Updated on 07.15.11

False Labeling (for Frugality’s Sake)

Trent Hamm

Madeleine writes in with an interesting thought:

When I was younger, my mother used to buy generic versions of things and put the contents into name brand packages. She would refill a ketchup bottle with generic ketchup so that guests would see the name-brand label.

I understand why she did this. Many items are very similar whether you’re buying the generic version or the name brand version. At the same time, though, it’s dishonest. It also tells people that you’re the type of person that cares about having that name-brand ketchup on the table. Not only that, it makes the ingredient lists wrong, which can be an issue with food allergies in some cases.

What do you think? Is this a good way to go or is it dishonest?

Well, the area that actually concerns me the most is the food allergy issue. Regardless of how I felt about the generic versus non-generic issue, I wouldn’t do this with any food that I was going to serve my guests unless the generic and the name brand were an ingredient-for-ingredient match. There is no price that’s worth having a friend glance at a container, think a food is okay, and then get very sick because you bought the cheap version and disguised it.

I have friends with some very severe food allergies, including lactose intolerance and a frighteningly severe nut allergy. We are very careful with the foods we serve, and putting items in bottles with false labels can sometimes be a huge mistake.

So, aside from the food allergy concern, there’s still an interesting question here.

More than anything, the question is about the value of the perception of your guests. Is there really additional social value in serving a name-brand ketchup to your guests versus a generic one? Or is it simply something you’re perceiving and not something that’s real?

Speaking personally, I can’t conceive of being upset with someone who invited me into their home and served me generic ketchup – or practically anything else they served me, for that matter. If they were insulting someone’s religious practices or pointedly serving a food that violates someone’s known food allergy, that’s a different issue. Having generic ingredients is not a spiritual or physical bias for anyone (unless, of course, there are food allergies at work).

It might be a psychological bias for some, but if you’re going to make household decisions based on guessed insignificant biases of your guests, you’re going to open up a giant can of worms.

I have friends who obsessively clean their homes because of their fear of houseguests finding a speck of dust anywhere, for example. There are times when you can’t visit their home because there is a stain on their carpet. Personally, I could not possibly care less, as I would visit them to see the people, not their home (and this goes for the vast majority of houseguests). Again, they’re operating based on a perceived psychological bias of their guests, not a real one.

Simply put, at some point, you have to stop caring what other people think. You can’t let what your idea of what others think of you and your home rule how you behave and what you serve. Naturally, you do want to be a good host and please your guests.

If you have guests that would storm out of your home because you served them generic ketchup instead of a name brand, then you need new friends.

If you’re still uncertain, serve the item in an unmarked container, such as a bowl. Serve your ketchup with a bit of pepper in it, stirred carefully, along with a brush for applying it to the sandwich (or a spoon for dipping, if needed). It looks far more classy than any bottle could look and allows you to save money.

For me, I have no problem serving generic items to any of my houseguests. I’m the type of person who uses generics and is proud of it. That’s who I am, and these people are guests in my home. Yes, sometimes I’ll do things like make a special ketchup preparation as described above, but most of the time, I’ll just put whatever container we have in the refrigerator out on the table and move on with life. My friends and family seem to love coming to visit, so I must be doing something right.

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  1. Christine says:

    I’m inclined to give this mom a pass, especially since perceptions may have been different 20 or 30 years ago. I remember when I was a kid, generics were not so prevalent, and the cultural perception toward people who used generics was that they couldn’t afford “the real thing.” I also recall people getting very attached to brands back then. I think we’re more knowledgeable today about branding, psychology, and the truth about generics – they are usually exactly the same as name brands.

    And you want to please your guests. If you know your guest has a kooky prejudice against generics, I think it’s a smooth move to serve them up in the name brand packaging. Its not so much that you care what they think, but you want them to enjoy what you serve. Studies show that the packaging (and the price) literally makes things taste better. If it works with wine, why not ketchup?

