Own label is flourishing in the downturn. Nicolette Allen hails the winners of The Grocer's Own-Label Excellence Awards

Own-label producers like to hide their lights under a bushel. But this week almost 300 of the sector's biggest names came out of the shadows to join in the fun at The Grocer's fourth annual Own Label Excellence Awards and celebrate the best in the business.

The awards, at the Hurlingham Club in London and sponsored by PLMA, whatsmybrand.com and The Benson Group, were hosted by Masterchef's Gregg Wallace, who praised the winners for the fantastic quality of NPD on display.

In the current economic climate, creating own-label goods pitched at the right price point and the same quality as branded competitors is more important than ever — and the awards recognise and celebrate those who have found ways to innovate and raise the bar.

This year, the judges had to wade through a whopping 400 entries across 28 different categories.

The level of interest and quality of entries showed own label had truly come into its own in the downturn, said The Grocer's editor Adam Leyland.

"This has been a year of astonishing transformation, which has led many of you to go back to basics by re-engineering products and whole ranges to provide cheaper food and more choice at the budget end of the spectrum," he told the audience. "You have all responded with not only commendable speed, but also careful thought."

Getting to the finalist stage was no mean feat. Each shortlisted product went through a rigorous judging process of consumer assessment in conjunction with the Cambridge Market Research Group, and vetting by an expert judging panel comprising food journalists, manufacturers and technologists.

"The great strength of own brand is that retailers can respond quickly to changes in consumer sentiment," said Paul Beresford, MD of Cambridge Market Research. "The high level of entries this year in both quality and quantity was testament to the continuing ability of the sector to respond successfully to change."

The 28 winners spanned multiples, independents, wholesalers and discounters. Morrisons, Asda and M&S were all victorious in multiple categories, but it was Morrisons that stole the show with an impressive nine awards for products including its Spelt & Rye Bread and Sicilian Oranges.

Marks & Spencer took home four accolades for foods such as its Milk Chocolate Mini Teacakes and Tarte aux Abricots.

Lidl, meanwhile, raised the bar for discounters with three wins, taking the prize in the soft drinks, confectionery and chilled food categories.

"Lidl's whole aim is to provide quality own-label food to our consumers, and we are constantly trying to get that message across to them," said Simon Wilson, PR manager for Lidl. "We are delighted to win these awards in the hope of spreading this message."

And if further proof were needed of the achievements of private label, even the refined palate of one of the UK's toughest food judges was impressed. "I was amazed by some of the products I tasted," said Masterchef's Wallace.

"The quality of own-label food in our stores is getting better and better."

Own-label excellence award winners

Ambient Grocery — Savoury
Tesco Chopped Tomatoes with Olive Oil & Garlic
With a clean, balanced taste, this carton format product was deemed better than tinned rivals.

Ambient Grocery — Sweet
Morrisons The Best Hazelnut Chocolate Spread with Hazelnut Pieces
The Nutella-like spread was praised for its simple ingredients, value and recyclable packaging.

Bacon & Sausages
Morrisons The Best Lightly Oak Smoked Sweetcure Rindless Back Bacon
Balanced levels of sweet and saltiness, said judges. Attractive packaging.

Bakery — Savoury
Morrisons Spelt & Rye Bread
Deemed authentic, but versatile with clear communication.

Bakery — Sweet
Asda Bakery Oat & Honey Dunkin Cookies
A biscuit that genuinely improves with dunking, said judges. Excellent value.

Cakes & Biscuits
Marks & Spencer Milk Chocolate Mini Teacakes
A versatile and fun product that appeals to a range of ages, according to judges.

Cheese — Cheddar
Tesco Finest Canadian Vintage Cheddar
Salt crystals give this complex cheese a unique taste.

Cheese — Non Cheddar
Aldi Cheese Emporium Wensleydale with Cranberries
Creamy texture and flavour that works well with cranberry, felt judges. Moist and fruity.

Chilled Foods — Ethnic
Lidl Kanpur Garden Thai Ready Meals — Green Chicken Curry
Praised for its spicy, creamy sauce, good quality rice, excellent chicken.

Chilled Foods — Informal Eating
M&S Fresh Salad Wraps Thai Spiced Chicken
Works as sandwich and sushi-style snack, said judges. Innovative, healthy and tasty.

Chilled Foods — Traditional
Morrisons Fresh Ideas Mustard Chicken
Judges liked its combination of quality chicken, moist consistency, good leek flavour and vfm.

Lidl JD Gross Single Estate Dark Chocolate 70% Cocoa
Described as a palatable high-cocoa chocolate offering great value and classy packaging.

Cooking Sauces
Asda Extra Special Tomato and Mascarpone Sauce
Lemony flavour was delicious, said judges.

Morrisons Active Yoghurts
A thick, creamy yoghurt deemed refreshing, with great texture.

Morrisons Peppers Stuffed with Cheese
Liked for its creamy, cheesy flavour and appealing look.

Delicatessen — Meat
Sainsbury's Taste The Difference Traditional Spiced Ham
Praised for spicy aroma and taste of cloves, with flavour that intensifies.

Desserts — Pastry
Marks & Spencer Tarte Aux Abricots
Deemed well executed and presented, with high-quality ingredients. Fresh and authentic.

Desserts — Puddings
Asda Strawberry Swirl Cheesecake
Described as "almost orgasmic". Great taste and good value, too.

Fish — Crumbed & coated
Aldi The Fishmonger Lime and Chilli Sole Goujons
A versatile family meal that's easy to eat and offers value.

Fish — Meals
Marks & Spencer Cook! Asian Style Lochmuir Salmon Parcels
Brave new fusion idea which has worked well, said judges. Shows real innovation.

Fresh Produce
Morrisons Sicilian Oranges
Praised for their sweet and juicy taste and good appearance.

Frozen Food — Savoury
Asda Extra Special Chunky Oven Chips
Thick and crunchy with a delicious moist texture. Taste like chip shop chips, said judges.

Frozen Food — Sweet
The Co-operative Truly Irresistible Berry Bliss
With a lemony, acidic note this dessert was described as an unusual but tasty slant on ice cream.

Health & Better For You
Morrisons Free From Rocky Road Bars
Innovative idea offering great value felt judges. A good treat for those with gluten allergies.

Hot Beverages
The Co-operative Fairtrade Tea 99
Deemed a good all-round tea with appealing ethical credentials.

Waitrose Easy to Cook Butterflied Pork Leg with Honey Roasted Parsnip Crust & Sage Butter
Very fresh and could easily pass as home-cooked, felt judges. Excellent quality.

Soft Drinks
Lidl Fairglobe Fairtrade Orange Juice
Described as refreshing, good quality and offering a strong flavour without being too acidic.

Morrisons The Best London Particular Soup
Good enough to convert pea-soup haters, said judges. Nice big bacon chunks rather than ham.