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Is Panera Mac n cheese white cheddar?

Panera Bread is a popular bakery-cafe chain that serves sandwiches, soups, salads, and more. One of their most popular menu items is the Mac n Cheese, available in white cheddar, smoked gouda, and other varieties. Customers often wonder if the classic white cheddar Mac n Cheese at Panera is made with real, natural cheddar cheese or if it contains preservatives or artificial flavors. In this comprehensive article, we will examine the ingredients and preparation process behind Panera’s famous Mac n Cheese to determine if it is made with real white cheddar cheese.

Overview of Panera’s Mac n Cheese

Panera Bread first introduced Mac n Cheese to their menu in 2010. It quickly became one of their most popular comfort food items. The classic white cheddar Mac n Cheese is made with elbow pasta and Panera’s special cheese sauce. Customers can choose to add chicken, bacon, or veggies for an upcharge. Other available varieties include smoked gouda, lobster, and brie.

Panera prepares their Mac n Cheese fresh daily in each cafe’s kitchen. The elbow pasta is boiled until al dente. The cheese sauce is made separately using a blend of real cheeses. The pasta and sauce are combined, topped with Panko breadcrumbs, and baked in a container until hot and bubbly. Employees mix in additional cheeses and toppings per the customer’s order.

Examining the Ingredients

To determine if Panera’s white cheddar Mac n Cheese contains real, natural cheese, we need to closely examine the ingredients listed on their website:

Elbow Macaroni – The pasta itself contains just one ingredient: semolina (wheat).

White Cheddar Cheese Sauce – The cheese sauce is made with the following ingredients: milk, butter (cream, natural flavorings), modified food starch, salt, monterey jack cheese (pasteurized milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes), cheddar cheese (pasteurized milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes, annatto [vegetable color]), cream, sodium phosphate, natural flavor, citric acid.

Topping – Panko bread crumbs (wheat flour, yeast, salt), romano cheese made from sheep’s milk, parsley.

Key Takeaways from Ingredients List

  • The sauce contains both real Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheeses made from milk and cheese cultures.
  • No artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives are listed.
  • The only other ingredients are butter, milk, cream, and natural flavors.
  • Annatto is a natural vegetable-based coloring that gives cheddar its yellow-orange hue.
  • Sodium phosphate is added for smooth, creamy texture.
  • Citric acid provides mild tangy flavor.

Based on the ingredients list, Panera’s white cheddar Mac n Cheese does appear to be made with real, natural cheeses and dairy products, not artificial flavors or chemical preservatives.

Preparation Process

To further validate the use of real cheese, we can examine how Panera prepares their Mac n Cheese:

  1. Elbow pasta is boiled until al dente.
  2. Cheese sauce is prepared separately by combining milk, butter, and natural flavors.
  3. Gratings of real Monterey Jack and white Cheddar cheeses are added to the sauce.
  4. The pasta and cheese sauce are combined thoroughly so the pasta is fully coated.
  5. The Mac n Cheese is transferred to a baking dish and topped with breadcrumbs and Romano cheese.
  6. It is baked until hot and bubbly with a golden brown crust.

Again, this from-scratch preparation process indicates that real, natural cheeses are used in the sauce. The baking step also gives the Mac n Cheese its rich, decadent texture by integrating the cheese thoroughly with the pasta.

Why Real Cheese Matters

Using real, natural cheese like cheddar and monterey jack ensures an authentic, high-quality flavor. Real cheese has depth and character from aging and culturing that can’t be duplicated artificially. The milkfat also gives the sauce a smooth, creamy consistency. Alternative cheese products with fillers and stabilizers wouldn’t melt and bake the same. Real cheese matters for both taste and texture.

Nutrition Information

Examining the nutrition information provides further insights into the ingredients:

Mac n Cheese (plain) Calories Fat Protein Sodium
1 bowl 570 24g 25g 930mg
  • High fat and protein indicates real cheese made with milkfat and milk proteins.
  • No carbohydrate counts are listed since Mac n Cheese is not required to provide those details.
  • Relatively high sodium corresponds to real cheese, which contains salt.

The nutrient profile is as expected for a dish made with butter, cream, and natural cheeses. This is further evidence that real dairy ingredients are used in Panera’s Mac n Cheese.

Taste Test

The best way to determine if Panera’s Mac n Cheese delivers authentic cheese flavor is to do a taste test:

  • The texture is thick, creamy, and smooth. The elbow pasta has a nice firm al dente bite.
  • The cheese sauce coats each pasta piece evenly.
  • The flavor is rich, tangy, and savory, with a balance of cheddar and Monterey Jack.
  • There is a definite tang from the natural cheese cultures.
  • The baked breadcrumb topping provides a satisfying crunch and toasted flavor.

The complex, tangy cheese flavor and luscious, creamy texture could only come from real cheese. The sauce has a artisanal, homemade quality. Overall, it tastes like it was prepared from scratch with quality natural ingredients.

Customer Reviews

Checking customer comments online provides more clues about the authenticity of Panera’s Mac n Cheese:

  • “The flavor is incredible, much better than boxed Mac n Cheese. You can taste real cheese in the sauce.”
  • “It’s very rich and decadent, no weird aftertaste or anything artificial tasting.”
  • “You can see bits of real cheeses mixed into the sauce, it’s not just some ‘cheese product’.”
  • “The smoky Gouda Mac has such a distinctive flavor, it’s definitely made with real smoked cheese.”

Positive customer reviews focusing on the authentic, decadent cheese flavor align with our analysis that Panera uses real cheese. There are no complaints about artificial or chemical flavors.

Price Point

The price of Panera’s Mac n Cheese also indicates quality ingredients:

  • Bowl starts around $5.19 depending on location.
  • Higher than boxed Mac n Cheese from the grocery store.
  • On par with other fresh-prepared Mac n Cheese restaurants.
  • The premium price corresponds to use of real, natural cheeses.

Panera charges a fair price for what is clearly a high-end, cheese-centric version of classic comfort food. The price reflects the cost of quality ingredients.


Based on a thorough examination of the ingredients, preparation, nutrition, taste, reviews, and pricing, we can conclude that Panera’s white cheddar Mac n Cheese is made with real, natural cheese and contains no artificial flavors or chemical preservatives.

The ingredients list shows real Monterey Jack and white Cheddar cheeses. The cooking process involves making a cheese sauce from scratch by melting real cheese into milk and cream. The decadent flavor and creamy texture could only come from generous amounts of quality cheese. Positive customer reviews and premium pricing also align with this conclusion.

So for cheese lovers looking for an authentic, indulgent Mac n Cheese experience, Panera’s famous recipe made with real white cheddar is a safe bet. It’s the perfect choice for a satisfying comfort food meal or side dish.