Shaped Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is superior to the original. It’s not just my infallible opinion that makes this true: The libidinal joy of consuming a product mechanically shaped like SpongeBob SquarePants should not need scientific justification, but for those that demand it, the objective excellence can be supported by the physics of cooking. And for what it’s worth, people on Reddit agree, too.
The specialty shaped Kraft mac and cheeses tend to come at a premium. Where the original often goes for a dollar a box, the shapes might be sold for $1.25. Even when they’re sold for the same price, a discrepancy remains — the original contains 7.25 ounces, while the shapes contain only 5.5. Would Kraft really be so bold as to charge more for less product? Yes, but I refuse to acknowledge this bleak reality. Mac and cheese is an innocent food, and thus, my attitude toward it shall match.
Shaped mac and cheese costs more per ounce because it is indeed a better product. The nutritional label reveals this truth. Unlike the “enriched macaroni” of the original, shaped contains “pasta.” What exactly is the difference? It’s unclear if there really is one, but it certainly sounds better. I like to think it’s comparable to the difference between “pasteurized prepared cheese product” and actual cheese.
Between the two macaronis, there are some slight ingredient variances as well; shaped contains enriched wheat flour and whole wheat flour, while the enriched macaroni of the original contains wheat flour, durum flour and various added vitamins. For what it’s worth, shaped macaroni contains these added vitamins, too, and lists more calcium and iron than the original. The ingredients of the powdered cheese sauce also vary slightly — shapes contain less than 2 percent milk in its powder, while original appears to contain none.
Whether these ingredients add up to better or different products is hard to say. Flavor-wise, they taste about the same. But flavor is only one component of the entire eating experience — of equal importance is texture and mouthfeel. The variety of structures within shaped mac and cheese allows for far more variety within each bite. While the original mac delivers a uniform eating experience, shaped pasta can provide a unique experience with nearly every bite.
“If you’re anything like me, it might be because the character shapes have a lot more structure than the tubes,” wrote u/meoaim in a post on r/NoStupidQuestions about why shaped tastes better than the original seven years ago. This “makes them a little chewier,” they wrote.
Taking proper care while cooking, one can even serve shaped macaroni and cheese perfectly al dente, maintaining some firmness and integrity to the shapes. Original, like most other tiny elbow macaronis, goes from crunchy to fully soft in too short a time to easily accomplish this.
In that same reddit thread, someone speculated that part of the shaped superiority is due to the fact that while you have fewer ounces of pasta in the box, the packet of cheese remains the same size. This is something I cannot verify, but it’s plausible. Even if the packet is proportional in size, the increased surface area of the shaped pasta, as well as the added holes they have, may enhance the flavor experience.
None of this is to say original Kraft mac and cheese is bad. It’s quite honestly suspicious in how good it is. Moreover, the cartoon-shaped pasta is probably a ploy to get us all hooked on carbs, salt and cheese from a young age, but at this point, I don’t care. Its vaguely abject quality only enhances my desire for it. When I was little, there was even a Blues Clues variety wherein some of the pasta was dyed baby-blue. It was as if that blue food coloring added a layer of umami to the meal. To this day, I dream of it.
Despite the actual scientific strengths of shaped mac and cheese, my allegiance to it feels largely emotional. We’re told to strive to eat real foods, and yet our grocery stores are filled with fake foods pretending to be clean or whole or healthy. Shaped boxed mac and cheese is none of these things, and refreshingly, doesn’t even try to be.