Enjoy one of America’s favorite breakfast foods with phytonutrient-rich raspberries. Photo by Simone van den Berg | IST.
STEPHANIE ZONIS focuses on good foods and the people who produce them.
Best Macaroni And Cheese
Page 2: Macaroni And Cheese Nutrition
This is Page 2 of a 5-page article (plus ?? pages of boxed macaroni and cheese reviews). Click the black links below to view other pages.
What’s In Your Mac And Cheese?
Commercial manufacturers of macaroni and cheese mixes need to be concerned with multiple issues. While pasta is shelf-stable for a lengthy period of time, the cheese sauce (or cheese sauce powder) must be able to keep, without refrigeration, for as long as the pasta, as both are equally as important.
The sauce must be acceptable to consumers in terms of flavor, color and thickness. In addition, if the sauce comes already prepared in its own pouch, it cannot separate into different components; it must remain as a homogeneous mass.
Manufacturers use a variety of ingredients to guarantee good results for their products, and you have to decide if you’re willing to consume them. In the following alphabetical list of some of these additives, please note that not every mix contains all of them nor are they all controversial:
KAREN: THIS IS MY MORE CONCISE, EDITED VERSION OF WHAT STEPHANIE SUBMITTED. HER ORIGINAL VERSION EXACTLY HOW SHE SUBMITTED IT IS BELOW THIS LIST.
Annatto Extract: A coloring agent derived from the dark red seeds of a tropical evergreen.
- Autolyzed Yeast: Used as a flavor-enhancer in processed foods. The high protein content gives this ingredient a hearty flavor. It helps chemically alter taste buds to make it easier to detect savory flavors.
- Calcium Phosphate: The chief form of calcium in cows’ milk, often used in cheese products.
- Cellulose Gel: A thickener and stabilizer derived from wood pulp or cotton. Since this substance has some slickness, it mimics some fat characteristics, allowing food manufacturers to use less fat, but still product foods with a satisfying mouthfeel.
- Cellulose Gum: A cheap thickener and emulsifier that can also improve shelf life in some cases; also farmed from trees and cotton. A little cellulose gum goes a long way. Neither cellulose gum nor cellulose gel is absorbed by the human body.
- Corn Syrup: Used in Pasta Roni mixes “to add a little sweetness and round out the flavors,” according to a company representative.
Disodium Guanylate and Disodium Inosinate:* Like autolyzed yeast, these are flavor-enhancers (also called “flavor potentiators”). While they have no flavor on their own, they enhance or intensify the flavors of savory foods and add a meatiness without using actual meat.
Enzyme Modified Butteroil: Made by removing almost all of the moisture and nonfat solids from butter, this enzyme modification allows for a deep butter flavor.
Fat: With the exception of the “deluxe” dinners, you generally add some form of fat to stovetop mac and cheese mixes (butter, margarine or “spread”).
High Acid Whey: Widely used in dry mixes, as whey is a by-product of the cheese-making process. It acts as a binder and extender for many food products, and often boosts protein content as well.
Lactic Acid: Used both to add tartness and as a preservative.
Medium Chain Triglycerides: While these fatty acids are bland with no detectable odor, they work well as flavor carriers and solvents, which is how they’re used in many mac and cheese mixes, including those made by Kraft.
Natural Flavor: An ingredient originating from a natural source has “natural flavor.” This does not mean it’s safer than artificial flavor, however, because only safety-tested components are used in artificial flavorings.
Sodium Alginate: A thickener derived from algae.
- Sodium Caseinate: Obtained from fresh and pasteurized skim milk to provide a little dairy flavor, a creamy appearance and mouthfeel and some thickening.
- Sodium Tripolyphosphate: Also known as STP, STPP or TPP, it’s usually used as a moisture retainer in foods.
- Sorbic Acid: A preservative commonly used in the U.S.
- Sugar: In the two Back to Nature mac and cheeses I tried, the sugar (listed as a sub-ingredient under “Cheese Sauce Mix”) is lactose—a sugar that occurs naturally in cheese, according to a company representative. In Kraft products, a company representative said sugar is added “to enhance the overall sweetness of the product.”
- Torula Yeast: A flavor enhancer/potentiator for processed foods that adds a savory note. It has a slightly meaty taste when cooked (though it contains no meat and isn’t made from it).
- Xanthan Gum: A thickener and stabilizer, xanthan gum also provides a mouthfeel similar to fat in low-fat or nonfat dairy products.
