Best queso? We rank the house brands

battle of the brands: QuesoCinco de Mayo's right around the corner kids, so round up the dorm mates, buy some margarita mix, snatch a bag of salty tortilla chips, and of course, get some ... queso.

Ah queso: that magical, cheesy concoction that makes the chip eating experience all the more exquisite -- that is unless you get a terrible store brand in an attempt to save some cheddar, er, cash. There's one private label pseudo-queso Store Brand Scorecard strongly suggests you avoid, despite its comparatively low price point. But there's good news: Store Brand Scorecard found two store brands that actually top Tostitos' queso in price and in taste.

All brands were purchased at Chicago-area stores on April 17. Prices are subject to change based on region and date of purchase.

Brand Name:
Tostitos
Cost:
$3.39 at Target, $4.39 at a Chicago-area grocery store
Size:
15 oz.
Nutritional Facts:
(for two tablespoons) 40 calories (25 from fat), 2.5 grams of fat (4% recommended daily value), Less than 5 milligrams of cholesterol (1% recommended daily value), 280 milligrams of sodium (12% recommended daily value), 5 grams total carbohydrate (2% recommended daily value)
Taste:
Cheesy, but a bit bland and thin (water is the first listed ingredient), with just a hint of heat from the occasional jalapeno.




The Big Box Store: SuperTarget
Brand Name:
Archer Farms
Cost:
$2.69
Size:
16 oz.
Nutritional Facts: (for two tablespoons) 30 calories (15 from fat), 2 grams of fat (3% recommended daily value), No cholesterol, 200 milligrams of sodium (8% recommended daily value), 2 grams total carbohydrate (1% recommended daily value)
Taste:
With buttermilk as the primary ingredient, this is some dense dip. I enjoyed the robust flavors from the bell peppers and tomatoes, but all those eclectic veggies overpowered the cheese.

The Grocery Store: Dominick's (a subsidiary of Safeway Inc.,)
Brand Name: Safeway
Cost: $2.89
Size: 15.5 oz.
Nutritional Facts: (for two tablespoons) 45 calories (25 from fat), 3 grams of fat (5% recommended daily value), Less than 5 milligrams of cholesterol (1% recommended daily value), 280 milligrams of sodium (12% recommended daily value), 4 grams total carbohydrate (1% recommended daily value)
Taste: Gross. The processed cheese flavor tastes like a bad batch of Cheese Whiz. But admittedly there's more kick here than in Tostitos' blend.

The Mini Market: Trader Joe's
Brand Name: Trader Joe's
Cost: $2.49
Size: 11.5 oz.
Nutritional Facts: (for two tablespoons) 15 calories (0 from fat), Less than 0.5 grams of fat (0% recommended daily value), No cholesterol, 170 milligrams of sodium (8% recommended daily value), 3 grams total carbohydrate (0% recommended daily value)
Taste: Compared with Tostitos, there are definitely more peppers (including chipotle, jalapeno and roasted anaheim), and consequently, more flavor. But even with ingredients ranging from cilantro to tomato to garlic chipotle salsa, I could still taste the cheese, unlike Archer Farms' variety. Bonus points for the comparatively low cal and fat quotient.

Greatest Value: Safeway brand queso is so poor, it practically made me queasy. My chips will forever stay away from this dip. Value Score: 2 (on a scale of 0 to 10). Tostitos has the strongest cheese taste, but it isn't as creamy as it should be, nor does it have enough zest. Value Score: 5.

Archer Farms' queso packs in a lot of flavor from its ingredients, but it's lacking one crucial flavor – cheese. Still a good choice for folks who prefer the salsa flavor in their salsa con queso, and this brand offers the most dip per penny. Value Score: 7.

That means Trader Joe's is the winner of this challenge.
True, this is the most expensive of the private labels sampled ounce for penny, and the jar size is the smallest. But there's a nice taste, thanks to those peppers -- plus they compliment the cheese, rather than overwhelm it. This queso also has far fewer calories, grams of fat and grams of sodium than the other test subjects, quite a feat for a flavorful dip. Value Score: 8.

Piet Levy's Store Brand Scorecard tests a major label food product and three private label equivalents to see which brand offers the best value for the price. It appears every Monday on WalletPop's Money College page. Send suggestions, including items you want Piet to try, to moneycollege@walletpop.com

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