  2. Tanya says:

    Making people feel welcome (and making sure they are safe, i.e. knowing their food allergies) is the most important thing. Yes, a clean and beautiful home is a wonderful and important thing, but not if it comes at the expense of making your guests feel special and welcome. Years ago I ate at the home of a farm family with six kids. They didn’t have matching plates, glasses or silverware. Yet they didn’t let that stop them from entertaining. They invited me to dinner on their weekly taco night, and although I remember the mismatches, what I remember and cherish more is what a warm family this is, and how welcome I felt in their home.

  3. Johanna says:

    I’m not going to criticize anyone for being the type of person who cares about serving their guests name-brand ketchup. But if you are that type of person, why not just serve your guests name-brand ketchup? Unless you have guests over for each and every meal, you can still use the generic stuff for yourself and reap the majority of the savings. A small bottle of name-brand ketchup is not that expensive, especially if you’re only buying it once in a while. By putting the generic stuff in the name-brand bottle, you’re sacrificing your honesty to save a few cents. I can’t see how that’s worth it.

  4. Chaddogg says:

    I think this works best with alcohol. People are surprisingly picky about their vodka/gin/bourbon of choice, yet you can find cheaper versions of many that taste identical or even BETTER (particularly with vodka). My family has a friend who swears by Kettle One vodka, and has been drinking a cheaper generic (Iceberg) for years at our house out of a Kettle One bottle.

  5. JS says:

    I actually used to get embarrased when I had to put out name-brands for guests, or have them out in my house or office (name-brands are sometimes cheaper, usually because of a sale). I didn’t want people to think I was wasteful with my money. But the same techniques worked- I learned not to care about what others thought and limited my social interactions with the people who had a problem with it.

  6. Brent says:

    Sometimes I re-bottle for frugality, but its because I bought a small bottle once and just keep refilling it with the unwieldy jug I got at costco. I don’t do it on ketchup, but I have on soaps, cleaners, and pickles. I wouldn’t even think to apologize for this, if it’s good enough for me its likely good enough for my guests.
    As a second thought I am not a big fan or user of most pills, but I have started keeping aspirin and antacids around just for guests. Generic brand, properly labelled.

  7. Susan says:

    Ha! I had the opposite happen with a guest once. I use a small generic brand bottle to keep our syrup in and refill it from a large name brand container. My week long guest was unaware of this and actually went to the store and bought the same name brand because “I just prefer this one more, I hope you don’t mind.”

    As for clean houses – dirty grosses me out and I’d prefer not to visit anyone, even good friends or family, who has a weeks worth of dishes piled on the counters and pee on the toilet seat. Cluttered and lived-in, “haven’t had time to get to that one carpet stain yet” is fine to me. I just don’t feel comfortable or welcome when a home is unclean (couldn’t you show some respect by cleaning the outside of your appliances before having me over for dinner? ewwww)

  8. Des says:

    “If you have guests that would storm out of your home because you served them generic ketchup instead of a name brand, then you need new friends.”

    I don’t know about you, but I often serve guests that aren’t my best-est friends. We have guests that are family, friends-of-friends, and colleagues. I choose my friends based on shared interests and values, but those are not the only people who will see my house and eat my cooking. I don’t have marathon cleaning sessions for my closest friends, but you better believe I do when my mother-in-law is visiting!

    That being said, I don’t re-label our generic foods (though I’m not above it, if the situation warranted). I just feel the “if-your-friends-disagree-you-need-new-friends” argument is disingenuous here.

    The larger point may be that this person is embarrassed to be either frugal or poor (whichever the case may be). I don’t see either of those as worth being embarrassed about. I don’t judge my poor friends who serve simple (and generic) foods. I DO, however, judge my poor relatives who insist on buying brand name foods and clothes (and new SUVs, and giant TVs, etc.) even when they can’t afford it – then ask to borrow money from me. That is the type of person I would be embarrassed to be.

  9. Mary says:

    If guests at my house had a problem with what brand of condiment I used, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be a welcomed guest anymore. How materialistic can a human get? But I do get the food allergy reasons. I would hope that they would tell me upfront.

