There was a time when the mac and cheese selection at my grocery store was simply a myriad of differently shaped noodles, all from three places: Kraft, Annie’s, and the store’s house brand. Lately, though, the mac and cheese aisle looks like the Oreo section of the cookie aisle: it has greatly expanded, with a whole lot of variations on the classic.
Recently, my six-year-old daughter and I were perusing the mac and cheese options, and she grabbed a Cheetos-branded box. “The Cheetos company has gone too far,” she lamented. Have they, though? Or is this a delicious treat? Innovation at its finest?
In an effort to find the answers to those questions, I taste-tested a bunch of the newer mac and cheese options that have sprawled their way across store shelves. I should note that throughout this experiment, I was comparing them to what I consider the OG mac and cheese, which for me is Kraft shapes, like these Frozen-themed ones. I know for some people, the OG is Annie’s shapes, so I prepared a box of that as a co-control alongside the variable boxes.
Throughout my taste test, you’ll note that I compare each box against “the originals.” If you want to know more about which brands are considered “the originals,” The Takeout broke it all down back in 2019. (It essentially means Kraft, Annie’s, and Velveeta.)
So, for those of you who wish to branch out from the classic blue box, here are some interesting new contenders worth adding to your grocery cart.
This product was one of two Cheetos boxes I tried, and one of three offered under the Cheetos banner. Why didn’t I try all three? Because this appeared to be the step between normal cheesy and Flamin’ Hot, and this was already too hot for me. I didn’t taste much cheesiness, because my tastebuds were on fire.
I admittedly don’t have the highest tolerance for spice; my husband didn’t think this product was as offensive as I did. Setting that aside, I’m still not sure about this as a mac and cheese option. The noodles are much bigger (longer, wider) than other mac and cheese options. This felt more like eating a pasta dinner product than mac and cheese (Hamburger Helper was on my mind as I ate), which might mean it’s designed to cater to adults rather than kids. By the end of my few bites, I deemed this “spicy noodle food” instead of mac and cheese. Compared to Kraft and Annie’s, I’ll go with the originals.
This is what I’d call the “normal option” if you’re looking to buy something Cheetos-branded. The cheese is very orange, evoking, well, a Cheeto. But something’s missing. The cheese is on noodles, not a puffy (or crunchy) corn snack. I think the cheese does such a good job of evoking Cheetos that the lack of corn flavor threw me off.
After the fact, my husband realized that the “box literature” (his words) recommends crushing Cheetos on top of your bowl of mac and cheese, perhaps so that you do get some corn in each bite, but I missed this gem of advice when I was taste testing. The noodles are as long and wide as the cheesy jalapeño version, and again they felt a little too big to me. Compared to Kraft and Annie’s, I’ll still opt for the originals.
As a general fan of Cabot cheeses, I was excited about this one, and it doesn’t disappoint. It has a deeper, more layered cheese flavor than either Kraft or Annie’s, but it’s not over-the-top or otherwise trying to be something it isn’t. I prefer this one to both Kraft and Annie’s; between the texture of the shells and the distinct cheese flavor, it feels a little bit more grown up than either of the originals (not that I’m knocking unicorn-shaped noodles, which have their place in society and that place is in the “good things” category).
I do think this is a strong contender, one that might become my go-to mac and cheese over the originals. Cabot offers another option, yellow cheddar, which looks to me like it’s meant to even more closely align with the stuff in the blue box (but it isn’t available at my grocery store).
I don’t think this tasted like pepper jack cheese. I do think it was pretty good, though. It’s cheesy and peppery (but like, black peppery), but not so spicy I couldn’t taste the cheese (I’m looking at you, Cheetos Cheesy Jalapeño.) This again uses shells rather than elbow macaroni and has a deeper flavor profile than the originals.
Do I prefer it to Kraft and/or Annie’s? Hard to say. It’s a pretty specific flavor. I don’t think I’d use it as my go-to boxed mac and cheese, but it might pair well with a dinner that needs a spicy, cheesy side dish.
Okay, so, I liked Cabot’s bacon cheddar option, but objectively, it has a pretty smokey flavor that feels artificial, so I’m feeling insecure about my enjoyment of it. Again, this isn’t a contender to replace the originals, nor Cabot’s Seriously Sharp option, but I think it may have a time and place on my plate.
The day after my taste test, there had been a little bit of each option left over in my bowls, which ended up in the sink, and then in the garbage disposal before it was run. I noticed that the faucet water had washed the cheese sauce off of all of the noodles. For the Cabot options, that meant there were some plain cooked pasta shells lying around in the sink. But the Cheetos Bold & Cheesy noodles were... still orange. So, does Cheetos dye its pasta noodles? Or is there so much orange coloring in the cheesy mixture that it managed to penetrate the noodles and imbue them with neon color? Do with this information what you will.