Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

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Kraft Mac & Cheese Is Nutritionally Equivalent to Cheez-Its

| Mon Mar. 25, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

We taste-tested Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Annie's Homegrown Macaroni & Cheese, Cheez-Its, and a simple, homemade pasta-and-cheese dish. Watch the video to see how they stacked up.

Perhaps you've heard about the recent outcry over the use of yellow dyes 5 and 6 in Kraft's popular Macaroni & Cheese. A couple of food bloggers have petitioned the food giant to ditch the artificial colors, calling them "unnecessary" and "potentially harmful."

The petition has already racked up more than 250,000 signatures. That isn't surprising, since Kraft's cheesy, gooey dish is a childhood staple. (I subsisted on a strict diet of it and Eggo waffles until about age 10.)

So just for fun, let's pretend that the petitioners succeed, and Kraft replaces its artificial dyes with natural coloring—or (gasp!) no coloring at all. Would the stuff then be healthier?

Well, let's consider the ingredients list for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese:

Enriched Macaroni product (wheat flour, niacin, ferrous sulfate [iron], thiamin mononitrate [vitamin B1], riboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid); cheese sauce mix (whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, salt, sodium tripolyphosphate, contains less than 2% of citric acid, lactic acid, sodium phosphate, calcium phosphate, yellow 5, yellow 6, enzymes, cheese culture)

Now compare that to the ingredients list for Kellog's Reduced Fat Cheez-Its:

Enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate [vitamin B1], roboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid); soybean and palm oil with TBHQ for freshness, skim milk cheese (skim milk, whey protein, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes, annatto extract for color), salt, containst two percent or less of paprika, yeast, paprika oleoresin for color, soy lecithin

To me, the list looked pretty similar—except for one thing: Instead of yellows 5 and 6, Cheez-Its uses annato extract and paprika for color. Yes, you read that right: Cheez-Its uses natural coloring, while Kraft Macaroni & Cheese uses artificial. Indeed, agreed Jesse Jones-Smith, a nutritionist at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, "Kraft actually has a few extra additives, even compared to Cheez-its." She added, "If you gave a kid two servings of Cheez-its and a glass of milk, you would actually have more sodium in Kraft Mac & Cheese. Otherwise, the two meals are pretty nutritionally equivalent."

Nutritionist Marion Nestle isn't a fan of the stuff in the blue-and-yellow box, either. "Kraft Mac & Cheese is a delivery vehicle for salt and artificial colors and flavors," Nestle wrote in an email. "It is a non-starter on my list because it violates at least three of my semi-facetious rules: never eat anything artificial; never eat anything with more than five ingredients; and never eat anything with an ingredient you can't pronounce."

Right. But that got me wondering: What about Annie's Homegrown, the supposedly healthier brand of packaged mac and cheese? When Jones-Smith compared Annie's and Kraft's nutritional information labels and ingredients lists, she found that their dry pasta and sauce packets weren't too different:*

The real difference, she says, was in what the two manufacturers recommended adding: Kraft suggests making the dish with four tablespoons of margarine and a quarter cup of two-percent milk, while Annie's recommends two tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of lowfat milk. "Margarine often has trans fat—why would they recommend margarine?" wondered Jones-Smith. The result is that when prepared, Kraft packs substantially more calories and fat into a serving than Annie's:

So what's a healthier alternative? I asked Tamar Adler, author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace, for a recommendation. She suggested a simple cheese, pasta, and cauliflower dish. Basically you mash up two cups of boiled cauliflower with a cup of parmesan, a little olive oil, and salt and pepper. Add it to a pound of pasta with a little of the pasta's cooking water, and you have a creamy, cheesy dish that Jones-Smith says is also more nutritious than both boxed versions: It's lower in sodium, fat, and calories, and slightly higher in protein. (It's slightly higher in saturated fat because of the real parmesan.)

It also tastes good. That's not to say that boxed mac and cheese tastes bad; it's hard to go wrong with cheesy, starchy comfort food. But I'm willing to guess that Adler's concoction is a few more steps removed from a bowl of Cheez-Its. Which is, well, comforting in its own way.

You can watch our taste test in the video at the top of this post.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated some of the values for Cheez-Its' nutritional information.

"They All Look Like a Vatican Version of the Tea Party Movement"

| Mon Mar. 11, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

"Even on a good day, I get discouraged thinking about the election of a new pope," laments Maureen Fiedler, a nun and blogger at the progressive Catholic newspaper National Catholic Reporter. "They all look like a Vatican version of the tea party movement."

On Tuesday, three weeks after Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on February 28, the world's cardinals will begin their conclave to choose a new pope. The past few decades have been rough ones for a church struggling with the widespread sex abuse scandal and an ever-worsening shortage of clergy. But with 1.16 billion members worldwide, the church is still massive—and it's actually in a perfect position to help save the planet, should it choose to do so.

