For many Americans, the color of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is the color of childhood. Nothing triggers nostalgia like the sight of a steaming plate of sticky pasta, as unnaturally orange as a nuclear dawn.
Almost 80 years after its invention, however, Kraft Mac & Cheese is about to change. Under pressure from “healthier” competitors and a controversial food blogger, the company says it is stripping all artificial preservatives and synthetic colors from its most iconic item.
Electric yellow? Dayglo orange? Whatever the color of your fondest childhood memories, it’s about to fade.
Kraft announced it is dropping the artificial dyes in response to customers’ concerns. Faced with rival brands boasting “organic” and “all natural” labels, as well as greater public awareness about nutrition, the international food giant says it has been considering cutting out the artificial ingredients in its Mac & Cheese for some time.
“We know parents want to feel good about the foods they eat and serve their families,” said Kraft spokeswoman Lynne Galia. “We weren’t ready to change the product until we were confident that Kraft Macaroni & Cheese tastes like Kraft Macaroni & Cheese,” the company added.
Mac & Cheese lovers all over the world took to social media to muse about the macaroni makeover. “This will not stand,” wrote Andrew Coyne in an at least somewhat serious tweet. Many commenters mentioned the boxed pasta’s eerily supernatural hue, which some critics say is unhealthy.
“Kraft Mac n cheese will change its product over my dead body,” tweeted comedian Michael McDonald, “which is already dying from their product.”
Although Kraft didn’t mention the controversy in its news releases, Monday’s announcement comes on the heels of a heated Internet campaign against the company for using artificial ingredients. That campaign was led by Vani Hari, a controversial food blogger who goes by the name “The Food Babe.”
Hari was one of several food bloggers to start an online petition demanding Kraft remove all artificial food coloring from its Mac & Cheese two years ago. The petition gathered more than 350,000 signatures, and on Monday Hari declared “victory.”
“The thousands of letters I have received from parents whose children have benefited from the removal of artificial food dyes are ringing in my ear this morning,” she wrote on her blog. “We finally did it.”
According to Hari, the artificial dyes in Kraft’s Mac & Cheese “are man-made in a lab with chemicals derived from petroleum (a crude oil product, which also happens to be used in gasoline, diesel fuel, asphalt, and tar).”
“Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 can be contaminated with known carcinogens,” she also says. They “cause an increase in hyperactivity in children, have a negative impact on children’s ability to learn, [and] have been linked to long-term health problems such as asthma, skin rashes, and migraines.”
This isn’t the first time that Hari has scored an unlikely victory over a food giant. Over the past year, she has emerged as a powerful — if not always reliable — voice in the debate over nutrition.
“It’s tough to argue with a crusade to help Americans eat better and to win more transparency from both food companies and the federal agency, but Ms. Hari, a former computer science major with no training as a food scientist, nutritionist or chef, has managed to become a flash point,” the New York Times wrote recently in a profile of the food blogger. “Her click-me headlines (‘Do You Eat Beaver Butt?’ for a post about what’s in so-called natural flavorings) and camera-ready looks have won her a rabid #Foodbabearmy, billings as an expert on television shows, a book (‘The Food Babe Way‘) that made its debut at No. 4 on the New York Times best-seller list last month, and a spot (along with Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian) on Time Magazine’s ‘30 Most Influential People on the Internet.’”
She has slammed Starbucks for the supposedly “hazardous chemicals” in its pumpkin spice latte, filleted Chick-fil-A for its artificial ingredients, whacked Whole Foods for selling genetically modified foods, and slammed Subway for using a chemical called azodicarbonamide — also found in yoga mats — in its bread.
Subway, for one, crumbled like stale loaf under the pressure. (The company said it was already planning to pull azodicarbonamide from its products, however.)
Yet, the Food Babe has herself faced scrutiny. Several scientists have accused her of using “pseudoscience” to build a large and lucrative following.
“She gets on all these talk shows partly because she is easier to look at,” Joe Schwarcz, a chemist who runs McGill University’s Office for Science & Society, a department dedicated to identifying pseudoscience, told Bloomberg News. “Her scientific background is nonexistent.”
“Her empire is built upon non-scientific ideas and tumbles down if scientists are involved,” wrote Kevin Folta, a horticulturalist who has publicly sparred with Hari.
“In her book and on her blog, Hari plays this game of malicious metonymy again and again, leveraging common motifs of disgust, such as excrement and body parts, all the while deliberately confusing the source and uses of material with the molecules themselves,” wrote chemistry professor Michelle M. Francl in February. “She wants you to be aghast that the same chemical used to stabilize the foam in yoga mats, azodicarbonamide, is used to stabilize bread dough, also a foam. Or to be horrified that L-cysteine, added to bread dough to make it easier to handle, is extracted from chicken feathers, or worse yet, human hair. I admit this last example sounds incredibly gross. But L-cysteine is a common, naturally occurring amino acid, and it’s already present in the flour and in the human body. The commercial version is a white crystalline material, soluble in water, with not a feather remnant or stray hair to be found.”
But it’s not just academics who are angered by Hari’s methods. There a Facebook page with thousands of members who oppose Hari. And in a viral article published earlier this month, a blogger called “The Science Babe” declared that the Food Babe was “utterly full of s—.” Others have accused Hari of promoting products containing the same chemicals she ridicules.
Hari fiercely defends herself and her followers, however. She cites her undergraduate studies in “hard science” at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and accuses her critics of having ties to “the processed food lobby.” She called the New York Times profile of her an “attack” by a “biased freelancer,” for instance. “The reporter featured only the views of certain academics who attack us — every single one of whom has a conflict of interest due to their associations with the food or chemical industries (and this is not disclosed),” she wrote on her blog.
Hari hasn’t helped her cause by getting some things spectacularly wrong. In a post that she later removed from her Web site, she said that microwaves destroy the nutritional content of food and “create severe health issues.” In another, also deleted, post, she argued that flying causes a traveler’s “digestive organs [to] start to shrink, taxing your ability to digest large quantities of food. Secondly, this compression reduces the ability for your body to normally circulate blood through your blood vessels.”
Kraft’s announcement, however, can’t help but bolster the beleaguered food blogger. “Food Babe vindicated as Kraft Foods suddenly changes course on Mac & Cheese,” read a Monday headline in the Chicago Business Journal.
Hari may have her haters, but she has millions of supporters as well. And many of them will see Kraft’s capitulation as a sign that the Food Babe is utterly full of nothing but the truth.