Let us take thy humble box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, or the "Kraft Dinner" as some still choose to call it. As a child of the 60s I have wolfed down many hundreds, if not thousands, of boxes of Kraft dinners in my lifetime. I was practically weaned on the stuff, as my parents nourished my young self on boxes of it from the Air Force commissary (at a mere 8 cents per box!). And to this day I still find myself munching Kraft's dinner on a regular basis, even if healthier and more sophisticated varieties beckon for my food dollar. So Kraft has a life-long patsy in me for its pasta doodles.
As the torchbearer comfort food, Kraft's seven-ounce box of dried elbow macaroni and powdered sauce transforms itself with milk and butter into a bright orange, savory-cheese-goop with noodles. The almost day-glo coloring of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese dinner is its distinguishing mark from the hundreds of cut-rate, wanna-be imitators that clutter the shelves of grocery stores around the globe.
But Kraft Corp has always seemed to suffer from an inferiority complex about their li’l box of pasta-based profit. Sure, it probably rakes in major margins for Kraft, but for unfathomable reasons Kraft has continued to try to earn some respect for their cheesy ‘dinner’.
Since a side-trip to Wiki-land will detail the history of the Kraft’s culinary gift to mankind, I won’t repeat the extensive story here. But once upon a time the term ‘Kraft Dinner’ applied to a modest line of boxed pasta-based products, including Spaghetti and Chicken-Noodle Dinners. Alas the only one to survive the test o’ time and flourish was their cheese’n’noodle product. Of course in other non-US countries it’s still referred to as Kraft Dinner, but Stateside it’s just Kraft Macaroni & Cheese (the “Dinner” qualifier is now listed in minuscule type).
In the mists of history, say back in the 1950s and 60s, Kraft Dinner was marketed as a convenience food - “Home Cooked in 7 minutes!” trumped the adverts, boasting elegant meals combining Spam or Vienna Sausages with Kraft's yellowy pasta. During the faux-crises of the 70s, their boast was “Kraft Dinners Make Ends Meet” with an emphasis on frugal meal ideas for thrift-minded consumers;
But from the 70s onward Kraft has swollen the Mac’n’Cheese line to include Deluxe variations and a few twists like Spriral and Shell-shaped variations so your friendly neighborhood grocer's prepared foods section looks rather like this, infested with over a dozen varieties of Kraft's pasta-stuff;
Still Kraft is bound and determined to change the perception of the pasta-munching public that its quickie dinners can have style and sophistication, and though they've succeeded in some ways, others have been almost comic in their aplomb.
Pasta Done Posh
Kraft’s ongoing attempt to make humble their Mac’n’Cheese product a bit more ‘up-market’ have largely been failures. There are boxed varieties such as ‘Premium White Cheddar’ and ‘Premium Thick’n’Creamy’ (no attempt to bluff you into what kind of cheese flavor it might be?). But these snooty variations still require you to supply the milk and butter to make the dinner happen. If you don’t wish to mix your own, you can steer toward the Deluxe varieties. These originally included constituted cheese-glop in a tin can, now in foil pouches. But even these Deluxe dinners don’t carry any pretense of sophistication - sorry, but anything based around Velveeta ‘flavor’ ain’t getting any respect! The Deluxe varieties are simply branded with such terse flavors as “Four Cheese” and “Sharp Cheddar”.
Perhaps the most laughable attempt by Kraft to get some culinary respect was the ‘Bistro Deluxe’ line which featured, according to Kraft, “Grown-Up Flavors”.
Originally produced in shiny pinch-top plastic sacks, these noble attempts at taste sophistication were a grande flop. Kraft had the misplaced hubris to recommended consuming their bistro delicacies with wine!
“Perhaps Madame would prefer a bottle of Maddog 20/20 with your Bistro Deluxe?”
