Kraft Macaroni & Cheese could use a little comfort these days after the battering it has taken in social — and subsequently mainstream — media over its use of artificial dyes. Well, comfort has come from one of the most unlikely of sources: researchers at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
Of the 5,427 possible combinations of meals marketed to kids by 12 leading fast-food restaurants, the Kraft Mac & Cheese, apple slices and Nestle bottled water combo offered by Arby’s was deemed the healthiest by researchers in an update of the Rudd Center’s Fast Food F.A.C.T.S. (Food Advertising To Children and Teens Score). In fact, it took the Nos. two, three and four slots with different desserts or beverages and 10 of the Top 25 positions based on the total Nutrient Profile Index (NPI) score for each of the ingredients.
Marketing Daily’s Karlene Lukovitz reveals the major findings of the update to the Yale Rudd Center’s 2010 report today, pointing out that the industry overall “spent $4.6 billion to advertise ‘mostly unhealthy’ products, and children and teens remained key audiences for that advertising.” Indeed, most of the points made by the researchers are negative — “less than 1% of all kids' meal combinations met school-meal nutrition standards recommended by the Institute of Medicine,” Lukovitz reports.
There are 205 total calories in the Arby’s offering that tops “Best Kids’ Meal Combinations.” It contains 350 mgs of salt. The saturated fat and added sugar content is 30 calories, or 15% of the total.
By way of contrast, the “winner” for worst combination meal — a McDouble with French fries and sugar-sweetened soft drink (H-C Orange Lavaburst) from McDonald’s — has 880 total calories with 294 of them, or 33%, coming from saturated fat and added sugar. It also has 735 mg of sodium — about a third of the daily recommended intake for ages 9 to 13.
You’d think Arby’s would be trumpeting its domination of the healthiest foods list, right?
Here’s the mysterious reality. If you go to Arby’s Kids Menu home page, there’s no sign of Kraft Mac & Cheese. The top two items are a Jr. Turkey & Cheese Sandwich (which is actually No. 30 on the Rudd NPI list) and a Kids Jr. Roast Beef Sandwich (No. 31).
I popped Kraft Macaroni into the search box. The result? Nada. A Google search turns up a mention on the Arby’s Facebook page about the addition of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Apple Slices with Yogurt Dip to its Value Menu a couple of years ago but little else except this September 2011 piece by QSR’s Sam Oches in which Arby’s unveiled its new kids’ strategy.
Could be that there’s opportunity for another fast fooder here.
Kraft, meanwhile, announced last week that “it plans to remove artificial dyes from three macaroni and cheese varieties that come in kid-friendly shapes, a move that comes as people increasingly reach for foods they feel are natural,” as the AP’s Candice Choi reported. “The change doesn't affect Kraft's plain elbow-shaped macaroni and cheese with ‘original flavor,’” however.
The new recipes for the SpongeBob Squarepants, Halloween and winter shapes will contain spices such as paprika instead of artificial dyes. A Kraft FAQ on food colors points to 14 other Mac & Cheese options with “natural food colors or no colors.”
Kraft says that the reformulation is not a response to the petition on Change.org to “Stop Using Dangerous Food Dyes in Our Mac & Cheese” that has accumulated about 350,000 signatures, and attracted attention, since it went up last March. Petition organizer “Food Babe” Vani Hari posted a piece in April about her trip to Kraft headquarters to deliver the original batch of petitioners and Kraft’s wise decision to meet with her at the time.
“Kraft points out the product change includes added whole grains, and lowered sodium and saturated fat in an attempt to change the nutritional profiles of the three macaroni and cheese varieties,” Dallas Observer food blogger Scott Reitz points out. “They want to be clear: This has nothing to do with the Change.org petition. No way.”
"Parents have told us that they would like fun Mac & Cheese varieties with the same great taste, but with improved nutrition," company spokeswoman Lynne Galia tells CNN’s Jacque Wilson in an e-mail.
Hari is keeping the pressure on but there’s obviously a reason why Mac & Cheese has about 1.5 million likes on Facebook and is touted on a website bearing the domain name “youknowyouloveit.com.” Apparently, parents have all the more reason to do so lately other than the sheer practicality of dumping the contents of a box into boiling water and, seven to eight minutes later, serving it up with the heated cheesy sauce.