  10. lurker carl says:

    People with food allergies know what to avoid and ask about ingredients in foods they do not prepare themselves. Someone with a ‘ketchup’ allergy wouldn’t care if it was a name brand or generic, knowing it’s ‘ketchup’ is enough. If the allergy is because of one particular ingredient in most commercially made ketchups; the person with the allergy either brings their allergen free version along or avoids ketchup completely and asks about inclusion of ketchup as an ingredient in the foods – each and every time.

  11. Steven says:

    Maybe it was someone else, but I thought I remember you writing some time ago that you put generic cereal in brand name boxes. Am I wrong about that?

  12. chuck says:

    when times are tough i often buy generic cigarettes and put them in name brand packages that i saved from before. i don’t like people thinking i smoke cheap cigs plus i kinda look down on others that smoke the cheapies. i know it is wrong but i can’t help noticing.

  13. AnnJo says:

    I have young relatives who are very brand conscious; they BELIEVE other brands are worse than their preferred, and therefore those others ARE worse.

    I usually just serve such things in my own containers and they assume, because they know I know their preferences, that it is their brand. The couple of times they’ve asked if it’s their brand, I’ve said I think so, but taste it and see. Both times, they accepted it as their own, even though it wasn’t.

    I see this as an idiosyncracy, and can’t imagine discarding someone’s friendship based on such trivia. My young relatives have a number of other flaws that make them less than perfect objects of affection, but then, so do I, and they put up with me, so I return the favor.

  14. Larabara says:

    I think poor people were more severely looked down on and there was a social stigma to being frugal that is (thank goodness) long gone in this recession. I remember a time when nobody wanted to admit that they used margarine, because they didn’t want to be perceived as poor.

  15. Jonathan says:

    I always love reading the comments on this sort of post, just as a reminder of how different people are. Personally, I find purposely relabeling a generic as if it is a brand-name to be dishonest. More important than being dishonest, however, it shows that the person either cares what others think about the products they use or is embarrassed by their choices, which are both undesirable qualities in my opinion.

  16. kristine says:

    @Steven- I remember same.

    In general, I am not a fan of phoney-baloney. You can do the Martha Stewart thing, and just put cheaper items in nice serving containers/bowls, to eliminate the issue altogether! Same for cereal- get the faux-tupperware container. Problem solved!

  17. Brittany says:

    “Couldn’t you show some respect by cleaning the outside of your appliances before having me over for dinner? ewwww”

    Really? Not scrubbing my blender is disrespectful to you? Wow. What a jerk. Please don’t ever come to my place.

  18. Stephanie says:

    I had also heard the idea about cereal…if your kids demand the expensive stuff, you can trick them into thinking it’s the fancy stuff either by putting the generic in that box or like kristine said, put them in those plastic cereal containers.

    Here’s the weird part about those containers: when I was younger, I was jealous of the people who had the containers instead of boxes. Even though now I realize that you could put generic in there and no one would be the wiser.

    I’ve also heard of college-aged people putting cheap vodka into old expensive vodka bottles. You know, to impress your hot dates.

  19. lurker carl says:

    #17 Brittany – I don’t think a little goop on the blender is the issue. A sink full of last week’s dishes with months of spilled food staining the range and fridge makes me not want to eat anything prepared in that kitchen. Appearance matters.

  20. Paul says:

    It also might be, in the case of the mom and some others, less about guests and more about briefly feeling like a big shot who can afford brand names by having a bottle of Heinz on the dinner table. A small indulgence for little expenditure is the essence of frugality.

  21. Susan says:

    ^@Brittany – “Couldn’t you show some respect by cleaning the outside of your appliances before having me over for dinner? ewwww”

    “Really? Not scrubbing my blender is disrespectful to you? Wow. What a jerk. Please don’t ever come to my place.”

    I meant their large appliances (just like lurker carl stated). I don’t want my dinner to come from a crusty refrigerator. Filth is unappetizing and uninviting to me.

