Whether you're young or old, mac and cheese is a timeless classic that makes even the most diligent low-carb dieters weak at the knees. And with the ingenious invention of boxed macaroni and cheese dinners, even those of us who are slightly cooking-challenged can easily succumb to our favorite cheat meals any time of the day. But their ease of access and simple instructions shouldn't be enough to warrant an indulgence.
In fact, with some of the calorie, sodium, and fat counts, many of these boxes of gold should make you think twice before you pick them off the shelf. You can thank the saturated-fat-laden butter, milk, cheese—or the scientifically-developed chemical alternatives to each of these natural ingredients—and refined-flour noodles for this dish's downfall. But not all boxes have to be sad mistakes for your diet.
By looking for natural ingredients and balanced nutritionals, we've compiled a list of the best and worst of the boxed mac and cheeses, so you can indulge in nostalgia without totally derailing your diet. On your next shopping trip, sub out the worst goods for our Eat This!-approved meals, and you'll continue to see the pounds melt from your frame.
Traditional Mild Cheddar
This was by far the most competitive category of the bunch, but Pirate's Booty came out on top for their reasonable fat content, moderate sodium levels, and for being low in calories. Not to mention, their ingredient list ends after only eight items—an impressive feat for boxed meals. On the other hand, don't be fooled by seeing "natural" on the box; Back to Nature may also be low in fat, but their sodium content is through the roof, coming in at nearly 30% of your daily recommended intake of bloat-inducing, blood-pressure-raising sodium. What's worse? They use an additive called sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP), a chemical "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA—but that is also a suspected neurotoxin, registered pesticide, and air contaminant.
Pirate's Booty Mac and Cheese, 1 cup (68 g)
250 calories, 2 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 530 mg sodium, 47 g carbs (1 g fiber, 6 g sugar), 9 g protein
Back to Nature Macaroni & Cheese, 1 cup (70 g)
260 calories, 2.5 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 630 mg sodium, 46 g carbs (1 g fiber, 6 g sugar), 10 g protein
Annie's may have created the first shells and white cheddar product back in 1989, but Horizon has fine-tuned it. Both products use organic wheat pasta shells and real cheddar cheese, but even without being "Certified Organic," Horizon uses more organic products where it counts, which is for the milk and butter. Annie's—on the other hand—uses conventional milk and butter, so their higher fat content may contain more inflammatory fats like omega-6s rather than anti-inflammatory omega-3s and fat-fighting CLA that are found in higher concentrations in organic dairy products.
Horizon Pasta Shells & White Cheddar Cheese, 1 cup (71 g)
260 calories, 2 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 580 mg sodium, 51 g carbs (1 g fiber, 4 g sugar), 9 g protein
Annie's Shells & White Cheddar, 1 cup (71 g)
270 calories, 4.5 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 500 mg sodium, 47 g carbs (2 g fiber, 5 g sugar), 10 g protein
Extra cheese makes for a decadent box of pasta—but make sure you choose the right one. Kraft is low in fat, but their box is high in sodium, low in fiber, and high in sugar. Annie's does serve up a little extra fat, but their reasonable sodium and sugar count along with the fact they serve up eight grams of whole grains and ten percent of your daily recommended intake of energy- and metabolism-boosting vitamin B1 sets them apart from the competition.
Annie's Extra Cheesy Four Cheese Mac and Cheese, 1 cup (62 g)
240 calories, 4.5 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 480 mg sodium, 40 g carbs (3 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 9 g protein, 10% DV vitamin B1, 8 g whole grains
Kraft Three Cheese with Mini-Shell Pasta, 1 cup (70 g)
260 calories, 2 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 600 mg sodium, 49 g carbs (2 g fiber, 7 g sugar), 9 g protein
When it comes to choosing the best meal for your kids, reasonable fat and sodium levels—along with simple ingredients—are where it counts. Annie's Organic barnyard shapes come smothered in a cheese sauce made with organic milk, butter, and cheese—which are full of healthy fats. Surprisingly, Kraft mac and cheese also has impressive nutritionals, which are matched by their now-reformulated recipe free of preservatives, artificial ingredients, and coal-derived dyes linked to hyperactivity in children. Annie's Mac & Trees, on the other hand, is a bit too high on the calorie, carbs, and fat front.
