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Kraft's New Mac & Cheese Recipe Won't Be Any Healthier for You


Kraft's boxed macaroni and cheese is the company's most iconic product, a staple of family kitchens and dorm rooms alike thanks to its simple recipe: cooked macaroni + butter + milk + one packet of bright orange cheese dust. So it was big news Monday when Kraft, caving to changing consumer tastes, announced plans to remove artificial preservatives and synthetic colors from its product, using ingredients like paprika, annatto, and turmeric instead.

Blogger Vani Hari, aka the Food Babe, declared victory after her petition—"Kraft: Stop Using Dangerous Food Dyes in Our Mac & Cheese"—got 365,000 signatures. “The thousands of letters I have received from parents whose children have benefited from the removal of artificial food dyes are ringing in my ear this morning,” Hari wrote. “We finally did it.”

Exactly what did they accomplish? After all, Kraft's new mac and cheese won't be any healthier.

"There won’t be any significant change to calories, sat fat, sugar or sodium with the change to no artificial preservatives or synthetic colors," a Kraft spokeswoman, Lynne Galia, emailed me. Other company statements hint that this decision was a superficial attempt to make people feel less guilty about eating macaroni and cheese. “We know parents want to feel good about the foods they eat and serve their families,” Galia told Reuters. "We've worked hard so the new recipe will have the same look and taste that people know and love from the iconic blue box," said another spokesman.
In other words, a box of the new Kraft mac and cheese—and it's not uncommon to eat the entire box as a single meal—will still contain around 780 calories, 75 calories from fat, 9 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and 1,710 milligrams of sodium (a whopping 72 percent of the daily value). And that's before you add the butter. But by removing artificial preservatives and synthetic colors, Kraft will be allowed to market the product as "natural." That doesn't mean much: The Food and Drug Administration only requires products with a"natural" label to "not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” It’s still processed and not necessarily healthier for you, but consumers might not know the difference. 

To be fair, Kraft isn’t the only Big Food company moving in this direction. Nestle, Hershey, and Frito-Lay have also removed artificial dyes to appeal to nutrition-conscious consumers. It's an easy way for them to rebrand as healthy while maintaining consumer loyalty (by making sure their products remain tasty and cheap). The same goes for labels like "organic," "low fat," "no trans fats," and "made with whole grains," which leave consumers confused about what is truly good for them and what is merely deceptive labeling.

Some health-food warriors, like Hari, only contribute to the confusion. According to a New York Times profile on the blogger, Hari's “statements — often incorrect — and faulty reasoning have produced numerous memes and parodies, not to mention aggressive reactions from doctors and scientists, who call her scientifically illiterate.” An entertaining Gawker takedown, written by a chemist who runs a blog dedicated to debunking Hari, details more of Hari’s pseudoscience claims: that genetically modified foods are uniformly bad; kale “literally dissolves” unhealthy cells; it’s better to naturally encounter diseases rather than get flu shots and vaccines; and airplanes pilots spray passengers with pesticides.

So don't celebrate Kraft's announcement just yet. Let's at least wait until the taste test.