We ran another story about the origins of Trader Joe's private-label products that got a ton of traffic—along with a ton of annoyed comments. "Sensationalize much?" went one typical comment. "Is the writer of this article like 18 years old or something? It's not a huge expose to reveal that food mfgs make food for many different private labels."
No, it's not. Everyone knows that private labeling, where one company makes a product that's sold under another company's name, is common both in TJ's and other grocery stores. But it's fun to try to figure out who makes Trader Joe's foods for a couple of reasons.
The first is how ultrasecretly Trader Joe's tries to operate. The stores are owned by a German family, the Albrechts, who also own the Aldi Nord chain of German supermarkets. As reporter Beth Kowitt wrote in a recent Fortune magnum opus on Trader Joe's, "Famous in Germany for not talking to the press, the Albrechts have passed their tightlipped ways on to their U.S. business: Trader Joe's and its CEO, Dan Bane, declined repeated requests to speak to Fortune, and the company has never participated in a major story about its business operations."
Also uncovered by Fortune: TJ's standard vendor agreement contains the line "Vendor shall not publicize its business relationship with TJ's in any manner." Oh, and the fact that the company doesn't even have signs on its headquarters in Monrovia, California. In other words, Trader Joe's doesn't want us to know who makes their foods. That makes us want to figure it out all the more.
The second reason it's nice to know is that Trader Joe's policy of frequently phasing out products too often leaves us bereft (R.I.P., butternut squash ravioli). But if you knew that Stonyfield Farm makes that yogurt flavor you miss so much, or Nancy's makes the quiches no longer sold at TJ's, you could still go buy them, even if you had to pay more for the product elsewhere.
So on with the tastings.
Trader Joe's Soy Yogurt Strawberry Versus Silk Live! Soy Yogurt Strawberry
Appearance: Same viscosity, same smooth-with-chunks texture, Silk is darker in color (perhaps due to the presence of "fruit and vegetable juice," noted on the label, while TJ's gets its color from just one vegetable: red cabbage).
Taste: As my husband put it, the Trader Joe's was better because it tasted "something like actual strawberries." The Silk yogurt tasted like "goo, with a lot of vanilla in it, and maybe strawberry way back in there somewhere." He followed this with, "I have go to rinse my mouth out."
Ingredients: Largely the same, although the Silk brand includes a lot of mysterious-sounding sugar substitutes, like dextrose and "cultured glucose syrup solids."
Price: TJ's 99 cents, Silk 99 cents
In it together? Yes.
TJ's Ultra Chocolate Ice Cream Versus Double Rainbow Ultra Chocolate Ice Cream
Appearance: Most ice cream packages of similar size look the same; no difference here. Both use brown in their graphics—um, yeah, most cartons of chocolate ice cream would do that.
Taste: Heavenly. Awesome. Very, very creamy, slow to melt, powerful chocolate flavor, exactly the same in each.
Ingredients: Same. TJ's says "sugar," Double Rainbow says "cane sugar."
Price: TJ's $3.99, Double Rainbow $4.29
In it together? Yes.
TJ's All Natural Vanilla Joe-Joe's Versus Country Choice Organic Vanilla Sandwich Cremes
Appearance: Packages are markedly different and the package of Joe-Joe's is almost twice the size. Once unwrapped, the cookies look suspiciously similar, with the same four-petaled flower markings, although Country Choice's is emblazoned with the brand name, and the TJ's cookie is all flowers. The TJ's cookie has conspicuous vanilla specks, absent in the Country Choice.
Taste: Exactly the same: crisp, buttery, very nice, natural vanilla. Both are wonderful.
Ingredients: Pretty similar, although the TJ's cookies cop to having palm oil, not real popular with environmentalists.
Price: TJ's $2.69, Country Choice $3.99
In it together? Yes.