Annie's Organic Bernie's Farm Mac & Cheese Shapes, 1 cup (71 g)
270 calories, 4 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 400 mg sodium, 46 g carbs (3 g fiber, 5 g sugar), 10 g protein
Kraft SpongeBob Shapes, 1 cup (70 g)
250 calories, 2 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 480 mg sodium, 49 g carbs (2 g fiber, 7 g sugar), 8 g protein
Annie's Mac & Trees, 1 cup (78 g)
300 calories, 4.5 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 470 mg sodium, 51 g carbs (3 g fiber, 5 g sugar), 11 g protein)
These deluxe dinners come complete with a cheesy sauce (as opposed to a dehydrated cheese powder) you can smother all over your warm macaroni. Annie's makes the only whole-wheat deluxe version you can buy, and it's well worth the pick. Traditional pastas—like what's found in Velveeta's option—are made with refined flour—which is stripped of all nutrients and can cause inflammation-inducing spikes and dips in your blood sugar levels. Combine that with inflammatory omega-6s found in the canola oil also added to Velveeta's dinner, and those astonishing 12 grams of fat are looking even worse.
Annie's Creamy Deluxe Whole Wheat Shells & Extra Cheesy Cheddar, 1 cup (98 g)
300 calories, 9 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 650 mg sodium, 46 g carbs (7 g fiber, 2 g sugar), 12 g protein
Velveeta Shells & Cheese Dinner, 1 cup (112 g)
360 calories, 12 g fat (3.5 g saturated fat), 870 mg sodium, 49 g carbs (2 g fiber, 4 g sugar), 13 g protein
While we certainly commend Horizon for using a blend of lentils, rice, and corn for their gluten-free pasta, we're disappointed by their high fat and sodium content. Ancient Harvest makes its GF pasta with quinoa and corn and manages to keep sodium and fat levels low.
Ancient Harvest Organic Gluten-Free Quinoa-Corn White Cheddar Mac & Cheese, 1 cup (74 g)
270 calories, 2 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 400 mg sodium, 59 g carbs (2 g fiber, 2 g sugar), 4 g protein
Horizon Gluten-Free Macaroni & White Cheddar Cheese, 1 cup (71 g)
280 calories, 5 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 540 mg sodium, 46 g carbs (2 g fiber, 2 g sugar), 10 g protein
Velveeta chose to add artificial, isolated fats to their microwaveable mac and cheese (8 grams worth!), while Annie's provides the same function by using coconut oil. When fats are stripped down and added to your food, they're only used for their emulsifying properties, rather than being able to convey all their natural health benefits, like coconut oil can. Go with Annie's to rack up 8 grams of whole grains and fiber—and leave the sodium-laden Velveeta on the shelf.
Annie's Classic Mild Cheddar Microwavable Mac & Cheese Cup, 1 package (57 g)
220 calories, 5 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 380 mg sodium, 37 g carbs (3 g fiber, 2 g sugar), 7 g protein
Velveeta Original Shells & Cheese Microwaveable Cups, 1 package (68 g)
220 calories, 8 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 640 mg sodium, 29 g carbs (< 1 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 8 g protein
With a vegan sauce made of pumpkin and sweet potato, and without any artificial flavors, synthetic colors, nor preservatives, Annie's organic pasta dinner is a great option for those who eschew animal products. Plus, Annie's also boasts 35% of your DV of vitamin A and a bonus 20% of your DV of immune-boosting vitamin B1, also known as thiamine. Earth Balance's option is higher in fats and inexcusably high in sodium while being low in good-for-you, slow-digesting fiber. Fiber is an important macronutrient for sustaining energy levels throughout the day, as well as for maintaining proper gut health.
