mac and cheese 1

For Healthy Mac & Cheese: Buy Frozen?

June 8, 2015
Ingredients + Pasta + Products

At the grocery store, macaroni and cheese comes boxed or frozen.  Read more to learn how I discovered which option of this comfort food to buy for my family.

My Epiphany

As my son began to eat solid food on a more regular basis, macaroni and cheese became a staple.  We ordered it from restaurant menus when we ate out and turned to it when we were short on time and wanted him to eat, but did not think he would eat what my husband and I prepared for our meals.

 

I hadn’t purchased mac & cheese from the grocery store since I was in college. What was the best option for my son? Should I be buying Organic? Should I even be buying mac and cheese from the grocery store at all?

 

I set out to answer this question, and what I found surprised me.

What I learned Analyzing 620 Mac & Cheese Products

 mac and cheese at grocery

 

Overall

The options in mac and cheese range from single pack to family pack and can be cooked in the microwave (from frozen or single serve options) or on the stovetop. Across all these options, I crunched the following statistics about grocery store mac and cheese options:

  • Average Ingredients: 28.7
  • Average Calories: 282.5
  • Average Fiber: 1.9g
  • Average Sugar 5g
  • Average Protein 10.5g

 

Private Label vs. Brand

Given the growth of Private Label and the price of mac and cheese, it shouldn’t surprise that there are numerous private label offerings for mac and cheese.

While leveling off, private label has grown quite a bit due to increased consumer trust and belief in the quality and taste of the products as well as the recessions impact on food budgets (among other factors).  This chart from Euromonitor does a nice job of showing private label’s overall trend in packaged food in the US: Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 2.48.41 PM

 

In mac and cheese products, the breakdown of private label to brand in the data I analyzed was:Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 2.50.54 PM

 

As you can see from the data, brands had slightly lower ingredient list lengths (by about 1 ingredient), but had slightly higher sugar; however, the real differences between brands and private labels are the lower use of artificial colors.

 

What about Organic?

Curious to see if organic was skewing any of this data, I dug into an organic versus conventional comparison….and stark differences arose.

 

In order to qualify for organic claims, products need to use organic ingredients. These typically cost more but because organic commands a price premium and consumers who elect to purchase organic are typically also looking to avoid or optimize other elements of the food label, on average the use of more “mainstream” ingredients is minimal.

 

Unsurprisingly, the organic mac and cheese varieties on average contained only 15 ingredients, compared with the category average of 29, this is almost a 50% difference!

 

  • Artificial Colors: Instead of Yellow 4, 5 and 6, organic brands use annatto or paprika or nothing at all
  • Emulsifiers: Guar and Xanthan Gum are used, but in much smaller proportions than in conventional products. 14% of organic products contain one of these two emulsifiers and in the majority of instances the brands include organic versions of guar gum. Slightly ridiculous, but….

 

A Basic Comparison

Once I had a sense of the trends, I dug into some product comparisons.  Kraft has over 100 products available for purchase while Annie’s has over 40.  Curious to compare the conventional and organic versions of these two brands, I am sharing what I uncovered.  (Reminder: Always check the package when purchasing an item as ingredients may change).

 

 

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 3.23.14 PM

 

If you optimize for ingredient length, the Organic Annie’s Version wins, but I wanted to see if I could find an option that didn’t contain a preservative like Sodium Phosphate.  And I found one…in the frozen food aisle: Amy’s Mac and Cheese.

 

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 3.06.05 PM

 

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 3.45.37 PM 

Foodwise Bottomline

Amy’s is our go to back up plan.  If you currently do boxed, try it and let me know what you think in the comments.

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