brands, save those name-brand boxes and put the store-brand bags inside them. Then, if the kids fail to notice the difference after eating the store brands, you can eventually let them in on your little secret -- and enjoy drastically lower grocery bills in the process.


Related reading at Len Penzo dot Com:



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