Attacking Annie’s Shells and Cheddar

Annie'sAnnie tested the direction of popular culture and felt the gentle wind of organics blowing, and she created her famous purple box of mac 'n' cheese. And now Salon's Anastacia Marx de Salcedo takes her, and everyone who whips up a box of it, to task in her article comparing Annie's to Kraft. While I agree that the label "all-natural" on Annie's doesn't really mean anything in any official government-approved way, you can take a look at the ingredients in a box of Annie's and it sure seems "natural" compared to Kraft's.

Annie's Homegrown Original Shells & Cheddar ingredients:

Durum Semolina Pasta, White Cheddar Cheese (Milk, Salt, Cheese Cultures, Enzymes), Whey, Sweetcream Buttermilk.

Kraft Original Elbow Macaroni & Cheese ingredients:

Enriched Macaroni Product (Durum Wheat Flour, Wheat Flour, Niacin, Ferrous Sulfate, Thiamin Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Riboflavin [Vitamin B2], Folic Acid), Cheese Sauce Mix (Whey, Whey Protein Concentrate, Milk Fat, Milk Protein Concentrate, Salt, Sodium Tripoly-Phosphate, Citric Acid, Sodium Phosphate, Lactic Acid, Calcium Phosphate, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Enzymes, Cheese Culture).

The author points out that from a nutritional perspective, Kraft and Annie's are about equal (in terms of calories, sodium, protein, fat, etc.) but that misses the point. It's not that Annie's is "healthy," it's that it's less processed. It has less chemical additives. Why feed yourself or your children Yellow 5 or Milk Protein Concentrate when you can just give them cheese? It's hard enough for people to get decent food on the table these days, and while I agree it's nice to have a home-cooked meal, sometimes there isn't time for that. When I'm choosing between two instant mac 'n' cheeses, I'll take the one without Sodium Tripoly-Phosphate any day.

As for the author's assertion that "making pasta with cheese from scratch is just as easy as mixing up a pot of Annie's" (with a proper Béchamel sauce!) I say no way! She lists the steps side by side in her article, but if you actually look at the time associated with each step, it's clear Annie's is less commitment. With box mac 'n' cheese, you boil water and cook pasta. Neither task requires your attention in the kitchen, so you're free to do whatever else needs doing. (I suggest making a quick green salad to accompany your boxed delight, but let's stay on target.) When the pasta's done, you simply drain, add butter, cheese powder, milk, and stir. Total active time: less than a minute. Now think about making the same from scratch. While the pasta's boiling, you need to make your Béchamel. That requires whisking and attention. You also need to grate cheese, mix cheese in white sauce, etc. Total active time: more than one minute.

All said, I don't eat Annie's products very often, so I'm not defending them because I'm a fan. It's because this article seems dishonest to me, making false comparisons to support the author's belief. And it strikes me as a thinly-veiled critique of a certain lifestyle in the guise of nutritional analysis: the holier-than-thou-homemade crowd vs. the well-to-do Whole Foods yuppies with kids. It's a rant directed at people who actually do care what they're feeding their kids, and who are trying to do the right thing. In my opinion, that's the wrong target.

36 thoughts on “Attacking Annie’s Shells and Cheddar

  1. It must have been a slow news day for Anastacia. The real story would be in actually describing in everyday terms what is actually in the box of Kraft Mac-n-Cheese. Who wouldn’t want to use Annie’s over Kraft? People just don’t know about Annie’s like they know about Kraft. I am a person that prefers to cook from scratch, but you can’t beat Annie’s when it comes to a boxed food product, especially when a couple of little someones really need to eat, and eat right now.

  2. I’d wonder what else is in Annie’s Durum Semolina Pasta: eggs? Water? Sugar? Niacin, Thiamine, and Mononitrate?
    There’s a reason God invented already-shredded cheese: Because people are lazy. Me? I buy a two pound brick of cheddar, shred the puppy on the box grater, throw it in a big ziploc in the freezer. And when I want macaroni and cheese, I make pasta, and after it’s drained I throw 1/3c of milk, 1/3c of butter, and two handfuls of already-shredded frozen cheese in (and 1/2 c of frozen peas. Yummy) and mix until frighteningly orange. Just as fast as any box product.

  3. Mary Sue, how do you keep the cheese from clumping up? That’s my problem with that approach, you get some greasy noodles, and some greasy clumps of cheese, but you don’t get a nice coated mac and cheese. Unless of course you make a white sauce, which is not so fast.

