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What’s in This?: Velveeta Mac & Cheese

All 23 (well, kinda) ingredients in this golden slop, explained (yep, even sodium alginate)

We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put anything on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on, or near) themselves.

This edition: Velveeta Original Shells & Cheese — the brand preferred by the macaroni and cheese “enthusiast” in the video below — which is made from 23 separate ingredients (well, kinda) that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear on their website.

The Enriched Macaroni Product

1) Wheat Flour: The main component of this “enriched” macaroni product, wheat flour is a powder made from grinding, well, wheat. The trouble with enriched wheat flour, though, as we learned in our exploration of the many, many, many ingredients in the McDonald’s Big Mac, is that it tends to contain more calories than whole wheat flour, and the refining process it often undergoes can produce a chemical called alloxan, which has been found to induce diabetes in lab rats by destroying their pancreas.

2) Niacin: Since enriched flour products lose a ton of essential vitamins and minerals during processing, there are requirements for some to be added back in to prevent nutritional deficiencies — including niacin and everything else in this “Enriched Macaroni Product” section. Niacin is necessary for all sorts of bodily functions, but as a supplement, it can help lower cholesterol, ease arthritis and boost brain function.

3) Ferrous Sulfate: More commonly known as iron, ferrous sulfate is a vital component of hemoglobin, a protein needed to transport oxygen in the blood.

4) Thiamine Mononitrate: Another necessary vitamin, thiamine mononitrate helps the body convert carbohydrates (like these macaroni shells) and fat into energy

5) Riboflavin: Yet another critical vitamin, similar to thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin helps the body break down carbohydrates, proteins and fats to produce energy. It also allows oxygen to be used by the body, which is pretty damn important.

6) Folic Acid: The last of the vitamins added back into this enriched flour, folic acid helps the body produce and maintain new cells, and it prevents changes to DNA that could otherwise result in cancer.

The Cheese Sauce

1) Whey: Whey is essentially the liquid leftovers once milk has been curdled and strained. It can act as a source of protein and adds bulk to processed foods, like this macaroni and cheese.

2) Cheddar Cheese (Milk, Cheese Culture, Salt, Enzymes): As physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, explained to me during my analysis of Doritos, suspicious-sounding ingredients, like “cheese cultures” and “enzymes,” are actually nothing to worry about: “Starter cultures and enzymes are just used to accelerate the process of coagulating milk into cheese. Pretty much all cheese is made using some kind of enzyme to speed up the fermentation process.”

3) Milk: This comes out of cows.

4) Whey Protein Concentrate: Whey protein concentrate is usually added to processed cheeses, like this cheese sauce, because as studies show, it improves the body, texture and spreadability of cheese. 

5) Canola Oil: Canola oil contains healthy fats that may lower cholesterol and reduce your risk for heart disease, according to numerous studies. But Shanahan previously warned me that consuming too much vegetable oil (canola, sunflower or corn) — which is easy to do, considering she says roughly 45 percent of the average American’s calories come from refined oils — has serious repercussions, like fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and migraines. While it would be nearly impossible to eliminate vegetable oils from your diet altogether major contributors include processed foods, fried foods, frozen pizzas, cakes, cookies, margarines and coffee creamers — they should be consumed in moderation.

6) Sodium Phosphate: Sodium phosphate is a generic term that may refer to any sodium salt combined with phosphoric acid, which prevents the growth of mold and bacteria. These are usually added as texturizers and emulsifiers, which allows for the uniform dispersion of numerous ingredients. 

One study suggests phosphate additives like this one contribute to the prevalence of chronic kidney disease, and the FDA even issued a safety warning concerning the use of sodium phosphate products to treat constipation. In other words, this is definitely an ingredient to watch out for.

7) Milk Protein Concentrate: This is literally a concentrated version of the same proteins found in fresh milk. “It comes as a powder that can be added to products to keep them moist, boost their protein content, enhance flavor, extend shelf-life and improve texture,” Dagan Xavier, ingredient expert and co-founder of Label Insight, explained during my analysis of Cheez Whiz.

8) Salt: The Velveeta website claims one serving of its macaroni and cheese — about a third of the box — contains 880 milligrams of salt, although the label itself says 910 milligrams. Either way, when you consider that most people just boil and slam the whole freaking container, this is too much sodium — the American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams per day, and in an ideal world, they say that most adults should have no more than 1,500 milligrams. In other words, even on the less-than-ideal end, a whole box of this stuff would put you way over the limit. Of course, too much sodium has been linked to high blood pressure, as well as increased risk for heart disease and kidney disease.

9) Lactic Acid: The main sugar in milk, lactic acid is often added for acidic flavoring and can speed up the coagulation process of cheeses.

10) Sodium Alginate: This is a natural food additive, often extracted from brown algae, that essentially improves the texture by optimizing moisture levels.

11) Sorbic Acid: A preservative used for its antimicrobial properties, sorbic acid is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA.

12) Oleoresin Paprika: This gives the cheese its golden-yellow color.

13) Enzymes: Remember, these just help the milk coagulate into cheese.

14) Cheese Culture: Again, these work similar to enzymes.

15) Annatto Extract: Like oleoresin paprika, this contributes to the color of the cheese.

16) Milkfat: Milkfat is the fatty portion of milk, which is usually added to processed foods as a means of adding heartiness and oftentimes a sort of creamy texture.

17) Natural Flavor: Natural flavors are literally flavors derived from an actual food source — i.e., cheese flavoring taken from real cheese.

The Takeaway

While there are a couple red-flag ingredients, like sodium phosphate, the bigger problems with this macaroni and cheese are the large amounts of salt, calories, carbs and unhealthy fats, hence why Velveeta earned last place on our health ranking of boxed macaronis. This macaroni and cheese has virtually no redeemable nutritious value (besides an okay dose of protein), and a bunch of fattening components that could seriously damage your heart if consumed on a regular basis.

Sorry, man who only ate mac and cheese for 17 years.