Why do Big Store foods taste different?
May 21, 2012 3:57 PM   Subscribe

I'll phrase this in a way to avoid legal problems or simple unfairness. I've noticed that certain foods and drinks I buy from The Big Store differ from the same items when I buy them from a Small Store. The items are the same brand with same description on packaging. But they just seem different in how they taste, feel, or spoil. Any insights on how and why this happens?

The Big Store is a place that sells to small business owners and normal people that don't mind buying large quantities of things to get a better deal. The Small Store is any typical chain grocery store. Some concrete examples:

* I buy a lemon-flavored malt alcohol beverage at the Big Store and the flavor is sweeter than the Small Store. Only visible difference is the bottle is plastic instead of glass and contains 8 ounces more liquid.
* I buy seasoned almonds at the Big Store in a larger plastic bag. They taste a little flavorless (stale?) compared to the same thing I get at Small Store in an aluminum can.
* I buy bread which comes from an in-state supplier. From the Big Store it is softer and close to a doughy texture. Each slice of bread is maybe 20% larger. It does not show mold after 4 months, though it gets hard. Same product from Small Store has drier texture and molds typically after a few months.

I'd like to know a little more about why there are differences and how the causes of them can be learnt. I think there are simple non-conspiracy-theory explanations for most/all of my observations. Just trying to see what new thing somebody points out that I can learn.
posted by ErikH2000 to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It could be you.
posted by oliverburkeman at 4:06 PM on May 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

For true name brand foods it's highly unlikely that there is a difference in the formula. Coke is Coke and Coca Cola (as an example) would have to be grossly incompetent to sacrifice years of brand equity for pennies of chemical savings. That said, the age of the item or how it's been stored could alter the taste significantly.
posted by 2bucksplus at 4:08 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think packaging can really change how things taste. For example, Coke tastes fricking awesome when it's ice cold in an aluminum can. Plastic bottles of coke? Eh, I can take em or leave em. I've talked to others who noticed this, as well. Maybe the almonds stay fresher in the cans than in the plastic bags?
posted by jabes at 4:09 PM on May 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

Differences in inventory turnover time could play a part, too, if things are sitting on the shelves for a longer or shorter time at SmallStore vs. BigStore.

You keep bread for four months?
posted by deludingmyself at 4:11 PM on May 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

@OliverBurkeman, yes, it could be me. I agree. It could be in my in my head or taste buds. Definitely subjective.

@2Bucks, yes, this is what I would think too. You don't kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.

@Jabes. Even the mouthfeel of the bottle with cool glass is a big deal. The only way to taste test a drink would be to drink it from the same container,e.g pour into a glass.

@DeludingMyself. Re keeping bread 4 months. There are no cues that it has gone bad other than the bread getting hard in some places. It tastes okay. No visible mold.
posted by ErikH2000 at 4:24 PM on May 21, 2012

Agree with jabes on the packaging. I can taste a difference too. And different packaging can mean different packaging/manufacturing plants (sometimes there are codes for the plant it came from, you might want to compare those. Related AskMe).
One other thing I think plays a part is storage. I have seen this with canned food. Bought from a smaller shop, that runs often discounts, but stores the cans outside/partly in the sun. Same brand, same packaging, different taste, don't buy there anymore.
posted by travelwithcats at 4:28 PM on May 21, 2012

For beverages at least, the packaging can contribute to a flavor difference. It's been acknowledged by at least a couple of different Coca-Cola employees I've known over the years (though I haven't see anything "official"). Almost certainly the same case with the almonds.

As for the bread, I'm a little confused. Are you talking about freezing the bread? Because I don't really understand how it's lasting you four months with no mold otherwise. The shelf life of packaged bread in the freezer is approximately 3 months. Of course, it's unlikely to grow mold in the freezer, but after that its quality and texture is going to start to deteriorate, just like anything else stored in the freezer too long. There are few foods that have an indefinite freezer shelf life.

At any rate, if you mean to say you're buying exactly the same brand and line of bread from both stores (e.g. Wonderbread has a Classic White and Classic White Sandwich, which are two separate lines), it's possible one store gets the top pick stuff, i.e. thicker slices, or they store/transport them differently.
posted by asciident at 4:29 PM on May 21, 2012

You don't mention who your Big Store is, but in some cases it can actually matter. For example, I'm going to mention three large retailers and the strategies that they use that might cause product differences in the manner you describe (although probably not with the kinds of products you specifically mention):
  • Walmart — they pressure their vendors to manufacture cheaper, lower quality, "self knock-off" versions of their signature products that will only be sold in Walmart's stores.
  • Big Lots — they buy up remaindered and overstocked items from vendors for very low prices. This allows them to sell products for low prices to customers who don't care that they are buying items that have minor cosmetic issues, were unpopular with the original target audience, or otherwise come from the end of a manufacturing run.
  • Costco — their products can be divided into two categories. Some of the products they sell they carry full-time and are very popular. Do to their size these products move through their inventory very quickly, and consequently sit on their shelves for less time than smaller stores. To add variety, they also place very large, but infrequent, orders for items that they hope their customers will like (they place large orders in order to negotiate lower prices). These items may end up not selling as quickly as they anticipated, if so, they will sit on the shelves for much longer than they might have at a smaller store due to the large size of the initial order.
  • Note that I'm using these companies as examples for strategies that they are known for, I imagine that all large retailers use a mix of these strategies to a greater or lesser extent.

posted by RichardP at 4:38 PM on May 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

I also think that packaging is probably responsible. Do you notice flavor differences when tasting products that have the same packaging?

