A pot of mac and cheese with broccoli and a box of Annie's macaroni and cheese

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.