TJ's Organic Mini Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers Versus Late July Organic Mini Peanut Butter Bite Size Sandwich Crackers
Appearance: TJ's box is larger (7.5 ounces versus 5 ounces for Late July), and uses a lighter and more orange-y red for its box. Once out of the package, Late July's crackers are browner than TJ's: The crackers are darker, as is the peanut butter, and the edges are more sharply ridged.
Taste: Crispy cracker, slightly sweet peanut butter, what's not to like? Very similar.
Ingredients: Largely the same, although the TJ's crackers list organic sunflower and/or safflower oil above organic peanut butter, and Late July switches the order.
Price: TJ's $2.49, Late July $3.49
In it together? Inconclusive. On the yes side, Late July also makes a mini cheese sandwich cracker (which we couldn't find) in a school-bus-yellow box that looks just like TJ's mini cheese cracker box. On the no side, a serving of the TJ's crackers is 150 calories, while the Late July crackers are 110 calories.
TJ's Original Savory Thins Versus Sesmark Garlic Sesame Thins
Appearance: This one was tough to judge, because although TJ's usually sells a sesame cracker in this distinctive package, all we could find on the shelves was the "savory" flavor. Thus the crackers themselves were very dissimilar, yet the packaging nearly the same. The Sesmark pack was more than twice the size of TJ's.
Taste: Both crispy, light, and crackery, but the Sesmark crackers were garlicky and wheaty while the TJ's crackers had the light, bubbly texture that bespeaks rice flour.
Ingredients: Different: Sesmark uses wheat flour, TJ's uses rice.
Price: TJ's $1.69, Sesmark $2.59
In it together? Inconclusive, but the similar packaging makes me lean toward yes.
TJ's Organic Vegetarian Chili Versus Amy's Organic Chili, Medium
Appearance: Cans are the same size, use the same colors, and, um, the same chili picture. I think this one's a gimme. When opened, the chilis look the same: dull red with meaty-looking tofu bits, red beans, and green chile chunks.
Taste: Exactly the same, overwhelmingly bland with a little chile hotness. Both desperately needed salt.
Ingredients: The same.
Price: TJ's $2.19, Amy's $3.19
In it together? Definitely.
TJ's Roasted Seaweed Snack Versus SeaSnax Classic Flavor
Appearance: Packages are markedly different. Once opened, TJ's seaweed is cut into small strips, while SeaSnax is in large sheets.
Taste: Very similar, although SeaSnax is subtly tastier.
Ingredients: Not much in this stuff, so there's not much to vary, but SeaSnax has olive oil while TJ's uses canola and sesame oil.
Price: TJ's 99 cents, SeaSnax $3.29
In it together? Inconclusive.
TJ's Butter Waffle Cookies and Butter Almond Thins Versus Jules Destrooper's Butter Crisp and Almond Thins
Appearance: Very different packages. Destrooper's cookies are in long, thin, white-and-midnight-blue packages, TJ's in squatter, thicker, more colorful packaging. When unwrapped, the cookies are identical, except for the Destroopers look like they're a bit darker brown.
Taste: The same, although again, the Destrooper cookies seem a bit more browned and thus have more of a brown-butter taste.
Ingredients: Almost exactly the same, although the TJ's waffle cookies have beta carotene. "For color," the package claims. Weird.
Price: TJ's $2.79 each, Destrooper $3.09 each
In it together? Yes.
TJ's Peanut Butter Filled Pretzels Versus Good Health Natural Foods Peanut Butter Filled Pretzels
Appearance: Bags are very dissimilar: different colors, different sizes. The pretzels themselves are also dissimilar: TJ's has rock salt on the outside and little burnt-looking divots; Good Health Natural pretzels are smaller and smooth on the outside. Peanut butter paste on the inside looks the same, both dryish little pellets.
Taste: So weirdly the same that I'm confused, since they look so different. TJ's might be the tiniest bit saltier.
Ingredients: The same, and kind of strange. I've never seen a package that identifies exactly what vitamins enriched flour is enriched with, but both these packages do.
Price: TJ's $3.29, Good Health Natural $2.19
In it together? Yes.