The kids in my "food appreciation" classes concluded their recent exploration of nutrition labeling with a comparison of macaroni and cheese.
The macaroni and cheese that comes in the little blue box from Kraft may be one of the most popular processed foods of all times. We know some college students who eat little else during their four-year studies.
But what, exactly, is in those playful orange noodles? And how would they compare with a dish made from scratch with real cheese, real milk, real pasta?
This exercise presents some interesting choices because the "real" version of macaroni and cheese actually contains more calories and fat per serving than the processed kind. In this case, Kraft's "Premium Three Cheese" product lists 360 calories per 1-cup serving, 130 from fat. There's 2.5 grams of total fat, one gram of which is saturated fat.
Meanwhile, our home-made dish, made according to our favorite recipe from Martha Stewart, has a whopping 590 calories per serving, 296 of them from fat. Martha's version contains 33 grams of fat, 23 grams saturated, and all of 102 milligrams of cholesterol, compared to 5 milligrams in the Kraft product.
Where do all these calories, the fat, the cholesterol, come from? It took a bit of research to answer that question, because our Martha Stewart macaroni and cheese is made with artisan cheeses from Whole Foods, and these do not come with "nutrition facts" labeling the way processed foods do.
Still, I made sure my handout for the kids listed the nutrition information for all the ingredients in our home-made macaroni and cheese so they could see clearly that the cheeses--lots of cheddar, and a lesser amount of Emmentaler--are dense with calories and fat. There's also butter in there, bread crumbs. The macaroni itself, though fat free, is rich with calories.
What's a body to do? We turned to the ingredient list. In the case of Kraft, it reads like a science experiment with "modified food starch" and "sodium tryployphosphate" and "cellulose gum" and at least two artificial yellow dyes to give the noodles that trademark orange glow.
Our Martha Stewart noodles, meanwhile, consist of just eight easily-recognized ingredients. It's "real" food, compared to stuff that's cooked up by food scientists.
And one other thing. Take a look at the sodium content. Processed foods, it turns out, are extremely high in sodium as a general rule and so is Kraft macaroni and cheese: 610 milligrams in each one-cup serving, or 32 percent of the daily requirement for a 2,000-calorie diet. Our made-from-scratch noodles have just 179 milligrams.
The lesson from all this? It's not enough just to look at calories and fat. Would that the world were so easy. Other ingredients matter. Dyes and additives matter. And so does serving size. When our macaroni and cheese emerged from the oven and we started to dish it out, we found that one cup was actually a huge portion. Even a half-cup was too much for a child-sized plate. We doled out 1/3-cup portions that seemed just right.
If you really like something but it has lots of calories and fat, I told the kids, that doesn't necessarily mean you should never eat it. Just don't eat it so often. Take a smaller serving. Just know what you're eating. It's about balance.
And, oh, was it good. There was enough left over for some of the teachers. By the second day of our lessons, word seemed to have spread through the entire school. The teachers were lined up with their plates and forks, begging for some of our home-made macaroni and cheese.
The foundation of this dish is a bechamel sauce made in the traditional way with butter, flour and milk. Grated cheese is added to the sauce and melted smooth. After seasoning the sauce with salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne, add cooked macaroni--we used a jumbo elbow noodle called chiocciole in Italian--and pour the mix into a casserole dish. The noodles are topped with buttered bread crumbs and baked until golden and bubbly in a 375-degree oven. You can find the complete recipe here, at Martha Stewart's website.