What's for lunch? A closer look at boxed mac 'n cheese.

>> Wednesday, April 14, 2010

When it comes time to feed your kids lunch, do you ever turn to a handy box of macaroni and cheese?  I must admit, I do.  I serve it too often when my son is home.  A dear friend of mine recently asked me what I thought of the ingredients in Annie's brand mac 'n cheese.  Now, I read ingredient lists - religiously - but nonetheless, I couldn't recall a thing about the ingredients in boxed mac 'n cheese outside of the fact that none have HFCS or trans fat in them.  Time to change that!

Without further ado...let's learn a little more about the ingredients in boxed mac 'n cheese.  

First up, Annie's Deluxe Elbows and Four Cheese Sauce.  The ingredients in all of the Annie's boxed mac 'n cheeses are virtually identical.  I chose this particular variety because it's what my kids are most likely to eat at home.  Take a look at the ingredients:
Organic wheat elbow pasta, four cheese sauce [cheddar, asiago, parmesan and monterey jack cheeses (pasteurized milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes), water, cream, whey, natural sodium phosphate, salt, natural flavor, lactic acid, sodium alginate, annatto extract for natural color]
Really and truly...I was pleasantly surprised by the ingredient list.  Nonetheless, there are a few ingredients that look scary, so let's break it down a bit more.  I'm going to skip the common, every day ingredients.

Whey - simply the liquid leftover after milk has been curdled and strained during the cheese making process.

Natural Sodium Phosphate -  an additive with lots of different potential functions.  Sodium phosphate can help prevent off flavors in foods, is an emulsifier, is a leavening agent, is a texture-modifying agent, and is a buffering agent.  Concentrated sodium phosphate (much more concentrated than the small amount present in processed foods) is also used as a laxative for enemas.

Sodium phosphate is produced by reacting mined phosphates with caustic soda of lime to produce phosphate salts.  Where does the "natural" come in?  I'm not sure.  Perhaps it can be called natural as it produced by reacting substances found in nature.  Or maybe they extract it from some other plant or animal source (much as natural nitrates are found in celery).  Plus, adding natural makes it sound more friendly, doesn't it?

Is it safe?  The Center for Science in the Public Interest categorizes sodium phosphate as "safe."  As a food additive, the concerns surrounding sodium phosphate are relatively minor.  Consuming too much phosphate can interfere with calcium absorption leading to osteoporosis concerns.  The small amounts present in a box of mac 'n cheese shouldn't pose a problem with calcium absorption, but it could conceivably be more of a concern if someone is consuming lots and lots of processed foods.

Natural Flavor -  What exactly is natural flavor?  Get ready...under the US Code of Federal Regulations, natural flavor is defined as,
"the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product or roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products therof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional."  
Basically, "natural flavor" is a clearing house for anything used in small amounts strictly for flavoring.  It could come from from meat, dairy, wheat...anything derived from a natural source.  There is little way to know what the composition is from product to product unless the manufacturer agrees to disclose when asked.  Understandably, "natural flavors" is a controversial ingredient listing.  To add more fuel to the fire, "natural" flavorings really may not be any better than "artificial" flavorings.  You can read a bit more about the controversy surrounding "natural flavor" here and here.  (I'll note that Annie's states that their "natural flavors" do not contain any of the top eight allergens.)

Lactic Acid - used to add tartness and as a preservative.  Lactic acid is what gives sourdough bread it's characteristic flavor and what makes sauerkraut sour.  Despite the name, lactic acid as an ingredient is a non-dairy product typically produced through a bacterial process.

Sodium Alginate - a very effective algae derived thickener.

Annatto Extract - a natural colorant derived from the dark red seeds of the Annatto tree, a tropical evergreen.

What do you think?  I actually think that Annie's does a pretty good job keeping their mac 'n cheese as free from additives as possible.  Granted, this is still not what I would call a "real" food.  A home cook isn't going to reach for a jar of sodium phosphate or sodium alginate when making cheese sauce at home (though cheaper cheeses may contain these ingredients), but it seems about as additive free as a box of shelf-stable mac 'n cheese can get.

Now...for fun, let's compare that old stand-by, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
Enriched Macaroni Product (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Ferrous Sulfate [Iron], Thiamin Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Riboflavin [Vitamin B2], Folic Acid) Cheese Sauce Mix (Whey, Milkfat, Milk Protein Concentrate, Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Tripolyphosphate, Contains less than 2% of Citric Acid, Sodium Phosphate, Lactic Acid, Milk, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Enzymes, Cheese Culture)
The first thing I noticed is that the Kraft mac 'n cheese uses enriched flour.  Many of the vitamins and minerals are stripped away when making wheat into white flour, and often flours are enriched in an attempt to add some of that goodness back.  The Annie's product that I picked to evaluate doesn't use whole wheat pasta, so other than the fact that Annie's flour is organic, it isn't necessarily any better than what Kraft is using - both use white flour pastas.  Honestly, I'm a little surprised that Annie's pasta isn't enriched.

