7 Highest Quality And 5 Lowest Quality Boxed Mac And Cheese

Mac and cheese is such a staple of modern dinner table fare, it even gets its own nickname. With the most common form of this comfort dish coming from a shelf-stable box, it can be easy to dismiss boxed mac and cheese as a secondary selection, a pale imitation of the homemade dish. But not every box is part of the skip-it club. As with most mass-produced foods, the question of quality comes down to the brand on the box in the company that creates it.

If you look closely enough, you're bound to find mac and cheese on both sides of the quality balance. We pulled out our digital magnifying glass and researched the ingredients on a host of boxed mac and cheese packages to see which names are the cream of the crop and which are stuck to the bottom of the pan. We found a surprising number of high-quality mac and cheese brands you could sneakily pass off as your own homemade recipe, as well as a collection of lesser-quality options — some of which bear the most familiar brand names in the industry.

Highest Quality: Annie's

Annie's Kitchen is a brand that focuses on providing nutritious ready-to-make food with children in mind. The company uses at least some organic ingredients in every product; most of the remaining ingredients are recognizable whole-food elements, with a few familiar additives included for shelf stability. This makes reading the label on Annie's Classic Cheddar Mac & Cheese a refreshing change of pace from the usual chemical formula offered by mass-produced food items and places this winsome box squarely in the high-quality category.

Organic wheat features in Annie's macaroni, which gets the quality comparison off to a very fine start. A blend of whey, cream, cheese, and butter help matters by making a sauce with easily recognized features; nonfat milk and annatto for coloring make appearances as well. There do appear to be unnamed natural flavors used as well, but with so many high-quality elements outweighing this, the unexpected presence isn't enough to diminish the thoughtful composition the family-friendly Annie's mac and cheese offers.

Lowest Quality: Kraft

The famous blue box featuring orange-golden elbow noodles that started the whole easy-to-prepare mac and cheese movement belongs to Kraft, of course. This easy dinner solution dates all the way back to 1937, when the package first hit the market. The iconic Kraft Mac & Cheese formula has become synonymous with quick and creamy cheese-drenched pasta that kids love to eat and parents love to prepare. But popularity doesn't always indicate quality, and this massive player on the mac and cheese game board is one of the lesser choices you can make when trying to feed your family. Though it's a ready grab at almost every grocery retailer in the U.S., its ingredient profile is a study in questionable choices.

There are a slew of chemical-based add-ins in Kraft's well-known original creation, including both sodium phosphate, sodium triphosphate, and calcium phosphate. These are generally safe for consumption according to the FDA, though anyone with kidney disease and bowel issues is advised to avoid exposure — not a great feature for a mass-produced food. In the pageant of high-quality ingredients, this box is an also-ran. Even tossing add-ins into the Kraft blend to upgrade your mac and cheese won't diminish the fact that the base ingredients could be better — and, in fact are better, in other boxed mac and cheese produced by companies with an eye on nourishment rather than ease of use.

Highest Quality: Amy's

As one of the most creative health food brands on the market, Amy's has done a great deal to create a stellar reputation for offering quality products. With lines of refrigerated, frozen, canned, and boxed foods, the company has an expansive catalog promoting the possibilities for healthful dining that doesn't require much prep work. Having mac and cheese among its portfolio is an inspired move that introduces eagle-eyed shoppers to a more mindful way to enjoy a dish that's as nourishing as it is soothing.

Every ingredient on the back of Amy's Frozen Macaroni and Cheese is a recognizable food item, from the unbleached durum wheat flour and water that make up the organic pasta to the organic milk, butter, and white cheddar in the cheese sauce. There's nothing on the list that doesn't belong in mac and cheese; with only seven actual ingredients in total, this boxed meal is a whole-food find for mac and cheese lovers who know they should be more mindful of their comfort food choices. Thankfully, Amy's makes the decision an easy one.

Lowest Quality: Kroger

What can be said for a boxed mac and cheese that comes as a store-label stand-in for pricier options and can be had by the cartload when a sale hits the shelves? If it's Kroger mac and cheese, the statement could read something like, "You might as well save your money and buy a slightly more expensive version." There's nothing outrageous about the ingredient quality here; it's just a simplistic take on what mac and cheese can be. And if quality is the quest, Kroger is falling behind the pack with this basic box.

Though the front of the package proudly announces, "No artificial flavors, preservatives, or synthetic dyes," you'll find both enriched macaroni and enriched wheat flour in the box — not the most major quality offense, but one that can be worked around with other boxes you'll find while you happen to be in the mac and cheese aisle. The most egregious offense, however, is that squarely in the middle of the ingredients list is the all-encompassing "natural flavors," a term which defies real description because it could be any of a number of things that aren't necessarily mac-and-cheese-worthy. Sure, you could doctor it up with kitchen tricks for making the creamiest mac and cheese ever, but wouldn't you rather start with a more thoughtful version of the core dish? Of course you would.

