What's Inside That Box of Mac and Cheese?

Some brands seem healthier than others—but there's actually little difference

Illustration of a pot of cooked macaroni and cheese with cut broccoli. Illustration: Rodrigo Damati

Packaged mac and cheese has long been a go-to meal busy parents serve their kids—even for breakfast during the pandemic, according to Kraft. Plenty of adults crave a bowl too, even though this cheesy dish has a well-deserved repu­tation for being a calorie and fat bomb. Just 1 cup can contain more than 350 calories and 11 grams of saturated fat per serving. But now store shelves feature organic, whole-grain, and bean-based “mac” options. Are they healthier? CR’s nutrition experts say not so much. We compared traditional Kraft with more healthful-sounding versions. Here are a few important takeaways.

Don’t assume organic means low-fat, low-cal, or low sodium. Foods with an organic label don’t contain pesticides—but don’t expect there to be other nutritional benefits. For example, Annie’s organic box has a calorie and fat content that’s similar to the regular Annie’s version—and a bit more sodium per serving, at 560 mg.

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Mind the sodium. Our experts saw 410 to 940 sodium mg per serving, but even Annie’s Reduced Sodium Mac & Cheese, at 410 mg, has close to 20 percent of the recommended daily sodium limit. We also found that products with a squeeze cheese pouch tend to be higher in sodium than powdered choices. For instance, Kraft Dinners Deluxe Original Cheddar has 940 mg; Kraft Original has 580 mg.

Use your noodle. Whole-grain and bean-based varieties are a bit better for you than white pastas because they have more fiber. Chickpea-based Banza pasta offers 18 grams of filling protein (others have 9 to 13 grams), but the calories, fat, and sodium are similar to white pasta.

Balance your bowl. Make any box healthier by using low-fat milk and less butter (or skip butter entirely). Stick with a 1-cup serving and mix in 2 cups of steamed veggies.

Below is nutrition information for all the macaroni and cheese products we evaluated. The nutrition numbers are per 1 cup prepared with 2 percent milk and unsalted butter, except for the two "deluxe" products, which come with a premade cheese sauce.

Banza Elbows Classic Cheddar Mac & Cheese
  • Calories 380
  • Sat fat 10 g
  • Fiber 5 g
  • Protein 18 g
  • Sodium 680 mg
Annie's Organic Shells & White Cheddar Mac & Cheese with Whole Grains
  • Calories 360
  • Sat fat 8 g
  • Fiber 4 g
  • Protein 10 g
  • Sodium 570 mg
Annie's Organic Shells & White Cheddar Mac & Cheese
  • Calories 350
  • Sat fat 8 g
  • Fiber 2 g
  • Protein 11 g
  • Sodium 560 mg
Annie's Reduced Sodium Mac & Cheese
  • Calories 350
  • Sat fat 8 g
  • Fiber 2 g
  • Protein 11 g
  • Sodium 410 mg
Annie's Deluxe Rich & Creamy Shells & White Cheddar
  • Calories 330
  • Sat fat 6 g
  • Fiber 2 g
  • Protein 12 g
  • Sodium 790 mg
Annie's Shells and White Cheddar Mac & Cheese
  • Calories 350
  • Sat fat 8 g
  • Fiber 2 g
  • Protein 11 g
  • Sodium 510 mg
Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner Original
  • Calories 390
  • Sat fat 11 g
  • Fiber 2 g
  • Protein 10 g
  • Sodium 580 mg
Kraft White Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese Dinner
  • Calories 490
  • Sat fat 13 g
  • Fiber 2 g
  • Protein 13 g
  • Sodium 680 mg
Kraft Dinners Deluxe Original Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese Dinner
  • Calories 310
  • Sat fat 2.5 g
  • Fiber 1 g
  • Protein 11 g
  • Sodium 940 mg
Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner Whole Grain Original
  • Calories 390
  • Sat fat 10 g
  • Fiber 5 g
  • Protein 9 g
  • Sodium 590 mg

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the December 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.


Trisha Calvo

I've covered health and nutrition my entire career, so I know how to separate science from hype. Whether it's about food labels, sunscreen, or food safety, my goal is to deliver information that makes following a healthy lifestyle easier. Healthy cooking is a favorite hobby, and friends think I'm crazy, but I can happily spend hours grocery shopping. Follow me on Twitter. (@TrishaCalvo)