Moving on...the Kraft product has the same sodium phosphate and lactic acid, but they add a few more artificial goodies to the mix - like two kinds of artificial yellow food coloring.  Let's take a closer look at some of the other strange ingredients in the mix:

Milk Protein Concentrate -  For such an innocent sounding ingredient, milk protein concentrate (MPC) is actually fairly controversial.  MPC is pasteurized milk that has gone through an ultrafiltration process.  In the filtration process, the big protein molecules are retained while lactose, milk, and minerals are washed away.  The high-protein retentate is then spray dried to produce MPC.

Sounds innocuous, right?  Ethicurian.com had an interesting article last year detailing the concerns surrounding MPC.  The biggies - potential contamination and the unknown.  Much of the MPC used in the US is an imported product.  Big concerns over the purity and origins (is the MPC produced from cow or yak milk, for example) of imported MPC exist. MPC isn't included on the FDA's list of "Generally Recognized As Safe" additives that are allowed in foods because the necessary testing for inclusion on the list hasn't been done yet.

Sodium Tripolyphosphate - yet another phosphate!  This one (also known as STP) is different because it is a polyphosphate.  In foods, STP is used as a texturizer, binder, and preservative.  STP is also a strong cleaner in more concentrated form and is often found in detergents and soaps.  STP is generally considered to be safe as a food additive.

Calcium Carbonate - a common substance found in rock and marine shells around the world.  Calcium carbonate is often used as a calcium supplement.

Ready to dig into a bowl of macaroni and cheese?  I'll tell you what I'm ready to do...clean up our lunches!  I won't promise to never serve a lunch made with processed ingredients again, but boxed mac 'n cheese is going to become a bit scarcer around here (though I can also guarantee that it will be made on occasion). We're becoming a little more conscientious about the processed foods we use.  My kids will be eating puh-lenty of processed foods in their life.  I can at least do my part to keep the food at home as nutritious and real as our life will allow.

Come back tomorrow for a giveaway and a great "real food" lunch alternative! 


Melinda April 14, 2010 at 1:43 PM  

Interesting post. I am not a fan of boxed mac and cheese of any kind, but my spouse still swears by Annie's. At least it's a little less bad than Kraft's! I'm like you, though, let's make something different or possibly make this from scratch, if we must.

Sagan April 14, 2010 at 5:19 PM  

I LOVE that you've done the breakdown of these ingredients- that's awesome!

I like making homemade mac and cheese instead, but I tried Annie's once and I thought it was pretty bland. Definitely a better choice than Kraft- though I wouldn't call Annie's "healthy" by any means.

jasberryhill April 14, 2010 at 6:05 PM  

Wow! That is amazing. My daughter would never eat the Annnie's brand. We eat the kraft brand about once every six months. I actually make the real stuff. But the Milk protein concentrate is so strange. It sounds so innocent!

cathy April 14, 2010 at 9:00 PM  

jasberryhill - My kids hate the powdered version of Annie's (as do I), but the Deluxe has a cheese sauce very similar to Velveeta. It's what we use if we buy Annie's. I am very guilty of buying them all, though - Annie's, Kraft, Velveeta.

Heather April 14, 2010 at 11:33 PM  

Kraft Mac has long been my guilty pleasure, especially when my husband travels and I'm "cooking" for myself. I switched to Annie's recently and tried Simply Organic the other day. It was tasty but too salty. But I had some half and half from a local dairy that I used (since I had it on hand) so that may be the origin of the saltiness.

Ingredients: Organic wheat, macaroni, organic sugar, salt, organic cheddar cheese (organic cultured pasteurized milk, salt, microbial enzymes), organic whey powder, organic wheat starch, natural flavor, organic nonfat milk, disodium phospate, annatto color.

I'll have to try it again with soy, rice, or lowfat milk.

Any idea why they put a comma between wheat and macaroni?

Heather April 14, 2010 at 11:54 PM  

Funny, I just noticed that Simply Organic is manufactured for Annie's.

Greg April 15, 2010 at 10:05 PM  

They are both junk food. Don't eat either and you're better off. Eat fruits and vegetables instead!

Ariel May 4, 2010 at 10:38 PM  

So glad I stumbled across this site! Kraft Mac n Cheese is a major standby for lunch for hubby and I...I think I will be changing my buying habits thanks to this post. It's a constant grocery buying evolution nowadays, thanks for this post! Adding you to my reader for sure!

viagra online January 25, 2012 at 6:10 AM  

You are right! real food is what our children need to grow healthy.

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