To my knowledge four upmarket flavors were issued in these gleaming bags; Sundried Tomato Parmesan, Classic Cheddar, Creamy Portobello Mushroom and Three Cheese Italiano. The later was the only one I recall actually enjoying, so perhaps I was too much of a rube to appreciate the subtle delicacies of the intricate flavors? When the bagged versions failed, Kraft repackaged them to look like their other boxed Deluxe dinner cousins and simplified the names to ‘Creamy Mushroom’ and ‘Cheese Italiano’, but to no avail, the consumer passed them by for the old classic standby. Whatever remains of Kraft’s Bistro products are likely gathering dust in grocery outlet stores awaiting the passing of their expiration dates.
Taking a turn for the extreme, Kraft zagged the other direction and decided if the posh style failed, they’d instead pump in some extra artificial flavor, coloring and salt and unleash a line of “Explosion” versions. While getting your extreme on in your cheesy pasta, you’re also losing 25% worth of food (only 150g instead of regular Mac’n’Cheese’ 206g). Perhaps for the young generation it’s a thrill for their jaded taste buds, but I found the flavors so saturated and salty that I could hardly finish the box. Since they’re still on the shelf after some years, one can only assume the kids are inhaling the heavily flavor-imbued gunk.
Making another noble attempt to cater us wheezing mature farts, Kraft has charted a different course for appeasing high-end consumer of Mac’n’Cheese called “Homestyle”. Returning to the bag-format of the Bistro line, but much bigger, the Homestyle varieties are designed to appeal to the deep-seated need for home-baked comfort food. The simple truth is these Homestyle dinners are a subtle confidence trick, and the end result is startlingly bland. The cheese sauce mix is sauteed in a white goo, then if the consumer wishes, the resulting glop can be baked along with your noodles, not simply mixed in the saucepan. Worse still, the ‘bread crumb’ topping tastes like inert bits of nothing (or as George Carlin would have called them “little beige blisters of air”) and only make the final product look like it was topped with floor sweepings, though far less tasty. Currently there are three flavors, Cheddar, Four-Cheese and Creamy Parmesan Alfredo. The original Old World Italian flavor didn’t last too long, so it would seem Kraft reformulated it? I flubbed for two of these Homestyle “flavors” and after several bites knew that Kraft had ascended to new heights. There was so much ado about careful preparation for a product that yielded something so tasteless that it was some kind of industrialized food-as-art concept - spend lots of time making it and then throw it away untasted.
The Family Fraud
Having purchased so many of these lusciously horrid boxes of comfort food, some of the dried cheese-sauce has fallen from my old eyes and I’ve noticed how Kraftcorp has cleverly instigated ways to maximize profits by subtle bilking of the Mac’n’Cheese consumer.
The first, and most blatant, in the Family Size fraud. When patronizing my local Vons grocery with a hankering for some ‘original flavor’ Kraft Dinner I was torn between the standard 7oz box or the brawny Family Size package. Opening an eye I noticed that the Family Size box was $3.25 (for 14oz) and the regular price for the standard box was $1.45 for 7oz. Well, you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to realize that two boxes of the 7oz would only run you $2.90. So Kraft crams two boxes worth of Mac’n’Cheese product into a box about 2/3 larger than the 7oz box and instead of giving John Q. Customer a break on the price, Kraft charges you a 12% premium. Viva La Kraft! They just squeezed plenty o’ extra cheddar outta you chump - lower packaging costs and and nicking you extra for the same amount of product!
Can we suppose that Kraft is charging you more for the convenience of using less packaging, so in the long run you’ll lower your carbon footprint and put less cardboard into landfills - Kraft must respect our Earth Mother in ways I never could have fathomed.
But even with that tasty little scam, Kraft seems to be marketing their stolid original flavor as a loss-leader, as the other variations of the Kraft Dinner are significantly more expensive. Typically the 7oz box of ‘original flavor’ Mac’n’Cheese is only around a buck a box, especially if you buy in these keen boxcar-style “Value Packs”, which contain five boxes of the ‘original flavor’ wrapped in a thin plastic carapace. So the price of the old standby is still relatively modest (though the prices of the generic and store-brand varieties that infest most ‘pasta dinner’ sections of your supermarket make Kraft’s varieties seem like luxury items).
