For some reason I can’t fathom, companies have to mess with their products after they’ve been on the market for a while, and change them….just for the sake of change. Or worse, they remove them from the market altogether, which has happened more often than I care to recall. Always the favorites, too. And replace them with something else. Just to be ‘New!’ Or, they keep an old favorite but change it and call it ‘New and Improved!’ But they (whoever ‘they’ are) need to leave some things alone. What did they learn from the Coke debacle?

Okay, I’m venting. This has been building for a long while. Many of my favorites – brands, products, menu items, etc. – have been ditched so the company can make more profit from cutting back to a lesser version, or something like that. I’ve gone on ebay to find favorite products because some major brand company decides to pull it and replace it. Clerks in stores have admitted they’re getting inundated with customer complaints.

But food gets into another whole category.

It happens all the time, companies replace what you like with what they want you to like better. However, I submit that comfort foods should be exempt from all this.

During the economic meltdown that hit critical mass in 2008 and only got worse after Fall of that year, we have had to considerably reduce consumption, tighten the belt, do without and trim the budget. Stories started cropping up that sales of Campbell soup had skyrocketed in America, along with other low budget staples that not coincidentally qualified as ‘Comfort Food’. These things nourish the body and feed the soul in many ways. In trying, stark, scary and threatening times, we find comfort in things like oatmeal, chocolate chip cookies, meatloaf, Campbells soup, and macaroni and cheese.

It tastes so good and returns us to our childhood. It’s economical and delicious, in a way we seldom abandon nutrition guidelines to enjoy.

But the other day, the Chicago Tribune ran a large photo of a bowl of different looking macaroni & cheese over a big story about change, and before even reading the headline I thought….’oh no, what are they doing now?’ The story skyrocketed to the ‘Top Stories of the Day’ list. I could have predicted.

Tough times call for some serious comfort food, and macaroni and cheese is a staple of that category. That’s added up to a nice payday for manufacturers. As a whole, macaroni and cheese sales are up 25 percent over the last four years, to $802 million.

Right. Understood. But…

Now, Northfield-based Kraft wants to bring mac and cheese, launched in the Great Depression, from kids’ plates to the center of the family dinner table.

What made them think it wasn’t there already? I can give personal accounts of adult friends who love to binge every so often on a bowl or plate of mac & cheese as they curl up in front of a favorite TV series. Did they ask consumers about this?

It appears not. They’re relying on their in-house geniuses.

The company had been toying with a homier version of macaroni and cheese for many years, but after watching cheesy, crusty restaurant versions proliferate in recent years, and more people cooking at home to save money, Kraft began work on what is now its Homestyle Macaroni & Cheese Dinner about 18 months ago.

Oh, how brilliant.

The new mac and cheese comes in a bag and sells at $2.99. It comes with wider, curvier noodles, a packet of gooey orange cheese, breadcrumbs and a seasoning packet, with which cooks make a base for the cheese sauce.

How appealing, goo and extra orange cheese.

Kraft is also tapping in to a trend of putting personal touches on family dishes by offering an “optional oven finish,” involving more cheese and an even-crispier breadcrumb topping, thanks to five minutes in the oven.

Oh….and even more cheese, and even crispier topping! I never had topping on my mac & cheese. Just the straight stuff.

…Dennis Lombardi executive vice president of food service strategies at Columbus, Ohio-based WD Partners….said the trend isn’t just about more comfort food but “creating something a little extra special that gives you a little bit of a small indulgence for that meal.”

It may be the difference between a regular frozen pizza and a California Pizza Kitchen pie, now owned by Nestle. Lombard said. For humble macaroni and cheese, he said, an upgrade to creamier, cheesier sauce and bread crumbs is likely to fit the bill as well.

No. It needs no “upgrade.” Humble is good. They don’t get that.

In an interview with the Tribune this month, Kraft Chief Executive Irene Rosenfeld said the company invested in Homestyle “to bring in the adult user.” The iconic mac in the blue box, she said, is a kid favorite.

‘Scuse me. The iconic mac in the blue box is exactly what we grown-ups who have raised our children on the same stuff we savored as children want. Ask yourselves, Kraft executives, what made it iconic?

They’re not reflecting on that.

“From a Kraft standpoint, it’s really very smart,” said Lynn Dornblaser director of consumer-products insight at Mintel International. “It doesn’t have any overt kid positioning, so you don’t have to feel guilty about eating Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.”

I never did. And I never will. If only they leave it alone.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....