I spend a lot of time in the canned goods aisle of my local QFC, pondering about the differences between the store brand and the name brand canned food. As a store brand connoisseur, I know that many of these products are exactly the same stuff, with a different label. But for some products, there can be significant differences in flavor.
Here at offbrandguy.com, I recognize that small costs add up to big money over time. As an enthusiast of store brands, off brands, and white label products, I like to share my knowledge to help people like you make decisions and save money. Tomato sauce is one such small cost that can add up. Many people use it in their recipes, and if you don’t — you probably should.
Before we dig in to this juicy comparison, I’d like to mount a preemptive defense for canned tomato products in general. Whenever possible, I eat ripe heirloom tomatoes fresh from my garden. I put them in my salads, dice them up for tacos, roast them on the grill, and boil them down with a splash of olive oil and wine to make the perfect tomato sauce for my pasta. Some years, my tomato plants produce so much that I can’t eat them all before they go bad. Or, my neighbors will drop off a massive box of tomatoes that they don’t want to go to waste. When that happens, I bust out great-grandma’s old aluminum canner pressure cooker and make a bunch of awesome canned tomatoes to keep in the pantry.
Keep canned tomato sauce around for when you’re out of tomatoes
You see, fresh tomatoes don’t last forever. Indeed, there is a large fine-tuned process and infrastructure needed to bring ripe on the vine tomatoes to your local grocery store all year long. So if you’ve ever wondered why a handful of ‘meh’ Roma tomatoes seemed pretty expensive, you’re probably not getting ripped off — it actually costs a lot of money to get them to you! This comes with a toll on the environment, too. Unless you live in an area that produces tomatoes year-round, it is simply not very efficient to bring ripe tomatoes from far away to your supermarket. You can see this on a micro-scale, too: Have you ever taken an extra trip to the store, just for tomatoes? That’s wasted fuel, and more carbon in the atmosphere. Have you ever had tomatoes go bad before you ate them? Nothing is more disappointing, or wasteful.
Canned tomatoes last a really long time. Like a really, really long time. I’ll spare you a diatribe on galvanic reactions, failure modes of lined steel cans, and best practices for storage (for now). If you don’t believe me, just check out the expiration date on bottom of the can. I like to stock up when I find them half-off or buy-one-get-one-free. There are many types — around here I find canned whole tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, tomato halves, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste. There are also pasta sauce variants sold in glass jars in a different part of the supermarket.
Labeling and types tend to vary regionally: Please leave a comment below if your options are different! Personally, I prefer the tomato sauce. It’s available without any added flavoring, and typically also available with added basil, garlic, and/or pepper. These are spices that I typically add anyway, so I just grab any can and worry about the taste later.
Typically you get tomato sauce in 8oz cans or 15oz cans. Larger cans are often available too, on the bottom shelf. I stick with the 8oz cans because they’re the perfect size for most smaller dishes. It’s nice to be able to use up the entire can without any need to keep the extras in the refrigerator until I make another tomato dish. If you have hungry kids who like sloppy joes or like to eat leftovers, you might be better served by the 15oz cans. In either case, be sure to compare the unit prices. This is one of those situations where buying in bulk isn’t always cheaper. Instead, look for sales, ads, discounts, and coupons.
What affects the flavor of tomato sauce?
At this point you’re probably wondering, what is the difference between store brand and name brand tomato sauce? Is there even a difference at all?
There are several different factors that affect the flavor of canned tomato sauce. First of all, it’s no secret that the sauce is typically made form tomatoes that aren’t fit for being sold whole. This means misshapen and undersized fruits, as well as species that aren’t able to survive shipment intact. It also means that there are some underripe and overripe tomatoes in the mix.
Quite often you can identify low-quality tomato products by the large amount of added sugar and artificial flavorings mixed in to help cover the taste of the less desirable source ingredients. That said, it’s interesting to note that even the best tomato sauces come with spices mixed in, regardless of what the label on the front says. Both products I’m reviewing today have no added sugar and no artificial flavoring, and I consider both of them to be “high quality” tomato products.