However, if you’ve ever had a hankering for Kraft’s Spirals version of Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, you’re paying a lot more for twisting pasta. At my local Vons the Spirals dinner was $2.10, for 5oz box (almost 2 ounces less than the standard macaroni box) - that’s 65¢ more - and it’s the same ‘flavor’ - so apparently those spiral-shaped noodles have much greater manufacturing costs...right! The same applies to the Thick 'n' Creamy and Three Cheese varieties - which were once branded as "Premium", but lost that distinguishing mark when Kraft re-designed the whole line (see below). However the price remains just as premium as before.
Kraft Smiles & The World Smiles With You
As mega-corporations are wont to do in order to keep their brand ‘fresh’ in the mind of the consuming public (and so keep the stockholders at bay) is to do a bit of rebranding of the same old thing. With that in mind, Kraft went about re-inventing the image of Macaroni and Cheese via a new packaging concept and advertising campaign centered the catch-phrase “You Know You Love It”.
Kraft created a new icon for their pasta-based product - a piece of elbow macaroni in the shape of a smile - pure genius soaked in cheese sauce! Recalling the Smiley Face fad of the 70s, this new swoosh-style logo was plastered on billboards all over smoggy Southern California, and so I assume the rest of the country. Of course Kraft played it safe by eschewing the temptation of reformulating their core Mac’n’Cheese products and just put the same ol’ thing in a brand new box. But the patter they placed on the back of the new packaging reads like it was scrawled by a dairy-addled Lord Buckley. So one has to wonder if this is yet another attempt to appeal to Mac’n’Cheese’s core market segment - those darned macaroni chompin’ youngsters?
For an excellent and insightful appraisal of Kraft's marketing approach, please check out Skylar Challand's "Parallels: Kraft Dinner" article at Idsgn.org
A Cheesier, Healthier Kraft
When wolfing down a forkful of Kraft’s radioactive-orange noodles, your mind is not typically concerned with the healthful benefits/liabilities of the Mac’n’Cheese product. You’re pretty much concerned with getting the next mound of that warm, salty, ‘cheesiest’ stuff down your throat - perhaps while asking yourself if you should have made the big Family Size box instead of the smaller box (between burps, of course).
Probably the most hilarious way that industrialized food manufacturers belittle the unhealthier aspects of their products is by making their serving sizes improbably minuscule on Nutrition Facts label. And such is the case with Mr. Kraft and its’ Mac’n’Cheese line.
Kraft’s core product, the ‘original flavor’ version, duffs you into the notion that a standard serving is about 2.5 ounces - perhaps for a three year old child - yes, but most would easily consider the full 7oz box a single serving. Outta the box you’re getting about 10 grams of fat and a little less than 800 calories - not too bad. Of course that’s before you add a little 2% milk and 1/4 cup o’ margarine. Milk only adds a tiny 35 calories and a gram or two of fat. But heap in those four tablespoons of butter-esque-spread product and welcome to at least 40 extra grams of fat. Yikes, prepare your 7oz box of ‘original flavor’ and imagine the rivulets of 50-60 grams of comfort-food fat coursing through your veins! Not to mention about 1200 calories to boot. To it’s credit Kraftcorp lists (in tiny type) a “Light Prep” variation that cuts down on the blubber by half, but only shaves a coupe hundred calories in the process.
Curiously Kraft’s 14oz Deluxe varieties have the same amount of calories at the prepared 7oz box does, and weirdly enough 10 grams less fat! That means ounce-per-ounce the deluxe varieties have half the calories and less than half the fat as the standard one does. Even going the "light-prep" route doesn't save much in comparison.
