When Kraft announced last year it would axe artificial ingredients from its mac and cheese, some consumers expressed concern. Big food companies from Nestle to Taco Bell were axing artificial ingredients from their products left and right as consumers demanded "natural" foods, but would the changes affect the taste of the iconic blue box, a product that many Americans have grown up on?
Kraft announced that the revamped product would hit store shelves in January — but unbeknownst to customers, it quietly began selling the artificial-ingredient-free mac and cheese in December. (Only consumers who paid careful attention to the tiny print of the ingredients list on the back of the box might have seen the change.) Today, Kraft issued a self-laudatory press release revealing its little experiment — which it has deemed "the world's largest blind taste test" — and proclaiming that "fifty million boxes later ... people didn’t notice a difference."
What, exactly, is different about the "new" mac and cheese? Kraft nixed the artificial dyes (yellow 5 and 6) and replaced them with paprika, annatto, and turmeric to maintain the product's signature, eerily-bright orange color; it has also removed artificial preservatives.
"We constantly talk to our consumers and get feedback from them, and we knew they wanted to feel better about the ingredients they serve their families," Greg Guidotti, vice president of meals at Kraft Heinz, tells Eater. "We saw an opportunity in the marketplace to improve our ingredient line, but we didn't want make the change before we had the right recipe." While the company only announced its intentions to oust artificial ingredients from mac and cheese in April, Guidotti says they've in fact been working on the new recipe for more than three years.
The idea to do a surreptitious switcheroo with the new mac and cheese was born out of the skeptical consumer response to Kraft's initial announcement that it was changing the recipe. "When we announced in April [that we were changing the recipe] there was excitement but also concern, so we saw it as an opportunity," Guidotti says. "We knew the recipe still tasted just as good as you expect from Kraft, but whenever you say you've changed something, consumers will say it probably won’t taste as good. Since we knew it tasted exactly the same, we wanted our fans to experience that for themselves without even being prompted."
To coincide with its big reveal, the mac and cheese is getting a new packaging design that boasts of its new artificial-ingredient-free status; the company is also launching a gigantic marketing campaign starring late-night host Craig Kilborn that will include TV spots, social media, and customer giveaways, among other aspects. Whether it's removing yellow 5 from its products or giving away free body pillows shaped like giant macaroni noodles (really), Kraft clearly has plenty of tricks up it sleeves to help ensure that its customers can still feel good about relying on its nutritionally dubious convenience foods.
As the New Republic points out, a box of Kraft mac and cheese "will still contain around 780 calories, 75 calories from fat, 9 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and 1,710 milligrams of sodium (a whopping 72 percent of the daily value). And that's before you add the butter." But now that the box can legally boast that it's "natural," kale-loving millennials can trick themselves into feeling slightly better about eating an entire box for dinner.