Kraft’s iconic macaroni and cheese probably never struck consumers as especially “natural,” but the use of artificial food dyes in the food industry troubled many. Artificial dyes are banned in many countries, linked to negative health problems like asthma and migraines, and are purely for aesthetics. Yellow 5 and 6, which were used in Kraft’s mac and cheese, contain carcinogens, which research suggests might trigger cancer.
It would make sense for Kraft to change their recipe, but the way they went about it in 2015 and 2016 is interesting. They didn’t tell customers they were removing the dyes. They decided on a blind taste test by replacing yellow dye 5 and 6 with natural ingredients, and then waiting to see how people noticed. Would the taste or texture be different? Nope. When the secret was out, Kraft’s slogan became, “It changed. But it hasn’t.”
What is Kraft using now instead of the artificial dyes? Turmeric, paprika, and annatto. Annatto comes from the seeds of the achiote tree, a plant native to tropical areas. It’s used to add yellow or red color, thanks to the carotenoid pigments. It’s been used for years in food products like cakes, breakfast cereals, sausages, and more.
In the 17th century, annatto was used to dye cheese to give it a more robust, rich appearance. Why? Cows would eat grass, and beta-carotenes from the grass ended up into the cheese, giving it an appealing yellow-orange hue. People started to expect that color from good cheese, but when cheese producers skimmed the cream from the cheese to sell separately, they saw the cheese lost the color. They turned to annatto dye.
Kraft Mac and Cheese has a strong nostalgic appeal, and if it looked different, people might lose interest. While Kraft’s natural spice dyes are just to maintain that look, the history of annatto and cheese proves just how important looks are.
Main image from NowIsntItTime