  4. One other key reason to love Annie’s: my 12 and 15 year olds can make themselves a decent meal without help. Call me crazy, but I don’t see them whipping up an unsupervised Béchamel sauce without setting the house on fire.

  5. I think most of this is missing the point – that Annie’s stuff TASTES TERRIBLE. I bought some one day, thinking it wasn’t such a horrible thing to feed my toddler, but it’s gross. Besides, a proper macaroni and cheese needs to be baked. Don’t want to mess with a white sauce? Try that recipe from the Times that used raw pasta and a lot of milk – it’s on their website, under Creamy Macaroni and Cheese. Eat real food, people. Like Michael Pollan said the other day – eat food your great grandmother would recognize.

  6. Maggie, I don’t know what you’re smoking, but Annie’s is tasty stuff – I always throw in a little extra shredded cheese (perhaps some cheddar and parmesan, or whatever is around) and ground pepper – it’s awesome and easy to make quickly when time is of the essence. Just my $.02.

  7. Here’s the recipe Maggie mentions above: Recipe: Creamy Macaroni and Cheese, but it does take over an hour. And here’s the accompanying article: Macaroni and Lots of Cheese. Mmmm…the picture is to die for. Certainly not from a box!

  8. all I have to say is ‘here, here’, Meg.
    I myself like to add a 1/2 can of diced tomatoes to the finished annie’s. When I have more than 10 minutes, yes, I’ll make real mac & cheese with real vegetables, but the article misses the point and is creating a faux ruckus.

  9. The article also neglects the problem of equipment. I am a college student and for most of the year my cooking stash consists of a microwave and some plastic bowls. Annie’s Instant Mac might be a culinary horror, but it’s a lot better than the other options.

  10. I’d wonder what else is in Annie’s Durum Semolina Pasta: eggs? Water? Sugar? Niacin, Thiamine, and Mononitrate?
    Mary Sue, I called Annie’s Homemade to find out and they just called back. The Durum Semolina Pasta is durum wheat and water. That’s it.

  11. Completely agree, Meg. There’s my ideal of what I should eat, and then there’s my reality, and if I pick the best of the “worst” every once and awhile, that’s life. I agree with Sheikha–slow news day.

  12. I’m a terrible cook and don’t know much about fancy foods and I sure don’t get a lot of free time to make mac and cheese from scratch (because it does take a lot of time compared to Annie’s, no matter what anyone says). All I know is I try to feed my daughter the foods with the least amount of processed stuff, as Meg pointed out. I stay away from high fructose corn syrup as much as possible, and if it’s not too much more, stick with the product that has the least amount of ingredients. I’m trying to make more things for meals every day, but it’s nice to have quick backups so we can play instead of worrying about how much time it’ll take to make dinner. Thanks Meg for pointing out this article.

  13. I whipped up some Annie’s just last night for my 3 year old. We try to stay organic as much as possible…but my 3 year old likes Annie’s more than Kraft anyway. Sometimes it’s a matter of taste. When I eat it, I melt some fancy cheeses and, as Megnut suggested, I too have a salad with it. …and a couple three glasses of water. I’m on the hunt for a lower sodium mac & cheese…

  14. Thank you, Meg.
    In a perfect world, I’d make homemade mac’n’cheese for me and my twins. Some days, I can and I do. Other days, working full time and taking care of two babies with minimal help means that the one-minute Annie’s approach is all I can do.
    I think it’s all about doing the best that one can. Annie’s is less processed than Kraft, so when pressed for time (often!), that’s what I choose.
    That said, I’m intrigued my Mary Sue’s approach. I hope she gives more details!

  15. Whole grain corn, chicken meal, beef, whole wheat, corn gluten meal, animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), soybean meal, brown rice, oat meal, pearled barley, calcium phosphate, animal digest, calcium carbonate, caramel color, salt, potassium chloride, brewers dried yeast, choline chloride
    that my friends, is the first few ingredients from purina dog chow. arguable just as ‘natural’ as kraft’s mac n cheese. oh well, good thing i eat ramen more than mac n cheese.

  16. But as far as I know, no one’s feeing Purina Dog Chow to their children. At least, not knowingly!

  17. While I agree that Annie’s is less processed (and have had it a couple of times), and a better choice than Kraft, I think the article was good at pointing out that Annie’s is no stranger to corporate marketing. I had no idea they were behind the Smartfood popcorn and found it interesting that a top advertising firm for Kraft designed the logo. This kind of makes me just want to make my own macncheese. For me, it was more important to see how Annie’s and other startup “healthy” options have created the “greenwashing” of newer, commercial products. For that interesting article, head over here to the NYT’s.
    p.s. for all of the vilifying, the author still admitted that she used Annie’s, thereby being a part of the “hippie” culture she’s deriding.

