Powdered cheese is an astounding innovation. Methods of dehydrating cheese are “a means of preserving cheese solids under conditions to which natural cheese would not normally be subjected,” according to The Fundamentals of Cheese Science. Some feel quite natural, like the dried, crumbled Parmesan that may have adorned your dinner table or pizzeria counter. But others, like the powdered cheddar that adorns popcorn, puffs, and boxed mac and cheese, seem downright alien.
James Lewis Kraft won a patent for a cheese-processing method in 1916, and because of that, his blue box of mac and cheese dinner can be found around the world. When you first became familiar with powdered cheese, it probably poured neon orange out of a Kraft packet, and in no way could you trace it back to a hypothetical cow. It was “processed” food, cheap, meant for unsophisticated palates (i.e., you likely first ate it as a kid). But then the blue box got some company, and against all odds, powdered cheese became an ingredient with a halo of health, associated with a brand ubiquitous with “organic,” natural, homemade, and all the other things powdered cheese was not. Powdered cheese, in other words, met Annie’s.
Annie’s boxed mac and cheese is a go-to dinner for parents and college students alike. It’s the flagship product for a brand that boasted $400 million in sales in 2017 thanks to its successful image as an “actually good for you” choice, or at least a quick option that’s not the worst. Annie’s was founded in 1989, at a time when low-fat, high-fiber, and “natural” diets were all the rage, and was built off another “healthy” snack — Smartfood. In 1985, Ann Withey and her husband, Andrew Martin, along with partner Ken Meyers, were trying to demonstrate the abilities of a reclosable package Martin and Meyers had invented. Withey filled the packaging with a batch of cheddar popcorn, using her own white cheese mix, not the neon stuff. ‘’The popcorn turned out better than the package,’’ Meyers told the New York Times, and they began selling it in grocery stores in New England.
The group called the product Smartfood, and it rode the wave of ’80s diet culture and the growing desire for “natural” snacks to become a national hit. “Because popcorn is a high-fiber, whole-grain food, it is one of the rare snacks to earn the blessing of diet authorities, provided it’s not made in oil, drenched with butter and doused with salt,” wrote the Times. Smartfood had the same calories as a potato chip, but its branding emphasized its wholeness. It’s “unadulterated food, whole food, perceived by the customer as a natural product,” Meyers told the Boston Globe in 1987. (Though, let’s be real, a slice of fried potato is as natural as a piece of popcorn coated with cheese.) Meyers specified it wasn’t health food, but it wasn’t not health food: “We set out to offer a better, smarter alternative to other snack foods,” he said.
By 1989, the team sold Smartfood to Frito-Lay for $15 million. Withey put the money into her next project, which would become Annie’s Homegrown. The brand started with Withey adding her powdered white cheddar — a combination of white cheddar cheese, corn oil, buttermilk, whey, and salt — to the noodles from a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese. Given the success of Smartfood’s “healthy” branding over the other cheddar popcorns on the market, Withey gambled that customers would similarly enjoy a natural boxed mac and cheese over “artificial” Kraft, and advertised the product’s lack of synthetic coloring, additives, or preservatives. She was right. In 2014, General Mills bought Annie’s Homegrown for $820 million.
Kraft and Annie’s aren’t that different, nutritionally. In fact, a box of Annie’s shells and white cheddar has 20 more calories than a box of Kraft Original mac and cheese, and comparable amounts of sodium and fiber, though Annie’s has fewer ingredients (and more organic ones) overall. But the nutrition isn’t exactly the point for Smartfood, and it isn’t for Annie’s either. That may be the cover, but the real point is getting to feel virtuous while scarfing down a bowl of cheesy pasta. For some consumers, the turnoff of Kraft wasn’t that it was made with cheese powder or prepackaged sauce, it’s that the cheese was traffic-cone orange. It felt not of this planet, obviously artificial in a culture that was quickly blaming all its dietary woes on science and mass production. Annie’s offered an alternative.
America’s reliance on shelf-stable foods emerged during the Great Depression and World War II, when new technology arose to dehydrate, preserve, can, and freeze pantry staples. By the 1950s, these preserved foods — and their cousin, fast foods touted for their assembly-line uniformity — were seen as the cutting edge, the reliable and “safe” choice for one’s family.
By the 1980s and 1990s, the public health ramifications of fast food were known, the word “chemical” became the enemy, and people were looking for natural and organic alternatives. But it was hard to go back to the made-from-scratch dinners of yore, so now, convenience foods — like a box of pasta with an artificial flavor-free cheese sauce — had to be natural as well as quick. Annie’s shells and white cheddar mac and cheese would be the first of its products to be certified organic, in 1999. In the following years, it would push its wholesome image further as customers’ desires dictated: It promised to prioritize partnerships with organic dairies, make its packaging and cans BPA-free, and use mostly organic but always non-GMO ingredients.
Those early tenets of Annie’s are now commonplace throughout a food industry looking to cash in: By 2016, the natural food and drinks market was valued at almost $80 billion worldwide. That same year, Kraft revealed that it had secretly been fucking with us for a while: For a few months, it changed the recipe for its iconic Blue Box mac and cheese, replacing artificial colors with turmeric and annatto (the latter had long been used by Annie’s as a coloring agent), and ditching the artificial preservatives and flavors. Kraft said it had heard from customers that they wanted more “natural” ingredients, and decided to do a nationwide blind taste test. Aside from anyone who perhaps was allergic to turmeric, it seemed to go well. That recipe is now the permanent one used by Kraft.
As much as it shouldn’t be, food is moralized. What’s “good” or “bad” changes all the time, but there is always a divide that makes people feel bad about themselves for eating things they enjoy. Kraft is delicious. Kraft is what we want. But we are made to feel we shouldn’t want it because it’s unnatural and artificial.
Annie’s has the veneer of health to it, if not health itself. But most importantly, it acknowledges that making all these choices is hard, that it takes work to lead a “natural” life, and meets consumers on their level. (It also made natural and organic food more available to a mass market at a similar price to the “regular” options; you can get both Annie’s and Kraft for 99 cents a box at Target.) Its products seem to convey the idea that you don’t have to buy locally grown arugula and grass-fed eggs and spend 30 minutes assembling a salad. By choosing Smartfood over Doritos, or by choosing Annie’s over Kraft, you’re choosing something better (not great, but better) for your body, your family, and your planet. Sure, it might not be the “best,” but let yourself off the hook. At least you’re trying.
In a sane society, food should be nutritious, sustainable, and easy to make. It may not be structurally so different from Kraft, but by proving there was a market for “organic junk,” Annie’s pushed the market in that direction. It’s not perfect, but now more kids have a taste for a closer-to-natural cheese product. And Smartfood still slaps.
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.