Shop Smart: Not all celebrity food brands worth the cost
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Many celebrity-branded products cost two or three times the price of leading national brands. But Consumer Reports' recent tests of 26 celebrity goods in several categories reveal that a famous name is no guarantee of a starring role. Only three of the 26 celebrity goods were rated "Excellent": Giada De Laurentiis Tomato Basil pasta sauce, Wolfgang Puck Tomato Basil Bisque and Mario Batali Marinara sauce.
Ten products were rated "Very Good," including Lidia's Marinara, from Lidia Bastianich; and Rao's Homemade 8 Star Balsamic Vinaigrette, from the exclusive New York City restaurant. Half of the products tested were rated only average, with some no better than cheaper mainstream brands such as Kraft, Campbell's and Progresso.
CR's tests included products from chefs who cook on TV (Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali and Giada de Laurentiis, for example), from restaurants that achieved notice beyond their hometowns (Original Bookbinder's in Philadelphia and Delmonico's in New York City) and from Hollywood heavyweights (Francis Ford Coppola, the late Paul Newman and Paul Sorvino). CR also included brands linked to other notables: Muir Glen, named for John Muir, the naturalist and writer; and Pritikin, whose founder was an early promoter of diet and exercise. Also included was the Silver Palate, a New York specialty-food store that inspired a series of cookbooks.
The products CR tested typically cost two to three times as much as garden-variety brands. For example, the Original Soupman Tomato Basil (created by the chef who inspired the "Soup Nazi" character on "Seinfeld"), rated "Very Good," costs 36 cents per ounce vs. 11 cents per ounce for a Progresso version. The price gap was notable among pasta sauces and salad dressings, too. For a half-cup of tomato sauce, Ragu is 42 cents; Rao's (rated Very Good), $1.41. For 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinaigrette dressing, Kraft is 18 cents; Delmonico's, 39 cents. What's more, Delmonico's ranked lowest among the dressings CR tested.
Often because celebrity brands cost more, they contain better ingredients -- like whole San Marzano tomatoes from Italy instead of tomato paste or puree, and fresh herbs and seasonings rather than dried ones. Still, you can't always tell. Many celebrity products include such ingredients, but others don't. In Mario Batali's $8 bottle of Marinara ($1.33 per half cup), he uses San Marzano tomatoes; fresh carrots, garlic, Italian parsley, onions and thyme; extra-virgin olive oil; and sea salt. By contrast, Emeril's (about $4) and Newman's Own (less than $3) list tomato puree (water and tomato paste) as the first ingredient, as does Ragu. Emeril's doesn't specify whether its onions are fresh, but the label notes the garlic is powdered. The garlic and onions in Newman's Own are dried.
There was an "Excellent" or "Very Good" pasta sauce to suit most tastes. Give first consideration to top-rated Giada de Laurentiis Tomato Basil, a buttery, rich sauce sold at only Target. It costs $3 and is a CR Best Buy. Most consumers would not expect that sauce to come from a jar, testers concluded. Other sauces are expensive but worth a try. Mario Batali's is the choice if you love garlic, Rao's if you like it slightly spicy and Paul Sorvino's if you prefer a mild sauce that tastes mostly of tomatoes.
Among soups, Wolfgang Puck's Tomato Basil Bisque was the standout. It was creamy, thick and fresh-tasting. CR's tasters weren't impressed by any of the minestrone soups, even Wolfgang Puck's, because most had mushy vegetables or pasta.
As for salad dressing, Rao's was the best of the bunch, but Cardini's was very good and lower in fat than the rest.
First Published May 27, 2012 12:00 am