Schools Banning Flamin' Hot Cheetos

Snack inspires fanatic loyalty among kids; some scientists call it "addiction"

CHICAGO -- Schools in several states are banning Flamin' Hot Cheetos out of concern for the popular snack food's lack of nutrition, reported The Chicago Tribune.

In the 20 years since Frito-Lay launched Flamin' Hot Cheetos, 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 have become shorthand for everything that is wrong with the diets of American children, whose obesity rates have tripled since 1980, said the report.

While it's true that the product delivers 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, the report said.

Some schools and districts, including the Noble Street Charter School Network and the entire Rockford school district, have banned Flamin' Hot Cheetos by name, citing nutritional concerns.

"We don't allow candy, and we don't allow 'Hot Cheetos'," Rita Exposito, principal of Jackson Elementary School in Pasadena, Calif., told the newspaper "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' Hot Cheetos or similar products every day, sometimes even for breakfast, according to the report. 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," he told the Tribune. "Going along with that, we are seeing those classic signs of addiction, the cravings and loss of control and preoccupation with it."

Frito-Lay will not share sales figures for its products or comment on criticisms of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, 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.

A spokesperson for Dallas-based 7-Eleven said the fever for Flamin' Hot Cheetos 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 told the paper. "The 'hot' flavor profile continues to be a top performer for 7-Eleven stores, but has broadened to include both urban and nonurban areas."