I was sitting at my desk one day when a colleague showed me two nearly identical soft drink bottles: one was a name brand variety that he liked, the other a store brand, from Aldi Supermarket.

Discounted store-brand groceries are nothing new. But for many shoppers in our area, Aldi is new, and their famous no-frills customer service (no bags, rudimentary shelving) allows them to discount their prices even more than most stores. They stock relatively few brand-name products, meaning Aldi brands aren’t just a cheaper alternative — sometimes they’re an Aldi shopper’s only option.

Are the savings worth it? We were wondering, so we picked up half a cartful of off-brand items (along with their name-brand counterparts) to see how they stacked up. Here’s what we found. The prices are from the Aldi on Route 33 in Hamilton Square and, in the case of the name-brand items, the Shop Rite across the street.

1Simply Orange ($3.69) vs. Aldi’s Nature’s Nectar ($1.99)

 

We started with a blind taste test of the pasteurized, pulp-free versions of Simply Orange’s premium OJ and the Aldi store brand. Taster No. 1 preferred the Nature’s Nectar, finding Simply Orange to be somehow both stronger tasting yet more watery. Taster No. 2 thought Simply Orange had a stronger aftertaste, but couldn’t choose between the two.

I tasted them knowing which was which. They were almost identical in flavor and consistency to me. None of us felt that Simply Orange is worth $1.70 more. Both clock in at 110 calories per 8 fluid ounces. Notably, while Simply Orange has 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C — OJ’s calling card! — Aldi has only 80 percent.

2Huy Fong Foods Sriracha ($3.09) vs. Aldi’s Fusia Sriracha ($1.99)

In another blind taste test, Taster No. 1 said the Aldi version had a nice kick and thick consistency, and found the name brand spicier with a stronger aftertaste. Taster No. 2 could hardly tell the difference and would gladly pay for the cheaper store brand.

For me, the Aldi brand is sweeter and has more of a vinegar presence than the original. I also think the original is much spicier, a sentiment Taster No. 1 agreed with. They’re both tasty, but if you are highly attuned to the flavor of the original, you’ll notice the difference.

3Doritos Cool Ranch ($3 on sale) vs. Aldi Clancy’s Ranch Flavored Tortilla Chips (99 cents)

 

In a blind taste test, both tasters found it easy to discern the name brand from the knockoffs. Taster No. 1 felt the Doritos tasted fresher with a stronger, better ranch flavor and a sturdier chip. Taster No. 2 preferred the Aldi brand chips, saying they had less of a sour cream aftertaste.

I agreed with Taster No. 1 that the Dorito chips were more robust. I also agree with Taster No. 2 that the Aldi chips were less sour. If the standard Doritos price point of $3–$4.29 is above your comfort zone, then you won’t be sorry if you go off brand. If you can afford to splurge, you might prefer the original.

Doritos have more calories (150 vs. 140) and marginally more fat (8 grams vs. 7) but less saturated fat, 1 gram vs 1.5 for Aldi. Both, in case you didn’t realize it, contain MSG.

4Hostess Ho Hos ($3.99) vs. Aldi Baker’s Treat Swiss Rolls (89 cents)

 

Blind Taster No. 1, upon trying the Aldi brand, declared, “this is a winner!” and went on to laud everything about it compared to the Hostess brand: more chocolate flavor, fluffier cream filling, sweeter. Taster No. 2 liked both snacks, but preferred the Aldi brand. When word got out that we were tasting swiss rolls, more people in the office volunteered to take the taste test. Overwhelmingly, the Aldi snacks were preferred.

This test betrayed our inherent bias in judging food brands. A lot of people assumed that the tastier snack would be the name brand, and were surprised when it was not. The Aldi swiss rolls had marginally less fat and more cholesterol than the Ho Hos.

5Cheerios ($3.99) vs. Aldi Millville Crispy Oats ($1.99)

 

I also tested several items at home with my family. My wife and I agreed that Cheerios have more bite to them. My son (almost 7) and I felt that the Aldi cereal tasted nearly the same as the Cheerios; my wife felt the Aldi flavor was weaker, but to be fair, she eats a lot of Cheerios and is probably more sensitive to their flavor than most.

6Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (99 cents) vs. Aldi Cheese Club Macaroni and Cheese (33 cents)

My son was not in the mood for mac and cheese the night we made it, so you’ll have to take our word for it: it’s good. I found the Aldi noodles to be more tender than Kraft, and the cheese subtler and tastier. For me, it was better than Kraft. My wife couldn’t commit to that, but she agreed that it was tasty — definitely worth the savings.

7Nutella ($3.69) vs. Aldi Berryhill Hazelnut Spread ($1.99)

Here was another product where the imitation product was not really that convincing — where Nutella is glossy and gloppy, the Aldi spread was matte and smooth. Twice I gave my daughter (3 ½) a cracker with Aldi spread instead of Nutella and she was none the wiser, so you can fool a 3-year-old. I thought the Aldi spread tasted pretty good, but the flavor was muddled, with less hazelnut.

8Pepperidge Farm Goldfish ($2.09) vs. Aldi Savoritz Penguins ($1.49)

Here Aldi is providing not an imitation of the original but an alternative clearly meant to remind you of the original. My son and daughter both preferred the Penguins, interestingly, although I note that the flavor of the two products are really nothing alike. The Penguins taste more like Cheez-Its than Goldfish, and maybe my kids prefer Cheez-Its to Goldfish.

The Conclusion

Our tasters were satisfied by all the Aldi products we tested, with a few — the orange juice, the swiss rolls, the oat cereal — being either quite close to the name brand products or superior.

In terms of nutrition, Aldi products compare favorably to the name brands. In most cases they have marginally less fat and fewer calories; in a few cases they have slightly fewer carbs (sugars), in a few cases slightly more.

If I have a concern about Aldi, it’s not about the quality or price of the food, but the selection. Aldis are smaller than most supermarkets, which means they have to be selective about what they stock. But what Aldi chooses to stock tends to be full of carbohydrates, fat or both. In the Hamilton Square Aldi, the first two aisles are loaded with cookies, crackers, chips, snack cakes, fruit pies, processed cheese, canned meat and salted nuts.

You might notice that few of the items we taste tested would be considered essential to a healthy diet. That’s because when you shop at Aldi, those are the types of things you’ll see. They do have a produce section, but it’s a fraction of the size of any other supermarket. The refrigerated foods section is loaded with heat-and-serve meats and sausages, fatty spreads and seemingly a thousand cheese products.

Perhaps most distressing is the frozen foods section, where there is very little in the way of simple frozen vegetables, but case upon case of microwavable meals. You can see how Aldi would appeal to someone who doesn’t have the time or inclination to spend hours over a hot stove, but really those are the only customers it’s set up to serve. Traditional supermarkets have all the same items, but they also have fresh food and wholesome ingredients if you have the wherewithal to use them. The fact that Aldi has few of those alternatives is a little troubling.

If cost is a factor when you buy groceries and you haven’t been to Aldi yet, you should check it out. But it’s worth noting that it probably can’t be the only market you shop in, if you’re conscious of your health.