Highest Quality: Goodle's

Goodle's may not be a brand you've heard bouncing around your grocery shopping circles. After perusing the company's webpage proclaiming the healthy aspects of its Cheddy Mac, you may be the one to introduce your fellow shoppers to this high-quality supper sensation. While you're at it, introduce your family to a whole new way to think about mac and cheese, one everyone around the table can feel good about.

What makes Goodle's Cheddy Mac such a special selection in the world of noodles and sauce? How about pasta that uses both wheat and chickpea flour for added protein? Or maybe it's the nutrient run-down, which lists 10 plant-based power foods like pumpkin, kale, and maitake mushrooms all tossed in to elevate the nutritional profile. Of course, the use of real butter and cheese are high points as well, as are the 23 vitamins and minerals listed in addition to the whopping 14 grams of protein in each prepared serving. And for gluten-sensitive eaters, there's a gluten-free alternative available, too.

With this enticing high-quality inclusion in the mac and cheese collection is available at most major grocery retailers for under $3.00 a box, it's a challenger for the crown that's worth taking for a test run.

Lowest Quality: Mac-A-Roni

Let's be honest: Anything that ends in "A-Roni" is bound to be a base contemplation on the nature of pre-packaged food. Whether it's Rice-A-Roni, Beef-A-Roni, or the seriously groan-worthy Mac-A-Roni, it's all a bunch of simple stuff formulated to get dinner on the table quicker and easier. Anything resembling quality in this long-lived line is either an accident or an afterthought, a fact that's easily confirmed when you flip the box and eye up the ingredient on the label.

The recipe starts out promising enough, with the more obvious elements like wheat flour and cheddar cheese making early appearances. Then, your vision hits guar gum, a thickener that's innocent enough but not a necessary component of mac and cheese, and xanthan gum a bit further down. Suddenly, you're finding additives that don't instill confidence in the quality of the product. And between those, the presence of troublesome palm oil, a controversial add-in, the production of which poses a danger to the global environment, and you see why there are higher quality options right next to this inconsiderate concoction. Avoid a major mac and cheese mistake, vote with your wallet and skip-A-Roni to another brand, pronto.

Highest Quality: Beecher's

When you stamp the label of your mac and cheese box with the words "World's Best" — even if you place them in quotation marks — you should make sure you have a product that warrants the proclamation. Beecher's Handmade Cheese is a company bold enough to make this assertion and responsible enough to fill its carton with mac and cheese that holds up to the high-quality test. This artisan freezer section creation brings more than just a creative recipe into the conversation. It also uses ingredients you could easily find in any cookbook on your shelf.

The most complex item in the rundown is enriched penne rigate, but that's an expected foundation for just about every mac and cheese. The rest of the list is like a culinary haiku: cheddar and jack cheese, with water and butter, plus chipotle puree and a host of mindful flavorings like honey and lime juice. Good luck reading the label without your mouth watering. It's a restaurant-grade mac and cheese available in the freezer section, a heat-and-serve option to wow home cooking critics who may be used to the shake-and-boil mac and cheese. Yes, it's a bit on the pricier side. But if you're looking for a quality mac and cheese for a special occasion, Beecher's is just the dish.

Lowest Quality: Great Value

Walmart's efforts to keep up with bigger brands by introducing near-equivalents in its Great Value selection result in a boxed mac and cheese that aims to capture the hearts and dollars of shoppers in the mood for a tasty bargain. The decision to replicate a Kraft-style recipe as closely as possible means recognizable prep and flavor, but it also ends up providing this second-tier option a nutritional blueprint that replicates a lower-quality layout. Brand familiarity may be the prime factor in this value-based noodle knock-off, but the sacrifice in ingredient standards is clear from the jump.

The macaroni is a standard enriched-wheat noodle that's not the best and not the worst. It's the cheddar cheese seasoning combined with cheddar cheese flavor that rings the quality alarm. There's also cream, nonfat dry milk, and butter oil (what?!) as part of the cheese quotient, all of which feels like a definite cheese formula. But nowhere on the label does there appear to be just cheese in the box. Customers aren't shopping for mac and cheese seasoning or mac and cheese flavoring; they're looking for mac and actual cheese. Unless Great Value can provide a better description or include more whole-food ingredients in its production, this processed food is destined for the low-quality bin.

