Hold on to your blue boxes and your viscous yellow liquids! This blog series will take you on a wild ride through the history, politics, science, and culture of processed cheese, including the origins of factory cheese, the rise of James L. Kraft, and the miracle of milk protein concentrate.
We’ve bonded a lot over these past weeks, readers—Remember filled cheese? What a hoot!—and because we’re so close now, I’m going to be frank with you: “Natural” means nothing. “Organic” is a buzzword. And despite its cute bunnies, hand-drawn labels, and peace-symbol pastas, Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese (the all-around champ of feel-good, eco-organic insta-meals) is still processed. Despite the warm feelings you may have toward the bunny on the box, Annie’s is—and always has been—a business trying to court consumers with a fashionable, desirable, and near-impeccable brand-image. This is its story. (Cue Law & Order double-tone.)
The story of those rabbit-approved boxes of (let’s just admit it) delicious, delicious macaroni and cheese finds its roots in the ’80s. Annie Withey, a University of Connecticut grad with a degree in English and the daughter of two teachers, was looking for a way to showcase a new and crazy invention dreamed up by her then-husband Andrew Martin and his business partner: a resealable, disposable plastic bag. Annie began experimenting with different kinds of foods and ingredients in her Boston apartment, and in 1985 she hit the jackpot: after stirring together on her stove some white cheddar cheese, whey, buttermilk, and salt, she was able to create a white cheddar cheese powder. Annie sprinkled this on some popcorn, poured it into the resealable plastic bag, and voila: Smartfood Popcorn was born. Just like James Lewis Kraft, who spent hours in his ownapartment perfecting his “eternal cheese” recipe, so too did Annie Withey draw upon her entrepreneurial spirit to create a food that consumers would flock to buy.
And buy they did—Smartfood sales skyrocketed and stores couldn’t even keep it in stock. Four years later, Annie and her partners accepted a $15 million bid for the company from Frito-Lay, netting more than a million bucks for her troubles. This might have been the end of the wonder white cheese powder, but Annie drew upon the drive of her foodie forefathers and came up with an even bigger idea: What if she used that same cheese powder for mac and cheese instead of popcorn? Annie bought a box of Kraft mac and cheese, threw away that flavor packet, used her own mix, and liked her creation so much that she founded Annie’s Homegrown in 1989.
Annie’s was tapping into the new and powerful green, organic zeitgeist. As Whole Foods Market was going public, Annie’s Homegrown was honing its message. It turned to advertising agency Thomas J. Paul, Inc.—which had already worked for corporate behemoths like M&M, Ritz, and (surprise, surprise) Kraft—to create an adorable bunny that would comfort customers with the promise of “totally natural” foods. When Annie’s Homegrown went public, it included news of its stock offering with its boxes, convincing consumers that they weren’t selling out but were in fact allowing their customers to buy into the image of ethical, homemade food products. By 1999, Annie’s was raking in $7 million in revenue; by 2012, that number reached $170 million. Annie’s Homegrown has expanded from mac and cheese to crackers, pizzas, and even mac and cheese pizzas.
What’s so bad about this, you may be asking as you slurp your gluten-free organic cheese–slathered macaroni? It’s not so much that Annie’s is a dastardly corporation that’s going to consume your soul—it’s just that Annie’sisn’t that much different any other corporation that sells you pre-packaged food.
First, although theses days you would be hard-pressed to find the word “natural” on a box of Annie’s mac and cheese, in the early days this was a key selling point. But the fact is, natural truly means nothing. It is a phrase completely unregulated by, and with no official definition from, the FDA. “Natural” is purely a marketing term, alongside “artisan” and “premium,” that is ccccdesigned to lure you to buy a product and make you think it is better than other products. Today you’ll be more apt to find a “100% Real Cheese” ribbon on an Annie’s Box, and this label isn’t much better. Who decides what’s “real” cheese? Annie’s does. And furthermore, if there are real cheeses, what’s a “fake” cheese? Can you have a 78 percent, semi-Real Cheese?
Second, even though Annie’s doesn’t use artificial dyes or some of the complex yet generally safe chemical compounds as Kraft does, it is actually marginally less healthful than our old friend in the blue box: it has roughly the same amount of calories, protein, sodium, and fiber as its competitor but contains a little less than twice as much fat and more than twice as much saturated fat.
Third, and most importantly for those of you who categorically refuse any foods that remotely have any connection to being “processed,” Annie’s Mac and Cheese is a processed food! Those natural annatto dyes are stillsqueezed out of millions of achiote plants. That nonfat milk still relies on polyethersulfone to separate the fat molecules from the milk itself. Annie herself is not filling each individual box of mac and cheese—just like Kraft, they are made in a factory setting.
So what should we take from all this? Knowing all that we do about process cheese, should we give it up altogether as a nasty, artificial, alien thing? I say no. We necessarily reside within a world in which at least some of the food that we put in our bodies has been processed in some way. If this doesn’t bother you, all the better; if it does, do your best to stay away from those kinds of foods. But the most important thing is that we shouldn’t kid ourselves.
We aren’t missing out on some bucolic society in which virgin dairymaids singlehandedly make their cheese from scratch, because that hasn’t existed for more than a hundred and fifty years. (If we ate what our grandparents ate, we would still be eating process cheese!) And even those expensive products we buy at Whole Foods spouting marketing copy like nonfat, organic, and healthy are probably going to be processed in some sort of way.
It is only when we make the effort to fully comprehend the food systems we live in that we can even begin to consider changing things for the better, whatever that may be.
So the next time your outstretched hand brushes the boxes of the mac and cheese section of your grocery store, pausing from one real cheese product to the next, take a moment, consider everything that you’ve learned, and think about it.
Photo by Compfight