I am wary of packaged foods. Some, like rice or eggs are minimally processed but many contain long lists of ingredients I can’t pronounce or identify. Last spring I took a nutrition class with Marion Nestle, and investigated Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner: Scooby-Doo! packaged meals, which is obviously marketed to children. Here is what I found.
Kraft produces a number of macaroni and cheese products, several of which are marketed to children. Macaroni and Cheese Dinner: Scooby Doo! comes in a 5.5 ounce box and includes dry macaroni pasta and a packet of dehydrated cheese sauce. The front of the box shows is dominated with a large cartoon of Scooby Doo, and shows images of the Scooby-themed pasta shapes, including dog tags and bones. (Kraft also markets its macaroni and cheese using Spider Man and Sponge Bob, with corresponding cartoons and pasta shapes.)
The text on the front of the blue box calls the product a “macaroni and cheese dinner” and proclaims that this particular box contains twice the amount of calcium as “regular” macaroni and cheese dinners. It is unclear to which product Kraft is comparing its own, but the nutritional label shows that each serving of macaroni and cheese contains 20% of the RDA for calcium before milk or butter is added. The package contains two servings, and gives the nutritional information for the unprepared product as well as the prepared meal when butter and skim milk are added as per the instructions.
The front of the box also displays a green flag logo that says “Sensible Solution: Suggested Preparation Makes This A Sensible Solution.” The logo is one developed by “Kraft’s nutrition experts” and is used to identify foods which conform to nutrition advice taken from the 2005 Dietary Guidelines as well as other health authorities.[i] A little more digging was required to find out what “suggested preparation” meant. Apparently in the past, Kraft recommended that its macaroni and cheese be made with 2% milk and more butter, so the directions on my box, which called for skim milk, resulted in a finished dish containing 60% less fat and 25% fewer calories than the “classic preparation.” [ii] In summary, Kraft does not label the product a “sensible solution” due to any property inherent in the product, but because they revised the instructions printed on the box.
The back and side panels of the box show how to prepare the meal with pictures as well as words, direct the consumer to the Kraft website, and provide nutrition information. If prepared with skim milk, one serving of Scooby Doo Macaroni and Cheese Dinner contains a relatively low amount of fat (5g) and saturated fat (3g) for the 290 calories it contains. If you use whole milk to prepare the cheese sauce, you consume twenty more calories and three more grams of fat, and if you eat the whole box you are having a relatively large meal devoid of vitamin A, vitamin C, or significant fiber.
What the meal does contain in abundance is sodium. Each serving contains a whopping 25% of the RDA and if you eat both servings you have consumed only 30% of your day’s calories but 50%of your day’s sodium. According to Kraft, “Sensible Solution criteria require that ALL qualifying products contain limited amounts of calories, fat (including saturated and trans fat), sodium and sugar. In fact, many Sensible Solution products meet specifications for ‘reduced’, ‘low’, or ‘free’ in calories, fat, sodium or sugar. In addition, many Sensible Solution products have the added benefit of providing meaningful amounts of good-for-you nutrients like calcium, fiber, whole grain, or protein, or deliver a functional benefit such as heart health.”[iii] The quantity of sodium in the container alone is enough to bar this product from qualifying for the “sensible solution” designation.