Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is an iconic American favorite. The familiar blue and yellow box reminds us of the days when mom and dad were away and babysitters cooked up a steaming pot of the cheesy pasta, or when you whipped up a quick batch while you were out camping. It is the food of childhood, comfort food, an easy, quick choice for dinner. But what’s really behind the pasta shaped like a smile? Or the bright powder that miraculously turns into sauce?
Take one look at the ingredients on the label and you’ll see that it is much more than just pasta and sauce. In fact, you probably won’t even be able to pronounce most of the ingredients listed. The actual production of Kraft Mac & Cheese is much more than it seems. It involves the grinding of wheat for flour, the extraction of ferrous sulfate and other vitamins, and a process called spray drying, to turn cheese into powder. Kraft Dinner has over twenty ingredients, including wheat flour, additives like sodium tripolyphosphate, cheese sauce mix, and emulsifying salts. The secrets behind this meal raise some important questions for us as consumers.
Kraft Foods was starting to take a turn for the worse back in 2015, partly because of a movement against processed foods. It eventually teamed up with the power-house Heinz, to create the company that is now called Kraft-Heinz. Before the merger, Kraft ranked extremely low for environmental sustainability. In a comparison across several different food conglomerates, including Campbell’s, Heinz, and Nestle, Kraft ranked in last place, both for consideration of the environment, and for transparency. Heinz ranked better on average, but it does not look like the merger of these two huge companies has helped matters. It was estimated in 2015 that the carbon emission of Kraft-Heinz processing, packaging, and transportation amassed to 1 million tons of CO2.
Kraft has been extremely vocal about new sustainability projects in the past five years. For instance, on their website, they detail an extensive sustainability plan to decrease greenhouse gas emissions with their “sustainability wheel.” However, in their annual reports from both 2015 and 2016, there is little to no mention of the environment or sustainability, except for how it might affect profits. Although Kraft seems to be upfront about the changes in sustainability that they are making, the vague nature of their reports is rather troubling. This quote from an executive is very telling: “...our goal is to show progress in our environmental sustainability efforts...in some instances, we show results reflecting progress since our business started on its sustainability journey in 2005.” This response seems like a declaration of commitment to sustainability, but it is rather an avoidance of the real problem. The focus is not on sustainability itself, but on showing a commitment to sustainability, which are two entirely different things.
Another growing ecological concern about Kraft’s supplier chains has to do with the palm oil industry. According to ethical consumer, Kraft-Heinz is one of several companies that source their palm oil from Indonesia, where deforestation is destroying “carbon-rich tropical forests and peatlands.” Companies were scored on their commitment to sustainable practices, and on a scale of 0-60, Kraft had a shocking score of 10. In addition, other ethical dilemmas surround palm oil suppliers for Kraft. There is ample evidence for the use of “child labor, poverty wages, and dangerous working conditions.” These are examples of Kraft’s corruption and deliberate appropriation of workers on a global scale.
We can no longer afford to simply buy our favorite brand or the cheapest option on the shelf. Kraft’s wide-ranging, billion-dollar company allows for a considerable amount of practices behind closed doors, many of which prioritize financial gain over environmental or ethical uprightness. As consumers of these products, we are complicit in those very same practices. Our dollars are votes. We are condoning the unfair treatment of workers in Indonesia, thereby exploiting the suffering of our neighbors. We are authorizing this huge conglomerate to contaminate our precious earth. So the next time you’re craving the sweet taste of Kraft Mac & Cheese, think again. Look out for that familiar Kraft logo, and put it back on the shelf.