On a recent sunny fall afternoon, students from Lake View High School streamed out of a nearby convenience store munching after-school snacks.
Some bought cookies and snack cakes. Others got soft drinks and candy. But the majority walked out of Touchdown Food Mart with crinkly orange bags of Flamin' Hot Cheetos — sometimes with warm cheese sauce poured on top of the fiery red curls.
"Once you start eating them, they are kind of addicting, and you can't help it," said sophomore Zian Garcia. "Personally I have been eating them for years, and I cannot stop. I just have this urge to eat them."
In the 20 years since Frito-Lay launched Flamin' Hot Cheetos as a snack aimed at urban convenience stores, the product has inspired dozens of spicy competitors, multiple Facebook fan pages, a viral rap video and legions of loyal young fans.
But for many school administrators and public health advocates, the wild popularity of Flamin' Hots inspires concern. To many, they've become shorthand for everything that is wrong with the diets of American children, whose obesity rates have tripled since 1980.
While it's true that Flamin' Hots, also known as Hot Cheetos, deliver high levels of salt, fat and artificial colors with little nutrition or fiber in return, the same can be said for similar snacks.
Yet there is something about Flamin' Hot Cheetos that inflames critics in a way that other snacks — including regular Cheetos — never did. Some schools and districts, including the Noble Street Charter School Network and the entire Rockford school district, have banned Flamin' Hots by name, citing nutritional concerns.
"We don't allow candy, and we don't allow Hot Cheetos," said Rita Exposito, principal of Jackson Elementary School in Pasadena, Calif. "We don't encourage other chips, but if we see Hot Cheetos, we confiscate them — sometimes after the child has already eaten most of them. It's mostly about the lack of nutrition."
It's not hard to find kids who say they eat Flamin' Hots or similar products every day, sometimes even for breakfast. If that sounds like an addiction, some scientists say it may not be far from the truth.
Emerging research on food addiction suggests that processed salty, fatty or sweet foods of any kind — also called "hyperpalatable foods" — can trigger brain responses similar to those created by controlled substances in addicted individuals.
People react differently to a processed food than they do to foods found whole in nature, said Ashley Gearhardt, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Michigan.
"It's something that has been engineered so that it is fattier and saltier and more novel to the point where our body, brain and pleasure centers react to it more strongly than if we were eating, say, a handful of nuts," Gearhardt said. "Going along with that, we are seeing those classic signs of addiction, the cravings and loss of control and preoccupation with it."
How popular are Flamin' Hots across the country? It's hard to say exactly. Market research data from Symphony IRI, which collects product scans from major retail stores excluding Wal-Mart, suggest potato chips are still the No. 1 salty snack food sold in American stores. The data also show that another Frito-Lay product, Doritos, sells more units than Cheetos. But the figures aren't broken down by flavor or demographics.
Frito-Lay will not share sales figures for its products or comment on criticisms of Flamin' Hots, but it does confirm that the flavor was introduced in the early '90s (some accounts say 1991; others 1992) to target "convenience stores in urban markets." Today the company's Flamin' Hot line — including Flamin' Hot Fritos, Flamin' Hot Fries and XXTra Flamin' Hot Cheetos — has spread to include at least 10 other snacks.
"There has been a lot of growth in ethnic-inspired flavors, and you can see it with many more bold and spicy flavor products across the salty snack category," said Chris Clark, vice president of the Snack Food Association.
A spokeswoman for 7-Eleven stores said the fever for Flamin' Hots has spread well beyond the urban market and is strongest among 14- to 24-year-olds.
"Flamin' Hot Cheetos was a groundbreaking flavor profile when it was originally introduced," Margaret Chabris said. "The 'hot' flavor profile continues to be a top performer for 7-Eleven stores but has broadened to include both urban and nonurban areas."
Many spicy snacks have emerged to challenge Flamin' Hots over the years, including Hot Thang Crunchy Nuggets, Hot 'N Spicy Crunchy Nuggets, Sizzlin' Hot Crunchy Kurls and Sizzlin' Cheese Flavored Twists. But in the city's corner stores, Flamin' Hot Cheetos still reign supreme, owners say.
"It's my No. 1 seller," said Ali Bawazir, who owns Touchdown Food Mart in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. "Kids get 'em for breakfast too. They're crazy about them."