The flock is increasingly centered in the developing world, where people are most likely to bear the brunt of environmental destruction and climate change. The church has a strong tradition of social-justice work, including the United States' Catholic Worker movement and Latin America's liberation theology. Indeed, National Catholic Reporter notes that even the notoriously socially conservative Benedict XVI famously delivered a World Day of Peace speech called "If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation," and named pollution among the world's "social sins."

So will Benedict's successor keep up the ecocrusading? Fiedler is right that on social issues like birth control, gay rights, and celibacy among priests, the papabili—or likely contenders—are predictably conservative. Nevertheless, some have spoken out on climate change, conservation, and other hot topics. Here's my extremely unscientific look at a few of the most environmentally aware:

Cardinal Peter Turkson, Ghana: Turkson is probably the most controversial of all the papal candidates. In 2011, he really riled anti-UN types by calling for a "true world political authority." Then, during a meeting of bishops at the Vatican last year, he showed a ridiculous video warning about the spread of Islam in Europe. Most recently, when asked about the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour:

"African traditional systems kind of protect or have protected its population against this tendency," he said. Because in several communities, in several cultures in Africa, homosexuality or for that matter any affair between two sexes of the same kind are not countenanced in our society."

So, yikes. Nevertheless, in the past few years Turkson has often expressed interest in protecting the planet. Here he is talking about environmental stewardship in 2012:

In this 2010 interview with U.S. Catholic magazine, Turkson talked about how surface mining devastates Ghanaian ecosystems, and why Americans should care. In a 2011 address during a visit to Wasnhington, DC, he emphasized that protecting the environment can help the poor:

…despite the naysayers, economic resources exist that could help wipe the tears from the eyes of those who suffer injustice, who lack the basics of a dignified life, and who are in danger from any deterioration in the climate. The poor do benefit from champions in solidarity who believe that injustice can be reduced, that harmonious relationships can be fostered, that our planetary ecology can be made sustainable, that a world of greater communion is possible.

Cardinal Scola

Cardinal Angelo Scola, Italy: In a recent speech to twentysomethings in Italy, Scola showed hipster cred of sorts by quoting Jack Kerouac and Cormac McCarthy. In his 2005 book The Nuptial Mystery, however, he alienated both feminists and the gay community by arguing, as the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal put it, "that feminism is responsible for homosexuality, because the more women act like men, the more men are likely to want to have sex with other men." Right. For those of you who still care what he has to say about the environment after that doozy, consider his elegantly stated thoughts in a 2010 article called "Protecting Nature or Saving Creation?":

The way for the urgent, collaborative convergence between ecology and theology is to continue the logic of creation with love. This logic is scientific, religious and political all in one. And consequently it is the logic of justice and of the complete development of humanity.

Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, Brazil: Like many of the other candidates, Scherer is extremely conservative on issues you'd expect; for example, he has vociferously opposed abortion and gay marriage, the AP reports. But he's also been a champion of the poor and outspoken on deforestation, writes National Catholic Reporter's John L. Allen Jr.: 

Scherer has also embraced the strong environmental concerns of the Brazilian bishops, especially with regard to the Amazon. In 2004, he called on the Brazilian government to strictly control the expansion of farmland in the Amazon, "so that measures are no longer taken after the problem is already there, after the forest is felled and burned."

Cardinal Rodriguez

Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, Honduras: If I were electing the pope, Rodríguez would probably get my vote. This guy doesn't just pay lip service to environmental stewardship. As the president of Caritas Internationalis, the Catholic Church's social-justice NGO, Rodríguez has spoken out strongly on climate change, calling it a "faith issue." Last year Rodríguez's team advocated for a legally binding treaty that would force world nations to reduce carbon emissions.

Rodríguez is progressive in other ways; he once said that "neoliberal capitalism carries injustice and inequality in its genetic code." He has also advocated immigration reform in the United States. Rodríguez is not without controversy, however. Here's National Catholic Reporter on a particularly low point:

In 2002, Rodriguez set off a tempest in the United States by comparing media criticism of the Catholic Church in light of the sex abuse scandals to persecutions under the Roman emperors Nero and Diocletian, as well as Hitler and Stalin. He suggested that the American media was trying to distract attention from the Israel/Palestinian conflict, hinting that it reflected the influence of the Jewish lobby.

Cardinal Tagle

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the Philippines: At 55, Tagle is probably the youngest of the candidates. He's also one of the more progressive (though not as much as Rodríguez). Tagle is known for his work with the poor, and he recently supported an anti-development protest in an eastern coastal region of the Philippines. And then, there's this tidbit from the AP:

Even as a bishop, Tagle did not own a car. He took the bus or "jeepney," the popular working-class minibus, to church and elsewhere.

On the other hand, Tagle has strongly opposed the use of birth control among Catholics, as have almost all of the other candidates. One could argue—and Julia Whitty does a great job of it in this Mother Jones piece—that the best gift that a pope could give to the poor and the environment would be to allow Catholics to use birth control. But even though the Vatican once almost took that route, there's little support for it among today's cardinals. That's too bad, considering the views of the faithful, at least in the United States: A recent New York Times and CBS News poll found that 71 percent of American Catholics would prefer a pope who favors modern birth control.

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