- Yellow 5 and Yellow 6: Yellow 5, also called tartrazine, is a synthetic, water-soluble, very inexpensive dye used as a food coloring. Although the FDA and food industry maintain that this ingredient is safe, there are those who oppose its use and claim everything from allergic reactions to immunologic responses, including migraines and sleep disturbances. Yellow 6, another synthetic dye, is also the subject of argument, which you can explore by visiting The Center For Science In The Public Interest website.
* Boxed mac and cheese that contains disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate and autolyzed yeast or torula yeast has MSG, to which some people have short-term, potentially serious reactions. Does this mean we should stop eating these mac and cheese mixes? Numerous studies have failed to document a high degree of correlation between “normal” MSG intake (and I’m not sure just what a normal intake would constitute) and long-term health issues, so most people simply won’t have a problem with MSG consumption if they don’t overdo it. These manufacturers aren’t required to list MSG on their labels because unless it has been added directly to a food, they don’t have to.
If any of the various ingredients in these products is of concern to you, check your mac and cheese label to see what the manufacturer calls for, but be aware you can often substitute with good results, although what you use will affect the nutrient content.
In addition, many of these products seemed to focus on a low fat content. Given all of the publicity about overweight kids in America in the past decade or so, this wasn’t unexpected. But macaroni and cheese is not intrinsically a low-calorie food, and calories count, too.
When your child gets home from school and wants a snack, he or she might well go for a microwavable version of macaroni and cheese; you might choose a boxed mac and cheese for a quick meal after a long day. What happens next?
Say that you or your child are still hungry after your initial serving of macaroni and cheese (given that most of the microwavable types yielded 3/4 cup or less, and that most teens and adults can eat more than the standard 1-cup serving of the stovetop mixes, that’s not an unreasonable assumption). Does your kid grab an apple or an orange? Do you go for a salad?
Sure, there are health-conscious people out there who have no problem measuring portions and stopping after they’ve eaten one serving, but that’s not realistic for many of us. If you’re likely to have seconds or if your offspring is going to make another microwavable cup of mac and cheese, the calories (and sodium) add up.
Also, while macaroni and cheese does have some nutrition, it isn’t the most nutrient-dense food out there. My suggestion? Like other packaged foods, consumption of these products should be limited. And if you or your family will eat anything other than white flour pasta, try one of the whole grain varieties.
Continue To Page 3: The Sodium Blues
Go To The Article Index Above
STEPHANIE'S ORIGINAL VERSION:
•Sodium Alginate. This is a thickener derived from algae.
•Corn Syrup. According to a Pasta Roni company representative, corn syrup is used in their mixes “to add a little sweetness and round out the flavors.”
•Sodium Caseinate. The website Vegetarians in Paradise (www.vegparadise.com) says that this ingredient is “obtained from fresh and pasteurized skim milk by acid coagulation of the casein, neutralization with sodium hydroxide, and drying in a spray dryer.” It’s used in foods to provide a little dairy flavor, a creamy appearance and mouthfeel, and some thickening.
•Cellulose Gum. Farmed from trees and cotton, this is a cheap thickener and emulsifier; it can also improve shelf-life in some cases. A little cellulose gum goes a long way. Neither cellulose gum nor cellulose gel is absorbed by the human system.
•Cellulose Gel. Like cellulose gum, this is a thickener and stabilizer derived from wood pulp or cotton. In addition, since cellulose gel has some slickness to it, it mimics some fat characteristics, so food manufacturers can use less fat but still produce foods with a satisfying mouthfeel.
•Disodium Inosinate and Disodium Guanylate. Like autolyzed yeast, disodium guanylate and disodium inosinate are flavor enhancers (also called “flavor potentiators”). According to Flavor Chemistry and Technology, by Gary Reineccius and Henry B. Heath, technically, a flavor potentiator is a substance that has no flavor of its own but enhances or intensifies the flavor of savory foods. They add a meatiness without the use of actual meat. If you’ve done any reading about the fifth taste, umami, this is an example of that. Wikipedia notes this: “If inosinate and guanylate salts are present in a list of ingredients but MSG does not appear to be, it is likely that glutamic acid is provided as part of another ingredient, such as a processed soy protein complex (hydrolyzed soy protein), autolyzed yeast or soy sauce.” (See the Wikipedia definition for guanosine monophosphate.) The “salts” mentioned in that Wikipedia quote are these two disodiums. Glutamate is also present naturally in foods such as cheese and milk. Effectively, boxed mac and cheese that contains disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, and autolyzed yeast or torula yeast has MSG.
