The box designs were similar: both had the same deep-space blue background and depicted a spoonful of the soothingly familiar yet preternaturally orange noodles. And yet, the differences were clear enough: the organic (organic written in green script) steered away from the hyperbolic claim of being the “cheesiest” and sported the USDA organic seal of approval (which holds about as much esteem among organic types these days as the Oprah Book Club seal holds among the literati).
It was only a matter of time before a processed-foods juggernaut like Kraft entered the organic market, potentially laying waste to smaller competitors. When the company first announced that it would offer organic macaroni and cheese, I was ambivalent. Yet I secretly hoped that the new product would offer a cheaper and tastier alternative to pricey health-food varieties like Annie’s Homegrown, with its child-attracting bunny logos. So when the Kraft organic mac arrived in my local grocery store, I grabbed a box, along with a box of the original, and took both home to the ultimate taste-tester: my child, age five, a connoisseur of orange pasta mixes.
Once they were prepared, there was no chance of mixing them up. The organic noodles were paler and firmer than their goopier, brighter kin. My daughter tucked into both bowls and at first failed to find any difference. “Both are good!” she enthused. But as time went on, she liked the organic kind better, finally eschewing the original altogether. I had to agree: the organic had a “cheesier” flavor and better texture. This was surprising because its cooking directions called for less milk and butter. (Actually, the original called for milk and “spread.”) The original mac’s ingredient list was longer and had creepier, harder to pronounce items (sodium tripolyphosphate) and two different types of yellow (not orange!) dye. Organic varieties use annatto for color.
The real irony about organic processed foods is that the point of processed foods has never been about nutrition, but rather about cost (low) and convenience (high). After all, Kraft introduced macaroni and cheese in 1937, and it became popular during World War II rationing. And yet for many Americans, the point of eating mac and cheese in the blue box is pure nostalgia. Surf the Internet’s few macaroni-and-cheese fan sites and you’ll find paeans to Kraft’s original mac. My favorite line reads: “Together through the darkness, we seek the warmth and light of its unearthly orange glow.” This and other odes have been posted on lovemarks.com, a site devoted to brands that inspire “loyalty beyond reason.”
Of course, a quest for junk without guilt is also beyond reason: I was willing to pay roughly 73 percent more for 17 percent less of a product that despite being organic was still — let’s face it — junk. (I paid $1.89 for a 6-ounce box of organic mac and $1.09 for a 7.25-ounce box of the original.) Why don’t I just take the extra twenty minutes and make the homemade stuff? I could blame it on lack of time but the truth is that I, like my daughter, occasionally want to ditch the food police for a joy ride.