Health Column: A healthier take on mac and cheese


Kraft, creators of the fluorescent orange macaroni and cheese of my childhood — and quite possibly yours — announced plans last week to stop using artificial dyes and preservatives in the beloved boxed dinners starting in January. 

It’s a step in the right direction, said Riverhead dietitian Jodi Levine — but you shouldn’t plan on replacing your fruits and veggies with daily bowlfuls of it.

“I wouldn’t call it a health food, that’s for sure,” said Ms. Levine, director of the dietetic technician program at Suffolk County Community College’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Center in Riverhead.

In a statement released April 20, Kraft officials said they plan to remove two synthetic food dyes, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, from their macaroni and cheese and replace them with spices like paprika, annatto and turmeric. The change won’t affect the product’s taste, they said.

“These recipe changes are the latest steps in the Kraft Mac & Cheese journey to delight consumers with on-trend updates to meet consumers’ changing lifestyles and needs,” Kraft officials said in a press release.

Those “changing lifestyles and needs” include an increased emphasis on eating all-natural, organic foods. This movement, if you will, has been led in part by food bloggers like Vani Hari, who goes by the name “The Food Babe.”

Two years ago, Ms. Hari — who has no formal training in nutrition and has been criticized for promoting what some call “junk science” — created an online petition demanding that Kraft remove all artificial dyes from its macaroni and cheese. It gathered more than 350,000 signatures.

According to Ms. Hari, synthetic food coloring has been banned in Norway and Austria, can contain known carcinogens and causes an increase in hyperactivity in children.

“Some kids are definitely more sensitive than others,” Ms. Levine said of the allegation that artificial dyes can make certain children hyper. “Research has shown there is some possible link to hyperactivity or migraines.”

Ms. Levine said that although her three children have eaten Kraft Mac & Cheese at friends’ houses, she “tries to go more organic” when they’re home — and she wishes more parents would follow suit.

“I know a lot of parents are very busy, so they’ll probably get a chuckle out of this, but I’d like to see them use whole-grain pasta and real cheese versus processed cheese product,” she said.

Three alternatives

Looking for store brand macaroni and cheese alternatives? Here are our top picks.

Annie’s Organic Grass Fed Mac and Cheese

A lot of people assume all Annie’s mac and cheese products are organic. They’re not.

Look for the word organic on the box. If you can find it, this version from the California company uses milk from grass-fed cows.

Back to Nature Crazy Bugs Macaroni & Cheese

This bug-shaped pasta could be a winner for your kids. In fact, ranked it the top mac and cheese. The California company also features organic products.

Whole Foods 365 Macaroni & Cheese

If your kid likes the traditional elbow shape of Kraft’s product, the Whole Foods store brand is probably your best option. This is another product people assume is 100 percent organic because it’s produced by the popular health food chain, but it’s not necessarily so. They do, however, offer an organic alternative.

Have a health column idea or question for Rachel Young? Email her at [email protected].