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Mad Macs: Beyond Thunderdome

Among life’s biggest questions, surely near the top is: “Which brand of boxed macaroni and cheese dinner is the best?” And unlike: “Is there a God?”; “Why do bad things happen to good people?”; and “How in the world did I end up with a storage unit full of autographed Full House memorabilia?” the macaroni and cheese question can be addressed more directly, if not necessarily to everyone’s satisfaction. And so, on the sixth day of the first month of the year of our Lord, 2013, we found ourselves at my kitchen table, hungry, trepidatory, and ready to lay down some SCIENCE on the seven pots of mac and cheese in front of us.  

The mac and cheeses under consideration were (in alphabetical order):

In order to make this as fair as possible to all products, the test was structured double-blind as follows:

  • Six testers participated: Debbie, Joel, Lisa, Matt, Molly, and Robert
  • Each product was assigned a letter from B through H
  • The products were removed from their boxes and transferred to unmarked containers, along with the preparation directions for the particular product
  • Each product was prepared according to package directions by one of the participants just before testing; the tester did not know which product he/she was preparing
  • Each tester sampled each of the seven products (identified only by its letter code) one at a time, and rated each in three categories (Taste, Texture, and Appearance) on a scale from 1 (worst) to 5 (best).
  • The scores for each product were averaged, giving a double share for taste, producing an “Overall Quality” score
  • Each product’s average score was divided by its price per ounce, producing an “Overall Value” score.

The results are recorded in a google spreadsheet here.

Here’s a summary of the quality and value scores:

Overall Quality
1. Kraft Original (14.08 pts)
2. Schnucks (13.00)
3. Betty Crocker (12.50)
4. Kraft Whole Grain (12.33)
5. Annie’s Organic (7.83)
6. Full Circle Organic (6.50)
7. Valu Time (3.50)

Overall Value
1. Schnucks (141 pts/cent/oz)
2. Kraft Original (102)
3. Betty Crocker (70)
4. Kraft Whole Grain (49)
5. Valu Time (44)
6. Full Circle Organic (31)
7. Annie’s Organic (22)

Kraft Original and Schnucks were neck and neck, with Kraft scoring a comfortable victory in overall quality, but Schnucks taking the lead once price is taken into account. Betty Crocker and Kraft Whole Grain were a notch below the leaders in both quality and value, and then there is a clear drop-off between fourth and fifth place, with Annie’s, Full Circle, and Valu Time bringing up the rear in both quality and value. As you can see, Valu Time had an average score of less than 4, because one tester thought it was worthy of a 0 on all three traits.

Here are some suggested pairings for each meal, as well as some additional comments:

Annie’s Organic

Goes well with: Unearned self-regard.

Are you the type of person who likes to spend extra money on things for no good reason? If so, then Annie’s Organic is for you. Actually, the difference in results here may stem more from the package directions, which advise only using milk unless you want 2 Tbsp of butter for “extra flavor,” compared to 4 Tbsp. for the non-organic varieties. The preparer indeed used the 2 Tbsp, and nary a flavor was had.

Sample comment: “Chemically suspicious.”

Betty Crocker

Goes well with: The 9th grader who likes being different for the sake of being different.

This new kid on the block distinguished itself from the rest of the field, for both good and ill. Betty Crocker uses elbow macaroni instead of straight tubes, and asks you to cook the pasta from the start in the cheese sauce, butter, and milk. You end up with a product that looks and tastes much different than the other six entries. We all felt that this one was quite corn-syrupy sweet, and the look reminded us of Stouffer’s frozen mac and cheese dinners.

Sample comment: “At first glance, looked good. Looks can be deceiving.”

Full Circle Organic

Goes well with: Six dozen radishes from your CSA.

Once again, your extra hard-earned cash is buying you more I-bought-organic peace of mind than any actual improvement in quality here. The same health-conscious problems that befell Annie’s also rear their head here, as some extra butter probably would have helped the flavor.

Kraft Original

Goes well with: America, apple pie, Chevrolet, REO Speedwagon.

You know exactly what you’re going to get from Kraft Mac & Cheese (or Kraft Dinner, eh?), and it’s almost heresy to expect mac and cheese to taste any other way. Millions in engineering and marketing resources went into making this taste the way it does; who are we to question it? There’s something almost comforting about the magic orange dust produced in Champaign winning a double-blind taste test just a mile or so away. That it slipped to second in overall value only underscores the fact that you should stock up when it’s on sale.

Kraft Whole Grain

Goes well with: Multi-grain pop tarts, greater colon health, fruit?

It’s good to know that Kraft can incorporate some whole-wheat flour into the mix and not entirely throw off the delicate balance. While it didn’t rate as highly, the Whole Grain variety was able to get it done without tasting conspicuously of health. Chalk another point up to Kraft’s food science division.


Goes well with: David Eckstein memorabilia.

Schnucks is the lunchbucket, scrappy type who lets the other guys take the glory while quietly getting it done. At first glance, it may appear to be the same orangish, sticky pasta that you’ve been accustomed to shoveling into your mouth, but don’t sleep on this product’s intangibles.

Valu Time

Goes well with: Self-loathing, meth.

By far the worst-rated product, and kept out of the basement in value only because of its rock-bottom price.

Sample comments included: “Kind of like cardboard,” “Sugary glue,” and “Glutinous gooey paste.”

Stay in school, kids, or you’ll end up having to make the kinds of decisions that require minimizing costs on macaroni and cheese. Do they still make government butter?

In conclusion, Kraft continues its reign, so keep your eye out for when it’s on sale. Additionally, pretty much across the board, we recommend you don’t cook the pasta for as long as the package directions direct, because you will end up with a pot of noodle-like glue. Also, every one of these needed additional salt (especially if you use unsalted butter), most of all the Betty Crocker — which, in the end, could have been pretty good with some small tweaks, and wasn’t bad when reheated.

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