Should we stop eating these mac and cheese mixes immediately? According to Health & Fitness at msn.com, some people can have short-term reactions to ingesting MSG, and those reactions can be serious. But numerous studies have failed to document a high degree of correlation between “normal” MSG intake (and I’m not sure just what a normal intake would constitute) and long-term health issues, so most people simply won’t have a problem with MSG consumption if they don’t overdo it. Why aren’t these manufacturers required to list MSG on their labels? When MSG has been added directly to a food, it must be listed as an ingredient. But when foods contain glutamate naturally, or when ingredients are made with glutamate, such a listing is not mandatory. There’s no question that listing MSG as an ingredient would drive off a significant percentage of consumers, so manufacturers are not anxious to list it among ingredients unless they must.
•Xanthan Gum. A thickener and stabilizer, xanthan gum also provides a mouthfeel like that of fat in low-fat or nonfat dairy products.
•Lactic Acid. Lactic acid is used to add tartness and as a preservative.
•Sorbic Acid. A preservative that’s commonly used in the US.
•Natural Flavor. Under the Code of Federal Regulations (21CFR101.22), the definition of a “natural flavor” is “…...the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.” Say what? The best response I’ve seen to this ridiculously vague definition was on the website www.supermarketguru.com. A professor in the department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, Gary Reineccius, declared, “The distinction in flavorings--natural versus artificial--comes from the source of these identical chemicals and may be likened to saying that an apple sold in a gas station is artificial and one sold from a fruit stand is natural. Artificial flavorings are simpler in composition and potentially safer because only safety-tested components are utilized. Another difference between natural and artificial flavorings is cost. The search for "natural" sources of chemicals often requires that a manufacturer go to great lengths to obtain a given chemical…. Furthermore, the process is costly. This pure natural chemical is identical to the version made in an organic chemist’s laboratory, yet it is much more expensive than the synthetic alternative. Consumers pay a lot for natural flavorings. But these are in fact no better in quality, nor are they safer, than their cost-effective artificial counterparts.”
•Sodium Tripolyphosphate, also known as STP, STPP, or TPP. Usually used as a moisture retainer in foods.
•Calcium Phosphate. The chief form of calcium in cows’ milk, often used in cheese products.
•High Acid Whey. Widely used in dry mixes. Whey is a by-product of the cheese making process. It acts as a binder and extender for many food products and often boosts protein content as well.
•Autolyzed Yeast and Torula Yeast. Autolyzed yeast is used as a flavor enhancer in processed foods. The high protein content gives this ingredient a hearty flavor, so it adds a savory note to these foods. Chemically alters your taste buds via the enzyme free glutamic acid, making it easier for the taste buds to detect savory flavors. MSG is derived from autolyzed yeast; if you are sensitive to MSG, you may also be sensitive to autolyzed yeast. Torula yeast is another flavor enhancer/potentiator for processed foods that adds a savory note. It has a slightly meaty taste when cooked (though it contains no meat and isn’t made from it). This is umami, the fifth taste. Torula yeast may also affect those sensitive to MSG.
•Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. Yellow 5, also called tartrazine, is a synthetic, water-soluble, very inexpensive dye used as a food coloring. This is an ingredient with a good deal of controversy attached to it. The FDA and food industry maintain that it is safe, while those opposed to its use claim everything from allergic reactions to immunologic responses, including migraines and sleep disturbances. Yellow 6, another synthetic dye, is also the subject of argument. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a report on food dyes, including Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, here: http://www.cspinet.org/new/201006291.html.
•Enzyme Modified Butteroil. Butteroil is made by removing almost all of the moisture and nonfat solids from butter. The enzyme modification allows for a deep butter flavor.
•Medium Chain Triglycerides. In and of themselves, MCT’s are bland and have no detectable odor. However, they work well as flavor carriers or solvents, and that is how they’re used in mac and cheese mixes, at least those made by Kraft.
•Annatto Extract. This is a coloring agent. The extract is derived from the dark red seeds of a tropical evergreen.
•Sugar. In the two Back to Nature mac and cheeses I tried, according to a company representative, the sugar, which is listed as a sub-ingredient under “Cheese Sauce Mix,” is lactose, a sugar that occurs naturally in cheese. In Kraft products, a company representative informed me that sugar is added “to enhance the overall sweetness of the product.”
•Fat. With the exception of the “deluxe” dinners, you add some form of fat to most stovetop mac and cheese mixes. This may be butter, margarine, or “spread.” If any of the various ingredients in these products is of concern to you, check your mac and cheese label to see what the manufacturer calls for, but be aware you can often substitute here with good results, although what you use will affect the nutrient content.
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