Summer's the perfect season to enjoy nature's goodness by tossing up a fresh salad. Sure beats the campus food, if it tastes anything like the stuff I ate, so take advantage while you can. But, as much as I'd like to think it's the greens that make a salad great, for me the croutons are the best part. So crunchy. So salty. So good. Just as nature (or the nearest food processing plant) intended.


Proportionately speaking, croutons represent a small part of the salad experience. But a really good batch of, say, the garlic and cheese variety can lend lettuce and dressing gourmet-like refinement. The branded ones won't set you back too much, but when it comes to the store brand variety, you can go one of two ways. You can spend less, but risk getting crummier croutons. Or you can pick up a bag of big fat buggers at Trader Joe's, but pay about twice as much over the store brands for the privilege.

Which croutons should you toss in your salad and which ones should you just toss out? Store Brand Scorecard compared a national brand to three private-label varieties, including Trader Joe's, to see which croutons are worth their cash in seasoning. Typically Store Brand Scorecard seeks out a brand from a big-box store, a grocery store and a mini market, respectively, but neither Target nor Walmart makes garlic and cheese croutons. (Missed opportunity, guys.) Therefore, this bout features two brands from grocery store retailers instead of just one.
All products were purchased the July 9th weekend in the Chicago area. Prices are subject to change.

Brand Name: Mrs. Cubbison's
Cost:
$2.09 at a Chicago area grocery store
Size: 6 oz.
Nutritional Facts: (for five croutons) 35 calories (10 from fat), 1.5 grams of total fat (2% recommended daily value), 60 milligrams of sodium (4% recommended daily value), 4 grams of total carbohydrate (1% recommended daily value)
Taste: Now let's get one thing straight. I like my croutons to be flavorful, but there is still a line that can be crossed. Mrs. Cubbison's tip toes over that line. These croutons are simply too salty.

The Grocery Store: Jewel-Osco (a Supervalu store. The company, number 47 on the Fortune 500 list, also owns and operates such grocery retailers as Shop 'n Save and Albertsons.)
Brand Name: Jewel
Cost:
$1.49
Size: 5 oz.
Nutritional Facts: (for six croutons) 30 calories (10 from fat), 1 gram of total fat (2% recommended daily value), 70 milligrams of sodium (3% recommended daily value), 5 grams of total carbohydrate (2% recommended daily value)
Taste: Nice crunch, with just the right amount of seasoning, garlic and cheese. Not too much, not too little, and certainly enough to appreciate.

The Grocery Store: Dominick's (a Safeway store. The company, number 52 on the Fortune 500 list, also owns and operates such grocery retailers as Tom Thumb and its namesake store).
Brand Name: Safeway
Cost:
$1.89
Size: 6 oz.
Nutritional Facts: (for six croutons) 30 calories (10 from fat), 1 gram of total fat (2% recommended daily value), 60 milligrams of sodium (3% recommended daily value), 5 grams of total carbohydrate (2% recommended daily value)
Taste: The least adventuresome (i.e. most mild) of the bunch. That isn't to say there isn't any flavor, or that these croutons aren't any good. The brand's still preferred over Mrs. Cubbison's.

The Mini Market:
Trader Joe's
Brand Name: Trader Joe's

Cost: $2.99
Size: 4 oz.
Nutritional Facts: (for two to three croutons) 25 calories (15 from fat), 1.5 grams of total fat (2% recommended daily value), 30 milligrams of sodium (1% recommended daily value), 3 grams of total carbohydrate (1% recommended daily value)
Taste: Appearances, friends, are deceiving. Given the large size and irregular shape, these adventurous-looking croutons cry out "anti-establishment." (Well, as much as a salad topper can). But they're the most disappointing of the bunch. The garlic comes off way, way too strong, and there's this unlikable burnt bread aftertaste.

Greatest Value: Trader Joe's definitely looked the best, but the brand tasted the worst. Worst still, a four once bag costs nearly a dollar more than a six ounce box of Mrs. Cubbison's. On a value scale of 0 to 10, this one gets a 1.

Mrs. Cubbison's doesn't fare much better. It may be less expensive than Trader Joe's, but it's still the second most expensive brand. And while Trader Joe's may use too much garlic, Mrs. Cubbison's uses too much salt. Value score: 3.

To contrast, Dominick's Safeway brand plays it safe with the most-mild flavor. It's perhaps a little too subtle for my liking, but still agreeable, and it's less expensive than the inferior Mrs. Cubbison's and Trader Joe's. Value score: 6.

But there's one clear crouton champion here, and that's Jewel, which offers up the best tasting croutons for the best price (even if its for a five-ounce bag, as opposed to the six-ounce Safeway and Mrs. Cubbison's offerings). Value score: 9.

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.

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