Which Fast-Food Mac N’ Cheese Is Healthiest & Which One Tastes the Best?

Next time you have a craving for this classic side dish, you’ll know where to go.

By Madeline Merinuk
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This Is How Processed Fast-Food Mac N’ Cheese Is (3:31)

Macaroni and cheese is one of those foods that just tastes so darn good no matter where you eat it, so it's no wonder fast-food establishments across the country are adding this classic dish to its menus. If you've been curious about which fast-food mac n' cheese is the healthiest, don't worry; you're not the only one. Dr. Oz and his team did an investigation into fast-food mac and cheese after a TikTok video went viral showing how some fast-food mac and cheese is made (hint: it was frozen). The video left people both appalled and wondering what else they don't know about their favorite comfort food. 

It's a fact that fast-food restaurants don't have the healthiest options. The Dr. Oz Show guest chef Richard Blais explains that the reason for this is because their food has added preservatives and ingredients with no nutritional value to make it taste good and maintain consistency and shelf life. The Dr. Oz Show brought on chef Blais, and Luka (an 11-year-old Instagram food critic) to talk about what's in mac n' cheese and to taste test several popular brands. Find out which ones came out on top. 

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What are the typical ingredients in fast-food mac and cheese?

Blais says that fast-food chain versions of mac and cheese typically have about 22 ingredients, which is about 10 more ingredients than an average store-bought box of mac and cheese, and about 16 more ingredients than homemade mac n' cheese. Most of these ingredients, most notably soybean oil, modified food starch, and xanthan gum are added to keep the cheese sauce thick and creamy. These ingredients also help make the cheese taste and smell better, according to Blais, which is why you crave fast-food mac and cheese more than a box you would make at home. The cheese is often a combination of various processed cheeses, as well as turmeric and paprika to add in that familiar orange color. 

Which brand has the most and the least calories?

When comparing the different brands, the one that had the most calories didn't come from a typical, drive-thru fast-food joint. It came from Panera Bread, with an 8-ounce serving containing 950 calories. Their recipe is loaded with lots of warm, delicious cheese and is a crowd-favorite, but it is also one of the most caloric items on their menu, according to Panera's website. 

So that begs the question: Which brand has the least amount of calories?

KFC came out the lowest, at only 170 calories in their regular 4.2-ounce serving. Even when doubled to meet Panera's serving size of 8 ounces, KFC's mac and cheese is still 610 calories less than Panera's. In second place for the least amount of calories is Boston Market; a 5-ounce serving its mac n' cheese has 190 calories. 

What about sodium?

According to Dr. Oz, one of the things that fast-food restaurants do to make their food taste so good is to add in a lot of salt. If you're looking to save yourself from bloating the next time you opt to get fast-food mac and cheese, you should turn to Popeye's. Our taste-testers found that in a 5.5-ounce serving of mac and cheese from Popeye's, there is about 490 mg of sodium, which isn't bad compared to the 1200mg that are in an 8-ounce serving form Chik-Fil-A. As a note, the American Heart Association recommends consuming 2,300 mg maximum of sodium in a day. 

OK, enough about health. Which one tastes the best?

When I go to a fast-food restaurant, I'm not usually picking items based on calorie count or sodium. While it's good to know what items on the menu are the healthiest if you need a quick, on-the-go meal, if I'm choosing to eat fast-food I'm in it to win it. Food critic, and mac n' cheese connoisseur, Luka explained that the most important aspect of mac n' cheese is "the buttery, ooey-gooey-ness." Basing it off those qualifications, Luka ranked Panera as the best-tasting. Although it is the least healthy option, Luka says it tastes the best because its thick and creamy. Blais had a different opinion though; he recommends Chik-Fil-A's mac n' cheese because of the texture and the taste of the cheese. Plus, the recipe only has about 440 calories in an 8-ounce serving.

There's no denying it: mac n' cheese is delicious. While Dr. Oz takes the stance that mac n' cheese isn't something you should be eating on a daily basis because it's not nutritious, he does say it's okay to enjoy in moderation. If you just can't shake that unwavering craving for some warm and delicious mac n' cheese (it happens to the best of us), it's good to know the facts before you drive to the nearest fast-food restaurant.

mac and cheese

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Article written by Madeline Merinuk