Do You Know What’s in Your Boxed Mac & Cheese?

From powdered cheese to squeezable, and stove top to microwave, here's how healthy the different boxes are.

It's probably safe to say we're all eating more instant food at home during the pandemic. And that includes boxed mac & cheese! But there's so much to choose from: orange, white, powdered cheese, squeezable cheese, microwave, stovetop. Do you know what's in it all and if it's healthy for you and your family? Here's what you need to know.

Orange vs. White Cheese

We're so used to the bright orange hue of the mac & cheese from our childhood, but what's the deal? Back in the day, cows in Cheddar, England, had a diet very rich in beta carotene. This made the cheese produced from their milk a yellow-orange color. But this only happened when the cows ate from the pasture in warmer months. In the winter, when the cows ate hay, their milk had less beta carotene — and so was not as orange. Farmers and cheesemakers noted that the cheese rich in beta carotene had a richer flavor and was more desired by consumers. Over time, companies started using artificial dyes, like Yellow No. 5 and No. 6, to achieve this iconic yellow-orange color. But the good news is that consumer demand for healthy, simple ingredients has become a powerful force. The Kraft brand, for example, stopped using artificial preservatives and dyes and now color their cheese naturally using spices like turmeric, annatto and paprika.

So, if you're wondering whether orange or white cheese is a healthier option for your kids — it's simply a matter of preference today.

Powdered Cheese v. Squeezable

It's important to read the labels here. The squeezable packets are often labeled with "cheese product" or "processed cheese food or spread," and that's not actually real cheese. You may see dairy ingredients on the label, but the FDA says that products that don't fit their criteria for real cheese can't be labeled as just "cheese." Technically, powdered cheese products can be made from real cheese. However, a ton of additives may also be added to prevent the powder from caking, help it last longer on the shelf, add flavor, etc.

So at the end of the day, this choice may also come down to preference. But if you're looking for real cheese or something less processed, reach for the powder.

Microwave v. Stovetop

The microwave may make cooking your mac & cheese easier, but is cutting corners worth it? There are some extra ingredients you should know about. Some cups of microwave mac & cheese have a white powder. It's not cheese! It's a modified food starch that's added to help prevent the cup from boiling over during the heating process and making a mess in your microwave. It also helps thicken the water. This isn't necessarily bad for you, but it's one more ingredient that's not exactly making it healthier either.

You've heard of red wine and white wine but have you ever heard of blue wine? This blue version of wine is given a taste test to see how it compares to the classics.