  18. The other nice thing about Annie’s as compared to Kraft is the shells, which are a much nicer vehicle for the cheese sauce than Kraft’s wimpy non-elbow tubes that fall apart. I guess Kraft has a shells version too, but I wouldn’t eat it for the many reasons Meg and others have already pointed out. Just last night my husband whipped up a box of Annie’s, added a can of diced tomatoes, some frozen peas and pieces of veggie sausage (we like Boca’s italian sausage). Not exactly gourmet, but damn tasty and quicker, cheaper, and (hopefully) healthier than ordering pizza. Since our daughter was born 8 weeks ago, we’ve relied on Annie’s many times. I was concerned after reading the Salon article yesterday–thanks for putting me as ease, Meg.

  19. Hi Everybody, My name is John, and I am the CEO of Annie’s. You are having an intellegent conversation about this issue, and I thought you might want to see the note I posted on Salon’s web site. Their facts were just plain wrong, and they never bothered to even call us before running this this story. Thanks for the opportunity to set the record straight here. Salon did post this letter to their board, but once the incorrect info gets out there in internet land, it is hard to change the flase perceptions that can create….John
    Letter as follows:………………
    Joan Walsh
    Editor in Chief
    (415) 645-9200
    January 31, 2007
    Dear Ms. Walsh,
    In Anastacia Marx de Salcedo’s Jan. 30 article, “The bunny vs. the blue box,” the “aspiring bad girl of American food writing” mocks everything about Annie’s Homegrown. For Annie’s lovers who may have read this story, the folks here want to clarify a few points and inaccuracies.
    It’s true that Annie’s Homegrown founder, Annie Withey, successfully launched and later sold SmartFood. It’s also true that instead of retiring, she set out to create a new product that would offer a convenient alternative to artificially flavored mac & cheese. The result? Annie’s totally natural mac & cheese. Annie also saw this as a chance to create a different kind of company, one that was (and still is!) committed to operating in an environmentally sustainable manner and raising awareness among its customers and others about keeping our planet healthy. From partnering with NativeEnergy to offset our carbon dioxide emissions to offering scholarships to students studying environmental sciences, we remain dedicated to mindful stewardship of our earth.
    It is also accurate to say that Annie’s is a convenience food. We’ve never claimed to be anything different, nor have we ever implied that our mac & cheese is better than making something homemade. But when grating cheese and making a béchamel isn’t an option, Annie’s offers a high-quality, delicious dinner that doesn’t contain any weird preservatives, colors or flavors. Our real, straight-from-nature ingredients are what differentiate Annie’s mac & cheese from other conventional brands.
    In fact, while well-known conventional brands contain yellow dyes No. 5 and No. 6, sodium tripolyphosphate and more than 20 ingredients, Annie’s mac & cheese contains nine all-natural ingredients, no artificial colors and no synthetic chemicals ¬–– no weird stuff. Because we use real cheese in our products, our mac & cheese is delicious without requiring the addition of butter. On our product boxes we recommend using lowfat milk for the healthiest product that, when prepared, contains fewer calories (280), less total fat (4 g) and less sodium (550 mg) than Kraft, which can contain up to 380 calories, 15 grams of fat and 740 milligrams of sodium per serving.
    And speaking of healthy, Annie’s has offered a certified organic line since 1998, not because we “felt the gentle wind of organics.” Rather, we honestly believe organic agriculture practices and products are better for us and better for the earth. We’re pretty proud of the fact that we’ve recently transitioned all of the pasta in our natural line to certified organic. We see this as a responsible step toward offering an even better product for consumers and for the environment.
    While we would have liked to offer all organic ingredients from the start, the supply simply wasn’t available from the sources we value. We care a great deal about how we source our ingredients and so we choose family farmers as those who grow our wheat and produce our cheese.
    And finally, Bernie, the Rabbit of Approval, was Annie’s real pet rabbit – not a fabricated creation developed by a marketing company. In fact, Annie’s brother, Bruce Withey drew the quirky, smiling sketch for the first box of Annie’s mac & cheese.
    We’re proud Annie’s Homegrown has found a special place in the hearts and kitchens of our loyal consumers. Adults and kids love Annie’s products and Bernie because they are authentic and natural. Despite her cynicism, we’re happy to know that we’re still a staple in Ms. Marx de Salcedo’s cupboard.
    John Foraker, CEO, Annie’s Homegrown

  20. John, thanks for posting here. I really appreciate it and I’m honored that you took the time to join our conversation. It means a lot to me to host a place where people can have an intelligent conversation and you can share your side of the story. Thank you.

