Kids Love Hot Cheetos But Schools Hate Them

Olivia Thomas, 11, is a 5th grader at Jackson Elementary School in Pasadena, Calif.

hide captionOlivia Thomas, 11, is a 5th grader at Jackson Elementary School in Pasadena, Calif., and a big fan of Hot Cheetos.

Luke Burbank, NPR

Hot Cheetos are a big winner for the Frito-Lay company. The extremely spicy, crunchy and somewhat addictive snack is hugely popular with schoolkids. But school officials are threatening to ban the junk food because they worry that kids are gorging themselves.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Now a story about a snack food that is winning no culinary awards. If you've got school age children, you may be aware of a red menace that is sweeping the nation, Flaming Hot Cheetos. The snacks have become so popular that some schools are banning them.

NPR's Luke Burbank visited one such school in Pasadena, California, where for many students, the ban just seems to make the snacks more tempting.

LUKE BURBANK: Rose Ingber is the kind of elementary school principal you wish you'd had. She's friendly but firm. She calls many of her students at Jackson Elementary baby or honey. There's just one thing, though, Rose Ingber will not stand for, junk food.

ROSE INGBER: I don't think it's good for them. If you look at it, there isn't anything nutritional in there. It's all a lot of chemicals and food coloring.

BURBANK: That's why last year when she took over as principal at Jackson, she banned the stuff. And she says the crackdown has been mostly successful, but there is one snack that still bedevils her, one snack the kids spend their recesses talking about. The Road Runner to her Wile Coyote, Flaming Hot Cheetos.

INGBER: They don't just buy the little single bags. They usually bring the family-size bags. I don't like Red Hot Cheetos at all.

BURBANK: Her students, however, have a slightly different take on the cheese- flavored corn snacks.

SIEGEL: I like them so much. They're my favorite. When I eat Hot Cheetos, I get crazy.

SIEGEL: I just love Hot Cheetos. I love them so much.

BURBANK: Shiton Taylor (ph), Olivia Thomas, David Isaiah and others are huddled around a picnic table on the Jackson playground. They say they love the spiciness, the crunch, the illicit nature of the snacks, even the red powder that invariably ends up all over them and their clothes.

What's going on with your pants here?

SIEGEL: Today I ate some Hot Cheetos in the morning and I got some on my hands. And then I licked it so it got red so I wiped them on my pants.

BURBANK: In asking parents not to send kids to school with the snacks, the Midland, Texas, school district called Hot Cheetos a janitorial nightmare.

MARCY PELCHAT: We think it's probably the case that when you eat a spicy food and experience a burn, you have a release of these morphine- or opium-like chemicals in the brain.

BURBANK: Marcy Pelchat is a food preference expert at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. She says when we eat spicy foods, something called our trigeminal nerve is actually irritated. Scientists theorize the body releases endorphins to help us cope with the discomfort.

PELCHAT: So you get a little high from release of these chemicals.

BURBANK: Did you hear that, mothers of America? Pelchat says when you take that high and combine it with kids' huge susceptibility to trends and peer pressure, you've got a recipe for selling lots of Flaming Hot Cheetos, or as the Frito- Lay company likes to refer to them --

JARED DOHERTY: Extruded snack. And that's what we call a Cheeto.

BURBANK: Jared Doherty is a Frito-Lay spokesperson. He says Cheetos are the number one selling extruded cheese-flavored snacks in America. And Flaming Hot Cheetos are definitely their rising star, especially in places like Texas and California.

DOHERTY: The rate that this product has become so popular has been a surprise to some degree. It has grown very quickly along with the trend in the food industry for spicier and bolder flavors.

BURBANK: Of course at the same time, Americans' taste for spice has been growing, so have their waistlines. Hoping to allay parental fears, Frito-Lay has now introduced the slightly healthier baked Flaming Hot Cheetos. Calories and fat were not big topics of conversation, though, among the fifth graders at Jackson Elementary in Pasadena. School was out and out came their contraband bags of hot Cheetos. There was, however, a less publicized health risk that these kids were well aware of.

What would happen to me if I ate this whole bag.

Unidentified Child #4: You might have the runs.

Unidentified Child #5: Your booty might be burning.

BURBANK: A side effect bad enough to make even a hungry fifth grader think twice.

Luke Burbank, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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