Back during the Civil War, when information moved slower and rumors took longer to be verified or denied, newspapers had a way of printing unsubstantiated news. They would designate the stories “Important, if true.”
Which brings us to last week’s earth-shattering news about Kraft Foods removing Yellow Dyes No. 5 and 6 from their iconic macaroni and cheese. In other words, the stuff in the bright blue box will no longer be quite so bright orange.
But only some of it. Kraft is only changing the formula for the varieties ones marketed specifically for younger eaters. According to the Associated Press, the noodle shapes to get the new recipe will be the SpongeBob SquarePants shapes, Halloween shapes, winter shapes, and two yet-to-be-introduced shapes.
The regular elbow-shaped macaroni, on which the brand was founded (and the only shape that can truly be called “macaroni”), will be unaffected by the change. It will be just as neon orange as it always has been. That has to be good news to virtually everyone in the country who has turned macaroni and cheese into a national culinary fetish.
Kraft announced the news after receiving a petition with more than 348,000 signatures calling for the change, though apparently the company was already in the process of contemplating it. The petition was circulated online by two advocates, one of whom blogs under the name Food Babe and the other whose blog is called 100 Days of Real Food.
Their petition was alarming. One of the reasons they gave for calling for the change is, “Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 are contaminated with known carcinogens.” In other words, eating macaroni and cheese can give you cancer.
Important, as they say, if true.
A 1982 study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences looked into this very possibility and could not find any correlation between the dyes and cancer. The bloggers apparently were referring to a report by the often-alarmist Center for Science in the Public Interest stating that although the dyes have been found not to cause cancer, they may still cause cancer in some way that hasn’t been discovered yet.
And besides, the weasel-worded report continued, even though the dyes aren’t generally contaminated by chemicals that can cause cancer, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be contaminated by such chemicals in the future.
So if cancer isn’t the problem, why is Kraft changing the formula for its famous orangeness?
It turns out that part of the advocates’ petition was correct. The chemical tartrazine — Yellow Dye No. 5 — has possibly been found to increase hyperactivity in certain children who already suffer from attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder. According to the Food and Drug Administration, this trigger only affects a certain percentage of those children, and it will not increase hyperactivity in anyone else.
Still, that is a concern, and a big enough one to lead to the changed recipe in those varieties of macaroni and cheese that are most likely to be eaten by children.
In addition, about one in 10,000 people could have an allergic reaction to the dyes. That’s not a huge number, but it still means that about 31,000 Americans who had avoided the Kraft products will now be able to eat them — provided they don’t mind eating noodle shapes that look like SpongeBob SquarePants.
What can we learn from this episode? For starters, it is that even mega-corporations (and you don’t get much more mega than Kraft) can make decisions in the interest of their customers’ health. It means that through the Internet, two bloggers can summon a force sufficient to move a mountain, at least a small mountain a small distance — even if their information is not entirely correct. It means that if you make a macaroni and cheese that is a bright enough and weird enough shade of orange, some people are going to think it can’t be good for you.
And mostly, we can learn that no matter how easy it is to open a bright blue box from Kraft, it is always best to make your own macaroni and cheese. Try making a roux with butter and flour, add some cream, and shred in a cheese of your choice.
Try it with smoked gouda. That’s sublime.
Contact Daniel Neman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.