We Tried All of the Best Vegan and Dairy-Free Boxed Mac and Cheeses
You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t a fan of mac and cheese: It’s just one of those delicious comfort foods that can be a dinner in its own right or a hearty side dish, depending on your point of view. And according to lawyer and “soul food scholar” Adrian Miller, it originated as a dish of royalty. While some may consider boxed mac and cheese sacrilege, we've always been a huge fan of boxed because it’s hard to beat the convenience and tastiness of this quick meal.
Cheese is one of the main things that keeps people from going all the way vegan. In fact, research from The Vegan Society found that dairy (especially cheese) was one of the top “barriers to veganism related to habit or taste.” Fortunately, years of innovation within the plant-based cheese space have led to a ton of great products, and a category growing double digits year over year and is expected to reach $7 billion in sales globally by 2030.
Why You Should Avoid Eating Dairy
Milk is the top source of saturated fat in the traditional American diet, according to Lee Crosby, R.D., nutrition education program manager at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Traditional boxed mac and cheese is prepared with powdered dairy cheese mixes and dairy milk, making your typical box of macaroni damaging to your health.
One study published in BMC Medicine found that dairy is associated with a significantly higher risk of breast cancers. Those who drink a quarter cup of milk per day show a 17 percent higher risk of breast cancer. Another study found that milk consumption is even more dangerous for men. Loma Linda researchers found that drinking milk increases the risk of prostate cancer by 60 percent.
The dairy industry often encourages consumers to keep eating cheese and milk products, claiming milk is necessary for good athletic performance. However, consuming dairy is linked to increased inflammation, making it harder to breathe, delaying recovery times, and causing joint and muscle pains.
“Dairy is an inflammatory food, and athletes are constantly fighting inflammation to repair broken-down muscles and get back to training,” Dotsie Bausch, Olympic medalist in cycling and executive director of Switch4Good, said, adding that once she abandoned dairy, her recovery time dramatically shortened, so she was able to train at the same high-intensity level more often. “If you’re inflamed, you’re not at your best, and until you ditch dairy, you don’t know your true limit.”
The Best Vegan Boxed Mac and Cheeses
Now, you can choose a healthier option for lunch. There are plenty of boxed mac and cheeses available, so we taste-tested the top brands to let you find what brand is best for you.
Annie's Organic Vegan Cheddar Mac
Annie’s has a couple of vegan flavors and since this was the only one available at Whole Foods I went for it. The preparation method was classic boxed mac - cook the noodles in boiling water, as they draining, heat up some non-dairy milk and stir in the sauce powder. The powder clumps up but nothing a little vigorous stirring can’t fix. All reviewers agreed that while not a super-powerful taste, this cheddar mac could definitely pass for the real thing. Where Annie’s lost points in our book were for the noodles, which were a little thin and slippery.
Total Fat 3g, Saturated Fat 1.5g
Daiya Deluxe Cheezy Mac
As a plant-based cheese innovator, we had to try Daiya's mac and cheese. It got points for having a gluten-free noodle made from brown rice. The cheese sauce came in a pouch that makes for easy prep. Once the noodles are done cooking and drained, simply add in the cheese sauce, mix and enjoy. The noodle was great but the sauce had an overpowering flavor. For future iterations, we would definitely add some pasta water or non-dairy milk to thin out the sauce a bit.
Total Fat 9g, Saturated Fat 3.5g
Goodles Vegan is Believin’
Goodles’ Vegan is Believin’ instantly transports you back to your childhood. This easy-to-prepare, creamy Mac and Cheese reminds us of Kraft Classics but because it’s made with cashew nut cheese, it’s a whole lot healthier. Just one serving of the Vegan is Believin’ contains 12 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber. As far as taste goes, the cheesy sauce does have a subtle nutty taste but if you like cashews you may actually enjoy that. However, the vegan “cheese” mix needs a little more spice, in our opinion, so add your favorite hot sauce to give this lunchtime favorite a little kick.
Total Fat 3.5g, Saturated Fat 0g
Howl Deluxe Spicy Chipotle Kashoo Mac and Chef
Never being one to turn my nose up at the addition of a little heat, I expected to like Howl Deluxe's Spicy Chipotle Mac, but overall this one was a disappointment. While the chipotle spice gave it a nice touch of heat, it wasn’t enough to overcome the tart taste of the sauce. Even when we thinned it out slightly with almond milk there was still a funky taste that not everyone will love.
Total Fat 4.5g, Saturated Fat 0.5g
Modern Table Vegan Mac
And the winner is Modern Table! For starters, Modern Table's Vegan Mac Classic Cheddar Style was one of few gluten-free options available. They use a very cool spiral noodle made from lentils, rice, and peas that would be hard to guess were gluten-free. It highest protein of any of the macs we tried at 16g per serving. These noodles also cook slightly faster than typical wheat noodles, only requiring about 6 minutes for a nice al dente bite. The flavor was very tasty but not too powerful and is as good as the real thing.
Total Fat 3g, Saturated Fat 1g
Pastabilities Organic Vegan Under the Sea Mac n Cheese
When I see mac and cheese with fun shapes on the shelf, chances are I’m going to get it. The under-the-sea shapes like starfish and seahorses, make it perfect for young children (or a big kid like myself). Flavor-wise, Pastabilities scored in the top half of all products tested. It was on the lighter side, but definitely very tasty. The shapes were not a favorite of one of our (Grinch-like) testers, but the others found them fun and with a satisfying texture.
Total Fat 2.5g, Saturated Fat 1g
Upton’s Naturals Original Ch’eesy Mac
Upton’s wins for the most innovative cooking methods. I was skeptical when I saw that the noodles were pre-cooked since a shelf-stable pre-cooked noodle just didn’t seem right. But both taste and convenience turned me into a fan. You can cook these in either the microwave in only a minute, though I chose the stovetop. Simply add the noodles to a lightly greased frying pan, with the packet of liquid cheese sauce, and mix it all together. Pro tip: break up the noodles in the package to save yourself any rogue noodles flying out of the pan. It took only 5-6 minutes to cook and it came out with a wonderful golden brown crisp on the noodles. The cheese sauce was pretty solid overall, with a good cheesy flavor. It had a bit of a smoky flavor and aftertaste.
Total Fat 6g, Saturated Fat 1g
Upton’s Naturals Ch’eesy Bacon Mac
Now I know you’re thinking it’s unfair that I tried two products from one brand and not any others. But the fact of the matter is, I saw Upton had an option with “bacon” in it and I was curious. All reviewers agreed it tasted like the real thing. Everyone loved the crispy cheesy texture and wish there was more of the cheese sauce. The seitan bacon adds a nice extra smoky touch and additional texture.
Total Fat 6g, Saturated Fat 1g
Final Thoughts on Vegan Mac Taste Test
So in sum, the clear winner for me was Modern Table. Despite having to follow the more time-intensive “traditional” method, it had the best combination of texture, flavor, and nutrition. In a close second was Upton’s Naturals product with their crispy cheesiness, followed by Pastabilities and the fun-shaped organic pasta. With all this said, this is but the first step in my lifelong journey to find the greatest vegan mac and cheese. And a tasty first step it was.
For all the Beet Meters, check out the best vegan products.