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Mac and Cheese: A Go-To Meal in Difficult Times

Insights + Opinion
Mac and Cheese: A Go-To Meal in Difficult Times
While it's often dismissed as stuff for kids, a lot of grownups secretly savor it. TheCrimsonMonkey / Getty Images

By Jeffrey Miller

In January 2015, food sales at restaurants overtook those at grocery stores for the first time. Most thought this marked a permanent shift in the American meal.



Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, that trend took a U-turn. Restaurant revenue cratered, while shoppers emptied grocery shelves stocking up on food to cook at home. And with sales of pantry items soaring, shoppers found themselves reaching for an old reliable.

In April, sales of Kraft macaroni and cheese were up 27% from the same time last year. General Mills, the maker of Annie's mac and cheese, has seen a similar bump.

The cheap, boxed meal has long been a poster child for processed food. While it's often dismissed as stuff for kids, a lot of grownups secretly savor it. As I tell my own students, we love to bad mouth processed foods – usually while our mouths are full of it. It's also played an important role in kitchen science, wars and women's liberation.

Solving the Age-Old Problem of Spoiled Cheese

People have eaten pasta and cheese together for hundreds of years. Clifford Wright, the doyen of Mediterranean food history, says the first written recipe for macaroni and cheese was created in the court of the king of Naples in the 13th century, while the first reference in an English language cookbook likely appeared in Elizabeth Raffald's 1769 book "The Experienced English Housekeeper."

An internet search for macaroni and cheese recipes will turn up over 5 million hits, but many still prefer to get theirs in a box – the kind with pasta that comes in shapes ranging from shells to Pokemon characters, accompanied by a packet of powdered cheese sauce.

Boxed macaroni and cheese was one outcome of the quest for ways to keep cheese longer. Some cheese gets better as it ages – a well-aged cheddar is one of life's delights – but once most cheeses hit their prime, they tend to quickly go bad. Before household refrigeration became common, many retailers wouldn't even stock cheese in the summer because it spoiled so quickly.

Processed cheese solved this age-old problem.

Credit for inventing processed cheese should go to a pair of Swiss food chemists named Walter Gerber and Fritz Stettler who, in 1913, were looking for a way to improve the shelf life of Emmenthaler cheese using sodium citrate. When they heated up the treated cheese, they noticed it melted better as well. But Chicago cheese salesman James L. Kraft was awarded the first patent for processed cheese in 1916.

Kraft understood the spoilage problem and had tried various solutions to it. He tried putting it tin foil packages, sealing it in jars, even canning it. But none of these solutions caught on with the public.

He eventually realized that the same bacteria that made cheese age nicely was also the bacteria that ultimately caused it to go bad. So he took some cheddar cheese scraps, heated them to kill the bacteria, ground them up with some sodium phosphate as an emulsifier and voila – Kraft processed cheese was born.

These early processed cheeses were similar to the processed American cheese slices we see in the stores today, though wrapping slices individually didn't happen for another 40 years. Kraft's first big customer was the U.S. Army, which bought more than 6 million pounds of the stuff to feed soldiers in World War I. A number of variations appeared in the following years, including Velveeta and Cheez Whiz.

The product was a hit, but Kraft wanted to find more ways to sell processed cheese, and eventually came up with the idea to make a powdered base. The packet in the box of macaroni and cheese is essentially a cheese sauce that has been partially defatted and dehydrated. When you make it, you're adding back the fat and the liquid when you mix in the milk and butter.

In 1937, Kraft debuted its boxed macaroni and cheese, which it sold for 19 cents and contained four servings. Its slogan was "make a meal for four in nine minutes," and the product got a big lift with American consumers during World War II because you could get two boxes and spend only one ration point. With meat hard to come by, the cheap main dish substitute was a hit.

When Natural Was Nasty

Today, food that's simple, pure and natural is all the craze, while disdain for processed foods is practically a credo among sophisticated consumers.

But when Kraft's different forms of processed cheese came out, they found widespread acceptance despite their strange textures. The fact that it wasn't natural didn't seem to bother consumers at all. In fact, as international food historian Rachel Laudan has noted, back then, "natural was something quite nasty." She describes fresh milk as warm and "unmistakably a bodily secretion." Throughout the history of cookery, most recipes aimed to transform an unappetizing raw product into something delightful and delectable.

So for most consumers, processed foods were a godsend. They kept well, tended to be easily digestible and, most importantly, they tasted good. Many of them could be easily prepared, freeing women from spending entire days cooking and giving them more time to pursue professions and avocations.

In some ways, processed foods were also healthier. They could be fortified with vitamins and minerals, and, in an era before everyone had access to mechanical refrigeration, the fact that they kept well meant consumers were less likely to contract diseases from spoiled, rotten foods. Pasteurization of dairy products virtually eliminated diseases like undulant fever, while foods processed and canned in large factories were less likely to harbor food-borne illnesses that could crop up due to faulty or improperly sanitized equipment used by home canners.

Given today's marketing emphasis on the fresh, local and natural, one might think that processed foods are going the way of the dinosaur. But this isn't the case. Almost all the processed foods invented in the 20th century are still being produced in one form or another. While you may not see much Tang on American shelves, it's hugely popular in the Middle East and Central and South America.

And mac and cheese – with roughly 7 million boxes of Kraft's version sold each week – continues to be devoured in good times and bad. Whether it recalls happier, simpler times or feeds a family on a shoestring budget, the Day-Glo orange dinner is here to stay.

Jeffrey Miller is an Associate Professor, Hospitality Management at Colorado State University.

Disclosure statement: Jeffrey Miller does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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