Bringing home the bacon, price-checked and taste-tested

Amazon and Walmart are battling to dominate the grocery market, fueling a price war that could rearrange where America shops for food.

To get a firsthand glimpse of this competition, The New York Times has periodically been testing Amazon’s effect on grocery prices since the online retailer bought Whole Foods last summer. Heading into Super Bowl weekend, we thought we would compare the price of ingredients for Steak ‘n’ Bacon Cheddar meatballs.

So we shopped for the same items (or as close as we could find) at a Whole Foods and a Walmart. Our experiment was inspired by the opening of the Whole Foods 365 brand store in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn on Wednesday — the first 365 store on the East Coast. Whole Foods promotes the stores as a less costly option for shoppers.

Our plan was to bake one batch of the cheesy, three-meat delicacy using only ingredients from a Walmart and a second batch with only items from the Whole Foods 365. Then we would ask our newsroom colleagues which version of the meatball — described by the chef who created it as “the heart stopper” — tasted better.

While the 365 line of stores was launched before Amazon’s acquisition, the vibe of the new Brooklyn store seems in keeping with Amazon’s consumer-first approach. The store is easy to navigate and pushes its private-label, and less expensive, 365 brand products.

Wherever possible, we bought 365 brand items, including steak, hamburger, salt, pepper and olive oil. Many of the items were organic, and the eggs came from cage-free chickens. That helped drive up the prices. The grand total: $45.17.

Next, we went to the Walmart Supercenter in Secaucus, New Jersey, and bought almost entirely from Walmart’s Great Value brand, which offers few organic options. That bill came to $27.18.

One ingredient that drove that difference: Whole Foods’ organic shredded cheddar cost nearly three times as much as the Walmart brand, which was not organic. The price of a dozen eggs at the two stores was comparable.

For the highly unscientific taste test, we served the meatballs in the New York Times newsroom on Friday afternoon. The taste testers were not told whether they had chosen a Whole Foods or a Walmart meatball until after they voted.

Some said the Whole Foods batch had too much bacon flavor. Others found the steak bits in the Walmart meatballs too chewy. When the votes were tallied, the Whole Foods meatball prevailed.

But by the end of the day, the distinctions seemed to fade. Every meatball had been eaten.

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