But c’mon, if you were interested in healthy eating you’d be munching raw broccoli and not Kraft’s warm’n’gooey concoction. But in these days of 'green living' and organic lifestyles even Kraft is feeling the need to make its pasta products seem a little more healthy. Its first attempt at a healthier variety was of its Mac’n’Cheese dinner was called “Supermac & Cheese”, boasting extra vitamins, calcium and even ‘whole grains’. But it’s not all whole grain - but about 50% whole grain - kind of kooky - sort of like buying a ‘whole grain’ version of Froot Loops - you pay more for less product, and delude yourself into thinking that its better for you somehow. The Supermac didn’t last long, and Kraft returned to a more modest labeled “Whole Grain Macaroni & Cheese” variety. The latest attempt to appeal to heath-minded soccer moms is called “Veggie Pasta” Mac’n’Cheese - with a serving of vegetables snuck into the mix somehow. But Kraft will be Kraft and the Veggie Pasta is simply some cauliflower powder mixed into the pasta and a smaller portion of the standard "original flavor" cheese sauce. So is Veggie Pasta healthier - hardly - and all you're doing is paying a more for less with a little dried vegetable powder thrown in.
With the meteoric rise of healthier pasta brands like Annie’s and Amy’s, Kraft and other mega-food producers have taken two paths, either acquiring these upstart heathy-food companies or (as was the case with Kraft) creating a faux-health food line to compete with the others. Kraft’s Back To Nature was so obviously a fake brand that I can only wonder how much the bluff works, but since Kraft’s shill brand is still on the shelves, they must be shifting a few boxes of their apparently healthier varieties of Mac’n’Cheese. This allows Kraft to attempt to compete in both the grocery store and the health food store. I recently fell for the Back To Nature scam and purchased a box, finding that it was a lot saltier than the original brand. Even if it’s “organic” I rather doubt there’s much health benefit to organic goopy cheese sauce over the regular Kraft version. The truth be told both Kraft's original and Back To Nature products are manufactured in plants the size of football stadiums, so are just slightly different products of mega-scale industrialization. I’d hardly be shocked to find they’re made from the same ingredients, with Kraft hoping nobody will notice as they pay lots more for a supposedly healthier product at the local Whole Foods Market.
Fad Flavors & Farewell
Not wanting to end this stupid prattle about Kraft’s pasta products on slightly serious note, I’ve decided to conclude with a small homage to the silliest of Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese offerings, the ‘tie-in’.
Whether its Sponge-Bob or Toy Story, Kraft can craft pasta in improbable shapes to look vaguely like characters from such movies and television shows. The problem is these rather ugly ‘shapes’ are so full of tiny nooks that it’s hard to get the cheese sauce evenly spread throughout and you wind up with bits of dried cheese powder inside these eccentric cut-outs of pasta. I’m reminded of a Gallagher routine where he berates makers of dried dog food for making shapes that match their flavors - Fido doesn’t care, he just mushes them all together. So logically, what kid knows whether he’s munching on a Squidward shape, a Buzz Lightyear shape or Phineas & Ferb - it’s all the same blocky pasta covered in cheesy goop? But it's yet another clever way Kraftco gets you to happily purchase less product for more money.
The only thing that’s surprised me is that Kraft has yet to try putting different colored pasta into their product - then you can have a Froot-Loops style pasta product - Veggie Loops & Cheese - remember you read it here first!
OK, if you’ve made it this far you must be yawning, I know I am. So that’s enough cerebration about Krafty stuff. I’ll leave you with my favorite ‘recipe’ for consuming their cheesiest food product....
Mac’n’Cheese a la Weatherfish
1 Box of Kraft Deluxe Four Cheese Macaroni & Cheese Dinner
1/2 Cup of frozen green peas
1/4 Cup raw chopped white onion
1/4 Cup raw chopped green bell pepper
1. Prepare Kraft Four Cheese Dinner according to directions on package
2. Boil/microwave frozen peas
3. Combine Mac & Cheese with peas. Mix thoroughly. Add the chopped onions and peppers to taste (I like a lot of both of 'em!)
Serves 8 people (assuming the serving size is Kraft’s standard 2.5oz - har-har!) but I’ll easily wolf down the whole darned thing, just remember to wheelbarrow me back to bed afterwards ;-)