Highest Quality: Cracker Barrel

No, not that Cracker Barrel. This ready-to-cook mac and cheese is from the Cracker Barrel responsible for deli-style cheeses and deli treats. It's bound to cause confusion for diners who've enjoyed homespun mac and cheese in a Cracker Barrel restaurant and hope to make it in their own kitchen without having to follow a copycat recipe. The confusion is so prevalent, in fact, that a little extra research was necessary to make sure we were rolling with the right Barrel. As it happens, the quality of Cracker Barrel boxed mac and cheese may not rise to the level of the country dining chain, but it does a fantastic job of presenting quality mac and cheese for your home cooking needs.

There's nothing earth-shattering about what's in the box, just a whole coterie of hearty, real food elements that make this largely wholesome iteration of the classic combination a feel-good choice. The pasta is enriched and cheese sauce also contains paprika and annatto for color, though you can find Parmesan White Cheddar, Sharp White Cheddar and Cheddar Havarti. Add a sprinkle of nutmeg over the pot for a flavor upgrade to bring a bit of elegance that raises the profile of this mid-priced dinner.

Highest Quality: Tillamook

Oregon-based Tillamook takes its cheese business very seriously, which translates into a high-quality version of boxed mac and cheese that leaves the competition on the shelf. This thoughtful recipe is by far the most thoughtful alternative to the usual mix-and-serve dish we could find in boxed form. It has a chef-crafted sensibility that the other boxes don't seem to aspire to, with simple steps taken by the producer that result in a well-crafted boxed meal.

Leave it to a cheese producer to create a specialty mix that incorporates a blend of its Sharp Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses with oversized elbow macaroni to achieve top-quality flavor and density. The creamy sauce also uses a roux, a blend of flour and cream that adds thickness without tossing in strange ingredients. With butter, red wine vinegar, and even pretzel crumbs present on the list, Tillamook comes through with a high-quality mac and cheese that gives all the other boxes a run for their money — which is really a run for your money.

Lowest Quality: Smart Way

Smart Way is a lower-quality Kroger house brand that aims for a less expensive version of boxed mac and cheese to spare the budget of its shoppers. Sometimes, this strategy results in a low-quality product that looks more attractive due to its reduced price point. It may serve the purpose of feeding hungry eaters, but it certainly doesn't take any measures to elevate the experience. Smart Way Macaroni & Cheese appears to fit squarely into this category. Maybe the price point of around 60 cents should be a red flag that this mac and cheese isn't a top-shelf selection, no matter how enticing the savings might be.

The biggest offense found on the ingredients list here are the artificial dyes used to ramp up the neon-orange color of the cheese sauce. With Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Yellow 5 Lake, and Yellow 6 Lake, Smart Way makes a not-so-smart move that makes us wonder what color the cheese used is without added colorants. It can't be so difficult to find natural coloring agents that aren't on the Do Not Eat list; other brands do it regularly, so why can't this brand do it, too? While seeing cream and cheddar cheese in their real forms listed as part of the party is a relief, seeing an extra ingredient listed as "cheese seasoning" puts shoppers looking for wholesome dinners on their back foot.

Highest Quality: Sabatino

If the box of mac and cheese that draws your eye most is the one that includes truffle in the name, you're most likely in for a high-quality purchase. And if Sabatino Truffle Mac & Cheese happens to be the brand you're looking at, you'll be getting an Italian-style mac and cheese that sets the bar as high as possible for processed food. Sabatino's line of truffle-based foods puts a boxed mac and cheese in fine company, bestowing a luxury ingredient upon a humble dinner with intriguing results.

This food producer doesn't get caught up trying to be impressive with the cheese sauce; it's a simple processed cheese powder that gives the noodles something luscious to swim in. The real superstars are the dehydrated mushrooms and dehydrated black truffle. With garlic, pepper, onion, and turmeric powders fleshing out the flavors, you get an earthy step-up that makes mac and cheese a true main dish rather than an ambitious side that worked its way to the center of the table.

How we chose our boxes

Having as many whole-food ingredients is a pretty clear identifier of high-quality boxed mac and cheese, so we looked for products that are attentive to their makeup. It's a challenge to find pasta made with anything other than enriched wheat flour, but we located a few boxes featuring organic pasta and sauces. Several of our top options augmented the basic formula with gourmet-level flavors using spices, red wine vinegar, chipotle blends, and even truffle, taking quality mac and cheese in more exciting directions.

For the low-quality mac and cheese options, we zeroed in on additives like enrichments made to flour and pasta and thickeners that help make the cheese sauce creamier. These elements can be worked around as evidenced by the higher-quality versions and made for obvious offenders in the challenge for a higher-quality item. There were other add-ins scattered among the brands, ingredients like palm oil and natural flavors that may have pulled an otherwise decent mac and cheese into the realm of dubious dining.