Does anyone come in to buy a plain bag of potato chips? "Rarely," Bawazir said.
If Flamin' Hot Cheetos have any serious competition for young urban allegiance, it's from a Mexican import called Takis, made by Barcel. Especially popular in the Latino community, Takis are tortilla chips that are rolled, fried and coated in lime and chili powder.
"The first time I ate Takis, I thought I would just eat a couple and put it away, but I ate half the bag," said Iman Rana, a senior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago. "They are just like a better version of everything."
While some kids take sides, others swear by both. In August the bright red rivals were jointly exalted in an irresistible music video called "Hot Cheetos and Takis" that has scored more than 3 million views. Created as part of a YMCA-sponsored writing workshop, the song features a group of pint-size urban rappers from Minneapolis reciting the hooky refrain:
"Hot Cheetos and Takis/ Hot Cheetos and Takis/ I can't get enough of these Hot Cheetos and Takis/ Got my fingers stained red and I cannot get them off me/ You can catch me and my crew eating Hot Cheetos and Takis."
Rockford Public Schools used to sell about 150,000 bags of Flamin' Hots each year, often topped with hot nacho cheese. Students complained about the 2010 ban but "have learned to adjust," said the district's director of nutrition services, Renita Weiskircher. The district still sells baked regular Cheetos — with cheese sauce on the side.
At Niles West High School in Skokie, "junk food" sales are banned, so Flamin' Hot sightings are a cause for excitement.
"It means someone brought Flamin' Hots from home or the store," said senior Morgan Gstalter. "They are rare, so you become the coolest kid in class if you have them that day."
In Chicago Public Schools, students report that Flamin' Hots are everywhere. Baked versions are sold in some district vending machines, and regular bags can be sold as school fundraisers.
"Eight out of 10 kids bring them to school," said Lake View senior Abigail Hernandez. "And I used to be one of them in middle school. I ate them every day, even for breakfast, and I got really big. There were days when, if my mother didn't buy them for me, I would get so mad. … It took me three months to quit."
Are snacks like Flamin' Hots addictive? For some people, maybe so. Gene-Jack Wang, a senior scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York state, in September co-wrote a review of the neurobiological overlaps between obesity and substance addiction.
In both conditions, the paper notes, the perceived importance of the reward (food or drugs) becomes exaggerated at the expense of other rewards, triggering "abrupt dopamine increases" that "can override the brain's … control mechanisms" that would normally moderate consumption.
"You can almost equate the craving (for processed food) to that of cocaine," said Wang, a radiologist.
Gearhardt said she is troubled by research suggesting that traditional whole foods might lose their appeal after taste buds become accustomed to certain processed foods.
"In addition to the taste-bud shift, there is some suggestion that these foods could alter the brain's dopamine (reward) system," she said, "and we may no longer be as sensitive to the foods that used to be rewarding."
She said one study found that rats that ate "junk food" and were put back on a regular diet would "walk through electrified mazes, shocking their little feet in search of the junk food again."
But should food-makers be punished for doing their job — essentially making something taste so delicious that customers can't get enough?
"I don't blame them for creating it," Gearhardt said. "I think there is a lot of competition to create … the most rewarding and potentially addictive product possible so people crave it and they want to buy another bag.
"But once the evidence has come out that they have created a substance that is capable of hijacking the neural system ... then I feel like it falls under their ethical obligation to ask how this should affect the way they market and push the product."
Angela Odoms-Young, who studies dietary patterns in urban communities, said she appreciates the emerging work on food addiction but asks: "Do we really need to prove that people are addicted to something before we start limiting things we know are unhealthy to our children, things that have been linked to poor health outcomes for decades?"
"We know that Flamin' Hot Cheetos are, at best, a 'sometimes food,'" said Odoms-Young, an assistant professor in kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "But you have some kids eating three or four bags a day, and that is inevitably going to replace healthier foods."
Some parents may not realize how often their children are eating Flamin' Hots until they wind up taking the kids to the doctor over "concern for blood in their stool," according to Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann, a pediatrician at St. Louis Children's Hospital.
Though parents may have a scare over the false alarm — caused by red food dye — Berchelmann said it also offers a great opportunity for a lesson on gluttony and moderation.
"When you eat something that sends you to the ER with your parents," she said, "that's not something you forget."
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