Few packaged products have had the cultural impact of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t have fond memories of the yellow-orange cheesy noodles from their childhood. Roughly seven million boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese are sold globally each week, and it’s been called the de facto national dish of Canada.
But in terms of health impact, where does this ubiquitous product stand? Let’s take a look.
Is Kraft Mac & Cheese Healthy?
For clarity’s sake, this article is going to focus mainly on Kraft Original Flavor Macaroni & Cheese Dinner. More specifically, the 7.25-ounce box. This is perhaps the most classic manner in which to purchase the product and when most people refer to eating an “entire box” of Kraft Mac & Cheese, this is usually what they’re referring to (more on that later).
Instructions on the packaging for the “Classic Prep” of the 7.25-ounce box includes boiling all the noodles, draining them, and then mixing in the included Cheese Sauce Mix as well as 4 tablespoons of margarine and 1/4 cup of 2% milk.
Each of these boxes contains three servings. Per one serving using the “Classic Prep,” the nutrition facts for Kraft Original Flavor Macaroni & Cheese Dinner are roughly:
- 350 calories
- 13 grams of fat
- 4.5 grams of saturated fat
- 720mg of sodium
- 2 grams of dietary fiber
- 7 grams sugar
- 10 grams of protein
Nutritionally, one serving of Kraft Original Flavor Macaroni & Cheese Dinner is roughly equivalent to a McDonald’s Cheeseburger. There’s not a ton of calories there, but perhaps the biggest red flag is the sizable amount of sodium.
Although athletes who train intensely on a daily basis need more sodium than sedentary people, chronic over-consumption of sodium can lead to high blood pressure and increase your risk of stomach cancer, heart failure and stroke. Per Healthline, health authorities generally recommend general population adults keep their sodium intake between 1,500-2,300mg a day. Yet the average American downs 3,400mg a day, often in the form of highly processed foods. Health officials estimate that if Americans lowered their daily sodium intake to the recommended range, it would prevent up to 92,000 deaths annually.
While 4.5 gram of saturated fat sounds far from ideal, some recent research is changing experts’ perception of saturated fat and its impact on our overall health. Considering much of it here comes from the margarine and milk, which are naturally high in saturated fat, that total may not be as bad as it sounds.
All in all, a single serving of Kraft Original Flavor Macaroni & Cheese Dinner isn’t a terrible choice. It can’t measure up to a balanced meal of veggies, whole grains, lean meats, healthy fats, etc., but you could do worse. But the nutritional profile of the meal significantly changes when you exceed the serving size—which is incredibly common with this particular product for a variety of reasons.
One, the recommended serving size is small. We know that the weight of our food plays an important role in satiety, as humans tend to consume 3-5 pounds of food a day.
“That’s the level of food people eat,” says Ryan Andrews, registered dietitian and author of the book Drop The Fat Act & Live Lean. “Whether it’s 3 to 5 pounds of cheese and candy or 3 to 5 pounds of vegetables and fruits. It’s an important factor to feeling satisfied throughout the day.”
This is why fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean meats, etc. are so good at filling us up—not only are they packed with fiber and protein, but they’re usually quite heavy compared to ultra-processed foods like cookies and crisps.
A pre-preparation serving of this Kraft Mac & Cheese weighs only 70 grams or about half the weight of one NLEA serving of broccoli. Yet it contains 300 more calories. For reference sake, there are 453.59 grams in one pound. A fully prepared serving will obviously be quite a bit heavier, but unless your recipe calls for uranium, the point remains.
Furthermore, while Kraft does make individual microwaveable servings of their Mac & Cheese, most people buy it by the box. And when you buy it by the box, the most convenient way to prepare it is by cooking the whole package at once. Unless you’re splitting the meal with two or more other people, someone’s going to need to eat more than one serving if you don’t want leftovers.
Additionally, the high sodium content of Kraft Original Flavor Macaroni & Cheese Dinner can further contribute to overeating.
What If You Eat an Entire Box Of Kraft Mac & Cheese?
The reality is that most people eat significantly more than one serving of the food at a time. A simple Twitter search reveals how incredibly common it is for people to eat an entire box by themselves.
So, say you down an entire 7.25-ounce box (which contains three servings) by yourself after using the “Classic Prep” method to prepare it. Here’s what the nutrition facts for that meal roughly look like:
- 1,050 calories
- 39 grams of fat
- 13.5 grams of saturated fat
- 2,160mg of sodium
- 6 grams of fiber
- 21 grams of sugar
- 30 grams of protein
Now we’re looking at a meal that’s high in calories and saturated fat and very high in sodium. If you’re consistently eating meals like this, it’s going to be difficult to lose weight.
If I had to make a nutritional comparison, a box of Kraft Original Flavor Macaroni & Cheese Dinner is remarkably similar to a Chipotle burrito made with chicken, white rice, black beans, fajita veggies, cheese, sour cream and red-chili salsa—at least in terms of total calorie, fat, saturated fat and sodium content.
However, the burrito contains twice as much fiber as the box of Kraft Mac & Cheese. Fiber is a nutrient that’s key for keeping you full and regular in the near term while also contributing to a reduced risk of chronic disease and better overall health over the long haul, and most of us don’t eat enough of it.
The burrito is also going to be significantly higher in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants thanks to its superior quantity of plant-based foods.
The fact that Kraft Mac & Cheese contains no artificial flavors, preservatives or dyes is nice, and the significant amount of protein is another plus. Zero grams of added sugar is also a big win in a day and age where added sugars are lurking in so many unexpected places.
If you’re looking to increase the fiber content, going with the Whole Grain version of Kraft Mac & Cheese is a great idea. Better yet, consider adding some veggies like broccoli, peppers, peas, carrots and/or spinach to your Kraft Mac & Cheese. This will greatly up the amount of beneficial nutrients with minimal impact on the calorie total. It can also help you feel full without needing to eat the entire box!
Well, no. Kale is healthy. Salmon is healthy. Sweet potatoes and blueberries and almonds are healthy. The classic blue box of cheesy noodles from our childhood doesn’t stack up nutritionally to such options. However, it’s not quite as unhealthy as you may have previously believed, especially when compared to many other convenient, packaged options.
You’d probably be better off with a brand like Annie’s Homegrown, but you could certainly do worse. Fooducate gives it a C+, which sounds about right. Now, if you squirt a bunch of ketchup or barbecue sauce in it (two sauces often packed with added sugar), that’s a different story. But some Kraft Mac & Cheese now and then isn’t going to sabotage your overall health.
Photo Credit: Kraft, Pamela_d_mcadams/iStock