Annie's Organic Vegan Shells & Creamy Sauce, 1 cup (62 g)
230 calories, 1.5 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 270 mg sodium, 50 g carbs (7 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 8 g protein, 35% DV vitamin A, 20% DV vitamin B1
Earth Balance Vegan Mac & Cheese, 1 cup (70 g)
260 calories, 2.5 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 550 mg sodium, 51 g carbs (2 g fiber, 2 g sugar), 8 g protein
Vegan and Gluten-Free
Both Annie's and Earth Balance are fairly close when it comes to nutritionals (especially since Annie's serving size has fewer grams per cup), so the distinguishing factor came down to ingredients. Earth Balance uses yeast extract and modified food starch in their product, two common hidden sources of MSG: an appetite-revving additive. On the other hand, Annie's product is lent an orange hue from organic pumpkin and sweet potato powder, which also help boost the vitamin A content to 35% of your daily value. (Earth Balance provides 0%.)
Annie's Organic Gluten-Free Vegan Elbows & Creamy Sauce, 1 cup (62 g)
250 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 270 mg sodium, 54 g carbs (2 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 4 g protein, 35% DV vitamin A
Earth Balance Gluten-Free Vegan Cheddar Mac & Cheese, 1 cup (70 g)
260 calories, 1.5 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 360 mg sodium, 52 g carbs (4 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 4 g protein
Annie's is the only brand who offers a grass-fed option. When cows are grass-fed (as opposed to being fed grains and corn, which can cause intestinal issues and make animals sick) their dairy products have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (from the grass) and two to five times more CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) than their conventional counterparts. CLA is a group of fatty acids which confer a wide variety of health benefits, including immune and inflammatory system support, improved blood sugar regulation, reduced body fat, reduced risk of heart attack, and maintenance of lean body mass. But just because they're good fats doesn't mean you should overdo it in a single meal, which is why Annie's higher-fat mild cheddar option is a "Not That!"
Annie's Organic Grass Fed Shells & Real Aged Cheddar, 1 cup (71 g)
260 calories, 3.5 g fat (1.5 g saturated fat), 590 mg sodium, 47 g carbs (3 g fiber, 5 g sugar), 10 g protein, 10% DV calcium
Annie's Organic Grass Fed Classic Mild Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese, 1 cup (71 g)
270 calories, 5 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 520 mg sodium, 46 g carbs (3 g fiber, 5 g sugar), 10 g protein
Like Brad and Angelina, bacon and cheese were just meant to be together. And Kraft's deluxe dish certainly proves it with their diet-friendly pick. The dangerously delicious combination is typically teeming with gut-destroying, inflammation-inducing saturated fats (as shown by Cracker Barrel's version) and sky-high sodium levels (again, Cracker Barrel serves up almost 40% of your daily recommended intake in just a single cup), so this deluxe dish shouldn't be your go-to meal if you're looking to slim down. But for those busy nights, your best bet is with Kraft's boxed meal.
Kraft Deluxe White Cheddar & Bacon, 1 cup (98 g)
320 calories, 11 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 740 mg sodium, 41 g carbs (1 g fiber, 5 g sugar), 12 g protein
Cracker Barrel Sharp Cheddar & Bacon Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, 1 cup (98 g)
310 calories, 11 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 860 mg sodium, 40 g carbs (1 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 14 g protein
Horizon might be low in fat, but it boasts over 25% of your day's worth of sodium in a small 1-cup serving. (And we all know that's wildly unrealistic for something as tasty as mac and cheese.) On the other hand, Annie's has created a delicious mac & cheese with 25 percent less sodium than the leading brands, which may help you stay slim. Multiple studies have found that sodium intake is linked to obesity. Whether that's because sodium is typically found in processed foods or the salt is to blame is still up in the air, but researchers speculate that sodium alters our metabolism, changing the way in which we absorb fat, and can also make us crave and eat more fatty foods.
Annie's Lower Sodium Mac & Cheese
270 calories, 4 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 430 mg sodium, 47 g carbs (2 g fiber, 5 g sugar), 11 g protein
Horizon Classic Macaroni & Mild Cheddar Cheese, 1 cup (71 g)
260 calories, 2 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 600 mg sodium, 51 g carbs (1 g fiber, 4 g sugar), 9 g protein