  21. No problem…this is a very good blog.
    When you have been spending years trying to do the right thing,to help people eat better,and to do so with an honest committment to sustainability, it stinks to get hit by what amounts to a cheap shot full of innaccurate information. We welcome comparison to our competition, because when all the facts are there side by side, we shine…

  22. John, Great response, but I do have one observation. You wrote –
    “Annie’s offers a high-quality, delicious dinner that doesn’t contain any weird preservatives, colors or flavors.”
    My question to that is – How are you defining quality? ‘Quality’ is a word that’s thrown around by nearly everyone in marketing, but it doesn’t mean anything. Or more specifically, it means so many different things to so many different people, that it essentially nullifies any meaning it has.
    It’s a small thing but an important one. When you throw around subjective words such as “quality” and “delicious” and use them as objective evidence against a article in the media, you muddy the waters of debate instead of clarifying them.

  23. I apologize for my previous comment about the bunny logo being a corporate creation. Naively, I assumed Salon had a fact checker. Thank you for writing and clearing the debate John.

  24. The way we use the term “quality” relates to the general grade (and obviously, cost) of the ingredients we use. For example. We use durhum semolina wheat flour, which is viewed by many as the best grade of wheat flour for making quality pasta. We could use lower grade flours, or cheaper blends of wheat flour like the guys in the blue box doo. Ever notice that their pasta turns to mush after a while? That is the key reason. In cheese, we use, well, real cheese. Much more expensive than the “other guys” components of “cheese sauce” largely milk by products including nasty milk protein concentrates that are formulated in a lab for low cost.
    I agree, the term quality is way over-used by all marketers. For us, it implies that we are investing in better and fewer ingredients, rather than other things like advertising. We rely on word of mouth for that, which is why getting the facts straignt on the Salon piece is so important

  25. I’m really glad you responded to Salon. Aren’t there plenty of obvious bad guys in the food world for the writer to take to task instead of picking on a company that’s trying to do something good? Write an article about Tyson or Perdue for God’s sake! Or look what RS did with Smithfield pork recently.

  26. “Total active time: less than a minute. Now think about making the same from scratch. While the pasta’s boiling, you need to make your Béchamel. That requires whisking and attention. You also need to grate cheese, mix cheese in white sauce, etc. Total active time: more than one minute.”
    Ohmygod!Do you have to STAND while cooking, too? I mean, that IS TIRING.
    I’m sorry that real food requires more than 1 minute of cooking, and I can understand how such a thing could interfere with the Sloth Way of Life.

  27. I’m in the camp of those who think that if you’re going to do macaroni cheese, make it from scratch: roux, milk, seasoning, cheese while the pasta par-boils, then mix and bung in the oven. Comfort food seems almost to demand a certain trade-off in terms of labour.
    But then again, as a foreigner I’ll admit I’ve never ate Kraft Mac’n’cheese as a child, and I’ve never made it for a child (though my wife has made it for herself while I looked on from a distance). And if you’re cooking for kids, you’ve already done your fair share of hard labour.
    Heck, it’s pasta and cheese. How hard ought it be to mess that up? And yet Blue Box, Inc. can’t stretch for 100% durum flour or real cheese.

  28. What an interesting discussion!
    I have to say as I was growing up my mother never made a blue box of Mac & Cheese. I think I had a box in collage that a friend made as part of a community dinner. If my kids have had it, they have bought and made it themselves.( not likely)
    That said, I have bought Annie’s a few times, I’ve added vegies and it isn’t too bad for a quick meal.
    It isn’t comfort food by a long shot. Homemade just tastes better.
    If you want quick, cook a noodle product of your choice, toss with some butter and ricotta cheese and peas. Garnish with some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and ground pepper.
    Now,That’s comfort food.

