Some of my best childhood memories are paired with a steamy bowl of mediocre mac and cheese. In fact, to this day, I find myself craving the cheese powder that my parents used to sprinkle over the boxed macaroni before I figured out how to do it myself.
Still, I rarely actually indulge these cravings, because my body no longer appreciates cheese powder — and for good reason. A 2014 study found that the cheese powder in most mac-and-cheese mixes contains extremely high levels of phthalates, which can reduce levels of male hormones, like testosterone, and have been linked to genital birth defects in infant boys and behavioral problems in older children
That’s right: Cheese powder is loaded with chemicals that will make your balls stop working and interfere with your development, both of which are further exacerbated in children (meaning parents might want to reconsidering feeding this stuff to their kids).
Surely, though, there must be some way for me to enjoy the occasional nostalgic bowl of lackluster mac and cheese without ruining generations of my offspring. To find out, I asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, to help me rank popular brands of mac and cheese by how unhealthy they are — from somewhat unhealthy to “I’m-drowning-in-cheese-powder-that-has-now-given-me-low-T.”
Let’s do this…
1. Upton’s Naturals Ch’eesy Mac: “This has the largest serving size with the fewest calories and lowest levels of sodium,” Hunnes explains (one serving contains 270 calories, 300 milligrams of sodium and 10 grams of protein). “The other nice thing about Upton’s is that it’s vegan, and the ingredients are recognizable and non-carcinogenic. Also, this serving size might actually fill you up: Many of the others are approximately one cup, which everyone will eat more than, but this serving size is about one-and-a-half or two cups.”
2. Back to Nature Macaroni & Cheese: “For its serving size, this has the next fewest calories, and it’s still fairly low in sodium while containing a good amount of protein,” Hunnes says. (One serving contains 260 calories, 500 milligrams of sodium and 10 grams of protein). “However, since this has cow milk in it, the casein [animal protein] may be tumor promoting. Plus, the small portion size might not make you feel very full. I like that it has a lot of organic ingredients, though.”
3. Annie’s Organic Classic Macaroni & Cheese: “The calories are fairly low, and it has a decent amount of protein,” Hunnes says. (One serving contains 270 calories, 520 milligrams of sodium and 10 grams of protein.) Hunnes also mentions that it’s made from cow milk, “but it has organic ingredients.”
4. Whole Foods 365 Organic Macaroni & Cheese: “This is fourth because it’s a bit higher in calories per portion size, but it’s organic, which is a boon,” Hunnes says. (One serving contains 260 calories, 550 milligrams of sodium and nine grams of protein.) “It also has cow milk in it and might not be uber filling because of its small portion size.” As Hunnes mentioned earlier, the portion size for this mac and cheese (and many others on this list) is about one cup.
5. Horizon Cheesy Mac: “Again, this has a small portion size for the calories and sodium content,” Hunnes explains. (One serving contains 270 calories, 550 milligrams of sodium and eight grams of protein.) “It’s not much different than the Whole Foods 360 mac and cheese, and I almost tied them, but I didn’t because I don’t like that maltodextrin [a corn starch] is the second ingredient in this product, meaning it’s much more processed compared to when maltodextrin is lower down on the ingredients list, which it is in Whole Foods 360 mac and cheese.”
6. Banza Chickpea Mac & Cheese: “I rated this one below some of the others because of the filler and non-organic ingredients,” Hunnes says. “Also, it has a very high sodium and saturated fat contents for its portion size [saturated fat may increase your risk of heart disease]. But it’s protein content was very high because of the chickpea pasta.” One portion contains 300 calories, 770 milligrams of sodium, five grams of saturated fat and 18 grams of protein.
7. Trader Joe’s Macaroni & Cheese: “This actually has a lower calorie content than some of the others, but it’s not organic,” says Hunnes. (One serving contains 270 calories, 500 milligrams of sodium and 10 grams of protein.) “Also, with a grain of salt, it’s always important to double the numbers (calories and sodium) if you eat more than the actual portion size.” The portion size, once again, is about one cup.
8. Daiya Cheezy Mac: “As a plant-based consumer, I wanted this one to be higher, but it has too many fillers and other ingredients that are both not organic and highly processed,” Hunnes says. “So I had to rate it lower on the list.” One serving contains 300 calories, 580 milligrams of sodium and only five grams of protein.
9. Velveeta Shells & Cheese and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese (tied): “These have the smallest portion sizes with the most calories and sodium — Velveeta is even slightly worse in that sense,” Hunnes explains. (One serving of Kraft contains 350 calories, 720 milligrams of sodium and nine grams of protein, whereas one serving of Velveeta contains 360 calories, 880 milligrams of sodium and 13 grams of protein.) “These are non-organic, they contain cow milk and are highly processed. Having two portions of Velveeta would put some people almost over their sodium limit for the day — and I’m still not sure that they’d feel sufficiently full.”
*wipes powdered-cheese-covered hands on jeans*
Welp, there goes another fond childhood memory.