Schools Ban Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, But Why Stop There?

On my Houston ISD school food blog, The Spork Report, I once shared a candid photo of a Houston middle schooler’s “lunch:”  a bag of  Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos doused in cheesy nacho sauce:


Both of those items were purchased by the student from one of my district’s cafeteria a la carte lines (to be accurate, I think HISD actually sells a “knock-off” brand of Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos), and the photo caused a bit of an uproar here in Houston.  It prompted many people, including one of our school board trustees, to ask: why are schools in the business of selling this sort of non-nutritive junk food in the first place?

So I was interested to read recently that various schools around the country — in Pasadena, New Mexico and Illinois – are banning Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from their campuses.  The reasons for the bans range from the product’s poor nutritional value (26 grams of fat per bag for the non-baked version) to the fact that kids are leaving hard-to-clean, bright red fingerprints all over classrooms.  (Ick.)

But Monica Eng of The Chicago Tribune, who broke the story on the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto bans, also examines the potentially addictive properties of the product, a product which her interviewed expert describes as a “hyperpalatable” food.

“Hyperpalatablity” is a term first coined by Dr. David Kessler, former FDA Commissioner, who in 2010 wrote a provocative book describing the methods used by the food industry to stimulate demand for its products.  According to Kessler, processed food companies and chain restaurants carefully calibrate fat, sugar and salt to trigger the brain’s reward system, leading eaters to consume more and more of the food, often well past physical fullness, in a manner that resembles (or might actually be) an addiction.

When I first heard about Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating, I totally pooh-poohed the notion of food addiction.  Back then I felt that anyone complaining of a food addiction just lacked basic willpower and was looking for someone else to blame.  But then I encountered a food product which sent my own synapses firing wildly, causing me to abandon all control.  I wrote a semi-facetious post about that experience — “My Love Affair With Stacy and What It’s Doing to the Kids;” here’s an excerpt:

These days, when I think no one in my family is looking, I like to slip discreetly into the pantry to pay Stacy a little visit.  I’m in control here, I tell myself every time. I’m not going to let things go too far.  But then later, many long, delicious moments later, I emerge from the pantry — guilty, ashamed, and with salty crumbs all over my face and shirt that are as telltale as any lipstick on a collar.  Yes, there will be an extra five pounds on my hips by the pool this summer, but that’s a small price to pay for a love like this.

All kidding aside, what Stacy taught me is that all of us are potentially vulnerable to the potent allure of processed snacks.  So what makes Flamin’ Hot Cheetos so different from other junk food that it deserves its own special ban in schools?

My answer:  nothing.

Yes, Flamin’ Hots have an aura of “danger” which fuels their wild popularity with kids — and which other food companies have shamelessly copied (e.g., here and here) — but when it comes to “addictiveness” and to poor nutritional quality, one kid’s Flaming Hot Cheetos is another kid’s Cool Ranch Dorito.  All of these snacks are quite deliberately designed to have that “betcha can’t eat just one” quality and none of them contribute positively in any way to a child’s diet.

And that returns us to the question posed at the outset:  why are schools in the business of selling this stuff?

That very question is about to become part of the national conversation when USDA soon releases proposed nutritional standards for “competitive” school food, i.e., all the foods and beverages sold in campus vending machines, cafeteria snack bars, at fundraisers and the like.  My fear, discussed often on this blog, is that the processed food industry will exert its tremendous lobbying power to keep these regulations as weak as possible.   Down the road we may no longer have chips with 26 grams of fat sold on school campuses, but I have little doubt we’ll still see rejiggered, “lite” versions of these same products.

Is that really where we want to end up?  Couldn’t we do better?  Is it remotely possible that Congress will follow the lead of San Francisco USD and require snack products sold on campus to not only be low in fat and salt but to also contain naturally-occurring positive nutrients?  (That “naturally-occurring” qualifier is essential if we’re to avoid the inevitable “Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos — now fortified with Vitamins B, C & E!”).

I’ll let you know when the proposed competitive food rules are released for comment, and then let’s see what we can do to get our voices heard.

[*Ed. Update:  Post updated on 11/19/12 at 5:oopm CST to credit The Chicago Tribune, versus other news outlets, for the original reporting on the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto bans.]

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  1. barbara says

    We do sell the baked. Version of hot cheetos its our number one seller. As to the reason we sell ala carte items is that it helps unfortunatearely to my labor hours allowed in the kitchen without it I would lose an employee

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Barbara: This is the crux of the problem, of course: schools need the money that junk food brings in. But I have read reports of schools which have replaced junk food a la carte with healthy fare (but totally replaced it so the other stuff isn’t an option) and have stayed afloat. I never know if I can believe those reports, though!

      • Maggie says

        Replacing with healthy fare…that could be one of those things that falls under the “what works in one school might not work in another” (credit to Dana Woldow for that. )

        My (sarcastic…to be clear!) thought, the best way to solve the issue – just make sure that every school has all the funding they need to serve healthful meals, not linked to participation. Then, they wouldn’t have to worry at all about keeping the budget in line, just make the perfect meals (once we agree on the definition for that) and wait until the students realize what is best for them.

        On a more sincere note, I think it is an uphill battle when that type of food is acceptable and available in the “real world”. I agree that it is valid to consider the idea to limit and ban items in certain environments, for certain age groups. I get it, I do. But, I’m not sure a ban is the whole answer, without looking to see what is done to support the change.

        • Bettina Elias Siegel says

          Maggie: So wish your second paragraph could be a reality! If school food service depts. could be freed from having to operate like self-sustaining businesses, we wouldn’t need the a la carte in the first place. But that’s a pipe dream, I know.

          And I hear what you’re saying about bans. Just to be clear, I have no expectation that the final rules will ban all processed snack foods, and I know the majority of parents probably don’t even want that. But I do think we need to go in demanding the most healthful options we can reasonably ask for, knowing full well that we’ll achieve far less than that goal. Does that make sense?

          • Maggie says

            Yes, it does make sense. I guess that is another one of those “the way the world operates” situations, the political part of things.

            And I’ll toss out another thought, sarcastic again (but, also real, I’m sure) – students will gain business skills as young entrepreneurs will be selling out of their lockers.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      I did! Thanks for posting here, too, for other readers to find it. It was similar to this piece that I published here and on the Huffington Post about two weeks ago.

  2. Janaki says

    I pack my kids lunches every day. And I go to have lunch with them often, so I see what goes on in the cafeteria. The problem? One size fits all federal mandates designed to ensure good nutrition are applied to very diverse school districts and very diverse students. The new federal rules mandate that a fruit and veg are served with the lunch, or if the child only wants a slice of pizza, for example, they have to pay more for an “a la carte”. And the number of calories a child is allowed to be served is limited in the upper grades.

    Every single apple and every single little plastic box of lettuce on the second graders’ trays goes straight into the trash. Serving it is mandatory, eating it is not. And in the upper grades, the calorie limit can be challenging for a kid who runs track before school and goes straight to Lacrosse practice after school.

    I am saddened to see all of that food going into the trash, and I wonder what this is teaching our kids. Even those who bring lunch watch all that food being thrown away. Outside of packing our lunches and helping other families in my community learn how easy it is to pack a healthy lunch, what can we do?


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