Show me a child with orange fingers and a mustache of yellow crumbs, and I’ll show you an empty bag of Cheetos nearby. This crunchy snack from Frito-Lay has been around for ages, and is very popular with kids. Chester Cheetah, the official mascot, has been trying to win adult fans in recent years as well.
This is a snack, so we don’t expect any health benefits. But let’s see if there is any downside to this brightly colored finger food.
What you need to know:
A serving is 21 pieces. Maybe a 2 year old can stop at 21 pieces, but most kids will down much more than that. Each of these servings is 160 calories and contains 10 grams of fat, 2 of which are saturated. The fat is 15% of the daily value. Now imagine you down a more average serving size that is 2-3 times the minuscule amount. You’ll have used up between one third to one half of your daily fat allowance. The sodium level is 290mg or 12% of the daily value per “serving”. There are no vitamins or minerals worthy of discussion.
Here’s a quick peek at the ingredient list:
Enriched Corn Meal (Corn Meal, Ferrous Sulfate, Niacin, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, and Folic Acid), Vegetable Oil (Contains One or More of the Following: Corn, Soybean, or Sunflower Oil), Cheese Seasoning (Whey, Cheddar Cheese (Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), and Less than 2% of the Following: Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Salt, Maltodextrin, Disodium Phosphate, Sour Cream (Cultured Cream, Nonfat Milk), Artificial Flavor, Monosodium Glutamate, Lactic Acid, Artificial Color (Including Yellow 6), Citric Acid), and Salt.
The leading ingredients make sense – corn, oil, and some sort of cheese. It’s the extras, though, that make us cringe. First up – partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. This means trans-fat is present in the product. It appears as zero in the nutrition facts panel because of a loophole in FDA regulations that allows manufacturers to round down a value smaller than half a gram per serving, down to zero. But even half a gram of trans-fat is very unhealthy. And as most people consume much more than the suggested serving size, they may be getting much more trans-fat than they bargained for.
Then there is artificial flavor, which nobody knows its makeup, as it is a trade secret. Why do corn, oil, and cheddar cheese need artificial flavorings? Aren’t they flavorful enough? Whenever seeing a product artificially flavored, ask yourself why the base ingredients weren’t tasty enough on their own.
The MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) is responsible for the umami (savory) flavor, but some people steer away from it as it causes them allergic reactions. And then there’s the artificial colors. Glowing orange is not a natural color, but it has become the trademark of Cheetos. Too bad Yellow #6 is used, an artificial coloring that is derived from a possible carcinogen, and also has been shown to cause hyperactivity in children.
What to do at the supermarket:
As corn snacks go, popcorn is your best bet. Just make sure to limit the additional ingredients (oil, salt). Even unflavored Doritos or Tostitos, Cheeto’s cousins, are a better choice.