I once purchased a loaf of Oroweat 100% Whole Wheat bread. It remained mold free for nearly a year sitting on a shelf in my cupboard (I wasn't eating it, but was really curious to see how long it would take to start growing mold). I actually threw it out before ever seeing mold.
posted by jeffch at 4:38 PM on May 21, 2012

Coke is Coke and Coca Cola (as an example) would have to be grossly incompetent to sacrifice years of brand equity for pennies of chemical savings.

I'll admit that I haven't researched this beyond reading this from others as conventional wisdom, but I am a Coke junkie, and Coke tastes different from place to place - and not just because of the kinds of sugar used. People have said this is because CocaCola does not ship the finished beverage all around the country. It uses a system of local bottlers who combine Coke syrup and carbonating gases with local water. So people often testify the flavor variants from the different local waters can be discerned. If true, it's quite believable, because water tastes remarkably different one place to the next.

I think packaging can really change how things taste. For example, Coke tastes fricking awesome when it's ice cold in an aluminum can. Plastic bottles of coke? Eh, I can take em or leave em.

Completely agree, the packaging makes a difference. Especially where plastics are concerned; plastic flavor seems to leach into everything it touches, and that goes for plastic-coated containers of all kinds.

Age of the product also makes a difference, and it could be that different quality levels of product are packaged in the large and small containers.

If I saw bread that didn't mold for four months, I would definitely not eat it. Good night, what do they have to put in there to achieve that? *shiver*.
posted by Miko at 7:00 PM on May 21, 2012

The company produces concentrate, which is then sold to licensed Coca-Cola bottlers throughout the world. The bottlers, who hold territorially exclusive contracts with the company, produce finished product in cans and bottles from the concentrate in combination with filtered water and sweeteners. The bottlers then sell, distribute and merchandise Coca-Cola to retail stores and vending machines.

No citation for this assertion but there you are; likely to be true for sodas, anyway.
posted by Miko at 7:09 PM on May 21, 2012

The bread thing could be real. There seems to be different sizes and recipes for different retail outlets. I too have a local bread that is only good from certain stores.
posted by gjc at 8:26 PM on May 21, 2012

@jeffch, I hesitate to name the brand, but yeah, the same one you said. I am very curious about this strange mold-less bread and may need to do some experiments and take notes. The creepy thing is that the bread does change, just not in an easily seen way.
posted by ErikH2000 at 11:39 PM on May 21, 2012

It might be interesting for you to list the ingredients. Some powerful antifungal or preservative is in that bread.
posted by Miko at 6:30 AM on May 22, 2012

Bread is not supposed to last four months!

As for the drink that comes in glass at Small Store and plastic at Big Store, it is almost certainly the case that Big Store negotiates a custom bottling run with the bottler(s) of that drink based on their bulk order. Plastic is much easier to ship and stock in large quantities than glass, because of breakage. So, yeah, the difference in packaging probably explains the different experience of the drink, since you drink it out of the bottle.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:21 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I worked in the food business for a dozen years, several of those for Kellogg's on the "Club Stores" team, which managed the Costco/Sam's/BJ's business. Costco and Sam's didn't want to have the same item (because they want their offerings to be unique and because it makes price comparisons too easy), so we produced different offerings for each of them - like, say, different-sized packages of Frosted Flakes, with a different number of packages on a pallet, or in the case of something like Rice Krispie Treats, a variety pack unique to that retailer. And they would both rotate items in and out of their assortment over time to keep the "treasure hunt" fresh for their members. It was always frustrating when an item that'd been selling really well got discontinued out of the blue. But to your specific questions:

- Malt beverage: As others say, I would put this down to package experience and suggest a taste test out of identical containers (for max effectiveness, use three or four containers and have a friend fill and label them without you knowing which is which - this helps avoid the too-easy A vs. B comparison).

- Almonds: Packing in bags (at atmosphere) as compared to in an aluminum can (vacuum sealed) could definitely make a difference in how fresh the product tastes. And there are varieties, grades, and sizes of almonds, though I can't say whether the particular brand you bought uses different ones for different channels.

- Bread: A different-sized slice could make a difference in how the finished product performs (doughier vs. drier). Have you compared the ingredient lists? The larger package sold at Big Store might be getting additional preservatives in order to manage the possibly longer consumption period.

For all of these, I'd suggest contacting the manufacturer with your questions. You might be surprised at their willingness to answer.
posted by jocelmeow at 12:15 PM on May 22, 2012

I was going to nth about WalMart. I don't buy food there because they are large enough to dictate to their suppliers to make things cheaper and crappier. The products are NOT the same. I'm too scared to know why my hot dogs are consistently 50 cents less.

Now, going to the farmers market, those differences between products, I can get behind that.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:46 PM on May 22, 2012

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