Another important variable is salt. Many tomato products come with salt added. If you’re anything like me, your palate is probably accustomed to quite a bit of salt in your food. And anyone who’s ever eaten a fresh tomato with a dash of salt can attest that it has a disproportionate positive impact on the flavor. If you ever find a tomato product that you don’t like, check the nutrition facts before you give up on it. It may just need a little more salt. On the other hand, many folks have a desire or need to minimize that amount of salt in their diet. In that case, “No salt added” tomato sauce is the right stuff.
Hunts Tomato Sauce
Around here, Hunts is the go-to name brand for tomato products. You’ll never go wrong buying this stuff, although the cost is often double that of the store brand! Today I’m reviewing the “regular” variety, which doesn’t list any special flavor listed on the front of the can.
You should note that tomato sauce comes with added spices, even when they aren’t specified on the front of the container. When you check the ingredients you’ll see that this is no exception. The sauce contains salt, onion powder, garlic powder, citric acid, and red pepper. The amount is pretty small. You can dump this stuff on your pasta plain, but I prefer to add some basil or more garlic. In addition to the wine. I sometimes add the wine to the sauce too… But it’s acceptable to drink it separately.
One interesting thing about this sauce is that it’s actually reconstituted from tomato paste. Indeed, you can always make your own tomato sauce by diluting tomato paste yourself. Some people even go all-out, combining different tomato products for the perfect flavor and texture. I like reconstituted sauce because it tends to be more consistent.
The label also states that the can is recyclable and has a BPA-free liner, the sauce is Non-GMO verified, and that there are recipes available at Hunts.com.
Kroger Tomato Sauce
At my local QFC, Kroger tomato sauce routinely costs half as much as Hunts. It’s pretty remarkable to see such a large price difference for such an established product. Again, I’m reviewing the “regular” type, except this can does say “No salt added”.
As always, this sauce does come with added spices. Kroger tomato sauce contains dehydrated onions, dehydrated garlic, “spices” (whatever that is), natural flavorings, sweet bell pepper, and citric acid. I’m not sure what to make of the vague “spices” and “natural flavorings”, but I can say that it doesn’t have that weird taste that you get with some artificially flavored tomato products. This stuff simply tastes like tomato sauce.
It’s important to understand that, with no salt added, you will probably want to add your own salt. Tomato sauce without any salt isn’t as good. On the upside, you get to control precisely how much you want to add.
Kroger tomato sauce is not made from reconstituted paste. It’s straight tomato. Many folks prefer to eat less processed food, making this a good option.
The label says that the can is recyclable and has a non-BPA liner, and additionally specifies that the contents were grown in the USA. I really like it when food products list their country of origin, as it is quite resource-intensive, and in my opinion unnecessary, to ship bulk food around the world when it can be grown locally.
Which one should I buy?
- You can save a lot of money by using tomato sauce
- Hunt’s is made from reconstituted tomato paste for consistency, Kroger is not reconstituted
- Kroger has no salt added: Plan on adding salt
- Both have no artificial flavorings or added sugar
- Both have a BPA-free can that is recyclable
- There are minor differences to the spices in each
Having taste-tested many cans of both of these sauces, I consider the Kroger sauce to be a bit less consistent than the Hunts sauce. That means that the flavor varies a bit more from one can to the next. However, I always add my own spices to tomato sauce, and have never failed to cook a great meal with the stuff. And, the Kroger tomato sauce is significantly cheaper. Therefore I have to recommend the Kroger tomato sauce over Hunts.
There is one rather big caveat to that recommendation. Tomato sauce is always going on sale — in fact, I only buy it when it’s on sale. So check the prices, and read those QFC ads or Kroger ads. I often find great deals on Hunts tomato sauce that make it totally competitive with the store brands.