  29. There is a link on website front page that shows the real difference between Annie’s and the other guys in recommended preparation. A snapshot summary below
    Our preparation instructions recommend using lowfat milk for the healthiest product that, when prepared, contains fewer calories (280), less total fat (4.5 g) and less sodium (550 mg) than the competitor, which can contain up to 380 calories, 15 grams of fat and 740 milligrams of sodium per serving:
    Amount Per Serving
    as Prepared Annie’s Homegrown*, Competitor*
    Calories 280, 380
    Calories from Fat 40, 140
    Total Fat 7%, 23%
    Saturated Fat 13%, 20%
    Trans Fat 0%, 0%
    Cholesterol 5%, 3%
    Sodium 23%, 31%
    Total Carbohydrate 16%, 17%
    Dietary Fiber 8%, 4%
    * Recommended preparation
    Because we use real cheese with a real cheddar flavor, our product tastes great with our recommended prep.
    Thanks for listening…John

  30. John, let’s be fair here. You are comparing Annie’s made with low-fat milk to Kraft made with whole milk. The “light prep” on Kraft’s is only 290 calories, 5g fat and 600mg sodium.
    The Salon article, while trying to raise eyebrows, has the underlying theme that marketers “dupe” parents into thinking Annie’s is the “better” choice when it comes to convenience mac & cheese. That is what many marketers do – it is their right and their job. Everyone wants to grow a successful product and there is nothing wrong with that. There is also nothing wrong with a journalist opening people’s eyes a bit when so many of us are trained to believe labels and commercials.
    As evidenced by many commenters here, people believe Annie’s allows them to “do the best they can for their kids.” This is what I object to and where I feel the Salon article is spot-on. If you ran these two products by a scientist or nutritionist, I’d guess they would tell you that choosing one or the other is not going to make a significant difference in our overall health. Sure, we could do without the yellow #5, but we’re not eating it every day.
    As for Meg’s contention that homemade takes more “active time,” she’s just as bad as the Salon writer in terms of over-simplifying. True, grating cheese and making a white sauce would take more attention than simply boiling water and walking away. But seriously – not much. You can buy already grated cheese. The white sauce (bechamel)? Standing over the stove and whisking while the water is boiling is quite an effort. But I’ve discovered you can make a fine white sauce in the microwave! Just melt a little butter and flour in the micro, mix it up, add milk and microwave again until it’s bubbly. Add your pre-shredded cheese and toss over your pasta. Yum.

  31. Shannon, you make some great points. Thanks.
    Part of this comes down to whether or not a consumer that is pressed for time, and for that reason wants to do something quick, is willing to cut corners in quality, as I defined it above.
    Here is an expose link below about Kraft “cheese sauce” that says a lot.
    I bet your homemade Mac is awesome. I am going to try your trick in the micro!

  32. There’s nothing REAL about Kraft cheese.
    Kraft claims their cheese is “real”, yet do not list any trace of naturally-sourced cheese on their ingredient statements. We all know that Kraft cheese is NOT real cheese; It’s a bunch of chemicals combined in some laboratory dyed orange to look like cheese.
    What I want to know is, how are they able to make the “real cheese” claim? Does this make anyone else furious that a company as large as Kraft has poisoned our food supply with such “convenient meals” for so many decades?

  33. I grew up eating both homemade mac and cheese (the good stuff, as we called it) and Kraft dinner, which we also loved but recognized as being the inferior chow. I’ve eaten and enjoyed Annie’s mac and cheese, too, and if my son were still small and I wanted to have packaged mac and cheese on hand, I’d buy the Annie’s.
    That said, I usually make my own mac and cheese, and wanted to let you know you don’t need to use a bechamel sauce in order to have a creamy end result. Here’s how —
    Cook your pasta of choice, as usual. When done, drain it. Toss a lump of butter (about 2 TB) into the hot pot, on low heat. Add some milk (I use about a cup) and let heat a bit. Put the pasta back in the pot, toss to coat. Throw in finely shredded cheese of choice (we like a combination of Pepper Jack and sharp cheddar, but use whatever we have on hand) and stir to coat the pasta. Heat on low, stirring constantly, and in a few minutes, the pasta will be covered with creamy melted cheese. If it looks like the cheese is staying in clumps, just keep stirring and eventually (less than 5 minutes, I’d say) it will blend with the butter and milk and become creamy. Glop it out into a buttered casserole, and bake til the top is golden brown.
    I’ve used the bechamel method, but prefer this method instead. It tastes cheesier to me, for some reason.
    Just enjoy your food, whatever you choose to eat.

  34. How ’bout we change the label to
    “All Pronounceable Ingredients”
    instead of “All Natural”

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