    @Stephanie – I was jealous of those plastic cereal containers too! So very fancy! LOL

  22. Emma says:

    People do judge you. Clean comes first. You can always compenstate for generic by cooking , baking your own dish. That beat all brands and show real respect for the guests. I have tears in my eyes when my busy friends always happens to bake a bluberry pie or cheese cake from scratch, even if she doesn’t eat it herself. I have been critisized for diluting juices- that is the way I like it. I agree with Joanna- keping a small jar of brand souce, spice or juice for the guests shows consideration and will not break your wallet.I have seen dinner served from foil containers and mis matched mugs in well families. I find it repulsive but I do not care anymore. one gets tolerant with age.

  23. bogart says:

    Egads — I was taught one doesn’t serve from the container at the dinner table, that purchased condiments should always be decanted. Problem solved, though it remains in the case of the wine (and the vodka).

  24. con says:

    I would never, ever try to impress with name brand instead of generic. As everyone knows, so many times, it’s the same ingredients for a lot of stuff. But my friends don’t care about that stuff. Also, I would never try to disguise the item by putting something in a bowl as Trent recommended to disguise it. I do, however, put dips and such in bowls just because it’s easier to dip out of of. Would I buy, as someone suggested, a name brand just to impress them? No. Would I buy that item if I liked it much better and it was on sale and cheaper? Yes. As far as food allergies go, I would hope that my friends would tell me about that beforehand. But, without trying to “hide” the truth, they could always look at the label. Someone explain to me about the “spiritual” reasons I might, for reasons unknown to me, give someone something they might not know they should be eating. I’m sure there’s a logical reason, but maybe I’m lame.

  25. Squirrelers says:

    Personally, I’m with you. I don’t care to pretend about using generics. I’ll use them, and serve generic food. Why not?

    Thing is, it might have been different a generation ago. These days, there are more brands out there for many products, and generics have established themselves in many areas – food, pharmaceuticals, etc. It might have been a true social faux paux to serve generics back then.

    These days…who cares? Serve the generics, and be proud that you like to save money and make smart purchases!

  26. Katie says:

    Someone explain to me about the “spiritual” reasons I might, for reasons unknown to me, give someone something they might not know they should be eating. I’m sure there’s a logical reason, but maybe I’m lame.

    The brand name might be kosher or halal while the generic isn’t. For instance, I believe oreos are now certified kosher but weren’t for a long time; generic store brand cookies that look like oreos, on the other hand, might very well not be.

  27. Mary Kay says:

    On a tangent. your friend(s) that suffer from lactose intolerance might find relief by using Digestive Advantage Lactose Defense Formula. It’s a product you take once a day (a small capsule) and then you are good to go all day. It has been a wonder for those in my family that prviously avoided all lactose.

  28. Gretchen says:

    Lactose intolerance is not a milk allergy, which would be similar any other sort of allergy.

    I can’t imagine pouring ketchup into another container is worth the time it must take- but I also find generic ketchup foul.

  29. em says:

    I just think its dishonest and for me thats the end of it. I don’t understand people’s inability to be honest with themselves and others. If you can’t afford name brand then own it. Anyone who would care that much doesn’t deserve your friendship. Now some name brands do taste different then generic and if the person truly prefers the name brand then fine, at their house they can eat it and at your’s they can pass.

    On the whole cleaning the house issue Trent mentions. The house should only be spotless if you and your family want a spotless house. Other than that it should be cleaned up for guests when they are coming over out of respect.

  30. Brittany says:

    Susan and Luker Carl–I think if the original comment had focuses on health concerns, it would have been less irksome. But if I invite you into my home, but haven’t perfectly scrubbed every appliance, I’m being /disrespectful/ to you? Please. My house is “clean but cluttered,” but you can still keep your sense of entitlement out of it.

    And Emma, you and your judgment of families who chose to allocate their resources to something besides matching mugs can also stay out. Perhaps they are well-off because they spend their money as they value and not on keeping up appearances for judgmental (non)friends. Appearances only matter if you surround yourself with people for whom appearances matter. (Speaking of personal lives; professional is a slightly different matter.)

