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MOST STORE-BRAND CEREALS PASS TASTE TEST

A man picked up a box of cereal in a supermarket recently, put it down and picked up another, then another and another, returning each of them to the shelf. Before turning away, he shook his head and said to no one in particular, "So expensive!"

The disgruntled shopper had a cheaper alternative: store-brand cereals. The store brands' packaging may not be as spiffy as that of the national brands, and the store brands don't come with special offers. But they certainly are cheaper, and they did remarkably well in a taste test by the New York Times.So, will children eat them?

Manufacturers say national-brand cold cereals are a terrific bargain, but much of the public doesn't think so, complaining that $4 to $5 a pound seems like a lot of money for a product whose basic ingredient is the same as that of a loaf of bread, a box of rice or a can of corn. In that price range, national-brand cereals cost as much as or more than cereals sold in health food stores that have been considered too rich for most pock-etbooks.

Assorted public officials who agree with shoppers' conclusions have called in recent years for investigations of the four largest cereal manufacturers: Kellogg, General Mills, Post and Quaker Oats.

Last month, Reps. Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut and Charles E. Schumer of New York, both Democrats, asked the Justice Department to investigate the companies for antitrust violations. Fifty-five percent of the price of a box goes to marketing and profits, twice the average spent for other foods, the lawmakers contend.

Most supermarket chains sell store-brand cereals. In the taste test of 31 store-brand and national-brand cereals from three supermarket chains, the store brands were barely distinguishable from the national brands, with two exceptions: Safeway's Toasted Oats, which were significantly inferior in flavor to General Mills' Cheerios, and Safeway's Honey and Nut Toasted Oats, which were not quite as toasty as Cheerios.

Most of the store brands looked and tasted the same, with and without milk. In addition, the nutrient levels in most brands were the same or similar. Even if the nutrient levels are lower, it is much cheaper to take a multivitamin along with the bowl of store-brand cereal and make up the difference.

For the New York Times survey, national-brand cereals were compared with store-brand cereals from major food markets in the New York City and Washington, D.C., areas.

The price differences are large. Kellogg's Rice Krispies, for example, cost $5.36 a pound at Food Emporium, while the store brand cost $2.61 a pound.

While most people may shake their heads the way the disgruntled man did in the supermarket, more of them are buying house-brand cereals instead of walking away empty-handed. Sales of store-brand cereals made up only a small part of the total cold-cereal category in 1994, but sales of store-brand cereals continue to grow at a faster rate than the national brands.

Whether children eat the cheaper cereals depends in part on who is more persuasive: a three-foot-tall child watching television commercials on Saturday morning or a six-foot parent with the purse strings.