Trader Joe’s Mac & Cheese Supposedly Tastes Just Like Annie’s. We Compared the Two.

published Sep 3, 2019
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Credit: Jelisa Castrodale

There’s literally a National Day of Fill-in-the-Blank for every date on the calendar. The day I wrote this story, it was National Love Your Feet Day. Later in the month, there was National Diatomaceous Earth Day, and after that, National Felt Hat Day. (I’m not making any of these up, I swear). 

As bonkers as the National Day calendar can be, the one made-up holiday that’s really worth celebrating is National Mac and Cheese Day, which is in mid-July, right between National French Fry Day and National Tapioca Pudding Day. (AGAIN, THESE ARE ALL THINGS THAT EXIST.) Although the official holiday is behind us now, I say we celebrate it today. Because it’s mac and cheese we’re talking about! See, mac and cheese is one of the most consistently comforting foods, whether you’re making it for yourself on the stovetop, ordering it as a side dish at a roadside diner, or just casually eating what’s left on your toddler’s plate before you put it in the sink. 

When I was a kid, it seemed like there was just one brand of mac and cheese (or at least there was just one brand that advertised during Nickelodeon shows), but now there are more than a dozen, and that’s not counting the specialty cheeses, or the organic varieties, or the unicorn-shaped versions. Everyone has their own fave, though, and for a lot of people, that’s Annie’s Classic Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese. 

Back in July — around the time that those of us in the know were celebrating National Mac and Cheese Day — the San Francisco Chronicle tried to investigate the rumor that Annie’s was the company that made Trader Joe’s mac and cheese, too. Trader Joe’s didn’t respond to the paper’s request for comment, and those reporters eventually decided that there was nothing left to do but have a side-by-side taste test. 

Credit: Jelisa Castrodale
The Trader Joe's pasta is on the left.

They put Annie’s Organic Shells & White Cheddar against Trader Joe’s Organic Shells & White Cheddar, and the results were … inconclusive. So I decided to do my own comparison, between Annie’s Classic Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese and Trader Joe’s Wisconsin Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese. Do they taste the same? Are they made by the same company? I heated two pots of boiling water and hoped to find out. 

Based on their ingredient lists, the two brands are reasonably similar, although Annie’s does use organic pasta. The cooking instructions were almost identical, too — at least until it was time to drain the pasta and mix in the powdered cheese packets. Annie’s recommends adding 1/4 cup of milk and butter, while Trader Joe’s uses half that amount of milk and only suggests butter if you want a “richer flavor.” (I added the butter, of course.) 

The differences between the two varieties really started presenting themselves at the “stir the sauce” step in the cooking process. Trader Joe’s cheese powder was borderline impossible to mix in and, despite stirring until my forearm started to cramp (SHUT UP, I’M STRONG), there were still undissolved clumps of cheese. The Annie’s powder was easier to blend and resulted in thinner sauce that spread evenly in the pot.

Credit: Jelisa Castrodale
Trader Joe's version.

I took both bowls of mac and cheese to the table and, honestly, that alone made it one of my best nights in recent memory. I tasted the Trader Joe’s first, and nodded enthusiastically to myself after the first bite of the surprisingly savory sauce. There was a pleasant sharpness to the cheddar flavor, and I wasn’t even that upset about getting an occasional hit of pure cheese powder. 

Credit: Jelisa Castrodale

Annie’s had an incredibly buttery taste (NOT a bad thing!) but a less bold flavor compared to the Trader Joe’s box. I would happily eat a bowl of this on my own — it was only when I was comparing to TJ’s that it came in second place. (Annie’s semi-recently changed the recipe for its Classic Mac and, according to the reviews on its website, I’m not the only one who has noticed the change.) 

If Trader Joe’s and Annie’s are both being made by the same company, then let’s hope TJ’s doesn’t swap its current recipe, too. They’re both still worth trying, because, let’s be honest, there’s no reason you can’t celebrate National Mac and Cheese Day all year round.