  31. I actually had to get up and check the pantry to see how many generic brands I had in there (about half) because a good bit of what we eat we prepare from scratch. Like Bogart I have raise my family that there are “no labels on the table” and like Brent I will put items from large awkward containers in to smaller more manageable containers that might have held name brands.

    I am picky, picky, picky about the quality of our food and anyone that eats in our home is going to get a good meal. If they spy generic boxes and bottles in our pantry or fridge and are upset by it then I would just think they were foolish.

    More often they probably would see bottles and boxes from foreign countries because I check out all sorts of ethnic grocery stores for amazing deals, high quality and really interesting flavors.

  32. Matt says:

    On allergies:

    Ketchup is actually sort of a bad example for this allergy discussion, since tomato allergies are rare and there aren’t many other ingredients in most ketchups. I’m going to use salad dressing instead, since there are common allergens that can be there (eggs, nuts, fish, soy, gluten) and there is a lot of variation by brand.

    I have several food allergies – if I was at a friend’s house and using a salad dressing I would not think to also ask if they’d dumped something else into that bottle. If it was just in a container, I might ask to see the bottle. I don’t expect my friends without allergies to know off hand if a salad dressing has egg in it – they don’t usually need to know! Also, many people don’t realize that, for example, mayonnaise has eggs in it – so if I ask, “does this have eggs?” they would say, “no.”

    So… if you do end up putting something in a container that’s different than what the label says, please be careful when you have guests! A lot of allergy sufferers don’t like to make a big deal out of allergies – we know what we can and can’t eat, and where the problems usually are, and we don’t like making hosts nervous if we don’t have to.

  33. Marle says:

    Matt @32

    That’s a good explanation for why not to repackage things. Though ketchup isn’t the worst example, because it can have sugar substitutes that people can be allergic or sensitive too. It’s hard with food allergies. you’ve seen the problem with those who don’t know that eggs are in mayonnaise, well, I’ve seen people who didn’t know that dairy is in mayonnaise. It can be really scary with food allergies and people you don’t know too well cooking for you. The idea that they might be switching packaging on you is really bad. Please, anyone reading this, don’t do that

  34. Brian Carr says:

    I certainly don’t think it’s dishonest, it’s more or less the same thing. Heck, often the generic stuff is made in the exact same place as the name brand stuff; the only reason it costs less is you’re not paying for all the marketing!

  35. I agree totally, my husband has wheat allergy and always has to read labels. And as to a ‘stigma’ for having generic aren’t we over that? I am continually surprised at how insecure everyone seems to be about what they buy. I work in retail and I get people all the time who ask things like ‘Do you think this lamp shade goes with a square base’? I just want to go who cares! Do you think some one is going to come to your house and go ‘Oh my GOD, they put that shade on THAT base, what horrible people they must be!’ Have some backbone, its your life, live it your way!

  36. DivaJean says:

    Believe it or not, perceptions based on labels worked in reverse in our household. Last summer, my father in law was very upset when he saw some national label jellies and jams in our kitchen. He brought into question how our family of 2 adults and 4 kids can survive on 1 income (mine-and its meager enough) buying the expensive jams and jellies. He then went into this elaborate guise of he would award our family with a certain amount of cash (and my sister in law’s family too- to make it fair) if we would produce our register tapes and show what we really are paing for foodstuffs. He had no idea that coupons made it more cost efficient SOMETIMES rather than just buying the generic. Since I am not the family shopper (that’s my partner’s job), it wasn’t my place to decide- but my partner did do it and proved to him that we were shopping smart. If it had been me, not so much. I would have been too put off to go thru all that nuttiness and would have likely told him off the first time.

  37. Carole says:

    I know this isn’t the point but I have a plastic red catsup container and a yellow plastic mustard container that I have been known to use because I thought they looked better on the table than the bottles with the labels on them. No one has ever asked what brand was in them. On the other hand one time I had several 2 liter bottles of generic soda pop and glasses out for people to partake of at a church meeting and no one took any. I must have been to cheap that time.

  38. Kathy F says:

    #23 “Egads — I was taught one doesn’t serve from the container at the dinner table, that purchased condiments should always be decanted.”

    Except for the Grey Poupon!

  39. Tizzle says:

    In my past, I actually turned down ketchup because it wasn’t the brand I liked. I had no hard feelings for them for not carrying it. I just ate my fries without. I knew I was the picky one in that situation. I can’t know if I really would have been able to tell the difference (I sure thought so then) if it had been served in a nondescript container.

    I like the idea of putting it in your own container, that seems to solve any image problems. I might even do it, with vodka.

  40. tentaculistic says:

    In my mind, ketchup is in an entirely different category, as is soda. Most people can tell the difference between name brand ketchup and the generic (especially as the generics get cheaper and the flavor gets more off), and between name brand sodas and the generic. Thre really are discernible taste differences.

    I actually read an entire chapter on ketchup, how it came to be in its current flavor iteration (instead of earlier sweeter, more watery, and tomato-y variations), and how intolerate the general population is to ketchup variations (as opposed to mustard, mayonnaise, salad dressings, pretty much any other condiment).

    So I wouldn’t mess with ketchup simply because most people can tell instantly that you’re using off-brand ketchup. There’s a reason why most delis will use any-brand mustard, any-brand mayonnaise but only Hunts or Heinz ketchup. People really can tell with ketchup, and usually *hate* fake ketchup. I know I do.

    That said, if you find a generic ketchup that tastes exactly the same, then I would go with the generic. It’s not a matter of name brand loyalty, it’s just that in a very narrow band of products, I can actually taste the difference, I really enjoy the flavor of that product, and it the wrong flavor is enough of a negative that the cost saving is not worth it to me.

  41. Joanna says:

    I don’t even look at the brands when I go shopping. Then again, I don’t really look at the prices either. I go for a size container that fits my needs and may get used up before the expiry date.

    How much of a difference could it really make to worry about the name?

    The only exception to this, and something I can chime in on with the allergy thing, is when I am avoiding gluten. Some brands of condiments / foods are gluten free, while others are not. They look the same and may even taste the same, but one will make me sick. I’ll mention to my host if I have a gluten allergy, but I wont queston what the box / bag / bottle says. If I recognize a brand as being a gluten free one that I use, I’ll just eat it and never ask to be sure. Ouch.

  42. bogart says:

    LOL @Emma how funny about the mugs … I love my diverse assortment of mugs b/c each one has its own history/provenance. How dull I would find it to have an entire set with (presumably) the same origins!

  43. Annie says:

    I think it’s wrong to put cheaper ketchup in the brand name and serve it to your guests thinking the won’t know the difference. Why not just buy a brand name bottle of ketchup, i always see them on sales here and there. If you shop smart, you might find it cheaper than the cheaper brand with coupons, etc…
    I think your guests/friends should see you for who you really are, if you are frugal and cheap you should be proud to show it, otherwise you are just lying to your friends to impress them and that is the wrong thing to do. I also don’t play cheap to show people i am conservative, i buy what i want when i go to the grocery store.

  44. the duchess says:

    This has been such an entertaining and amusing read! I’m so finding the ‘comments’ sections more fun and informative than Trent’s posts! Anyway, all this catsup dialog reminded me of when I was a very young student working as a waitress back in the ’70’s. I was told on my first day on the job to take a large industrial-sized can of a cheaper brand of catsup and go out in the dining room and top up all the Heinz catsup bottles on the tables (I won’t mention the chain I worked for at the time, but people would be shocked!) This was done daily, with just a quick wiping off of the bottle’s opening. Talk about ‘ewww” – I am sure hoping it’s no longer a common practice in the industry anymore!!!

    Just a note for the person who is concerned about dairy in mayo: Hellman’s mayonnaise is Kosher and Parve, which means there are no milk products in it as it can be used with meat. So they may want to give that a try.

    Also, I collect interesting, colourful mugs – often a dime or quarter each – which I put out all the time. It’s true that each one almost tells a story! However, I do have one set of “matchy” plain coffee cups for when I want to be more formal. For the most part though, I too love my crazy mugs and will try to match each one up with the personality of who is dining with me, to the amusement of all!

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