Corn Chips, Cheesy Cheetos, and Contamination Control..Oh My

Cheetos open bag

In the past few articles, we’ve brought you news of a whole host of new, future foods for human consumption – from the farming of camels for milk to the lure of chocolate as a functional food to the cellular agriculture of insect protein. And one theme that has remained constant in these articles has been product innovation in the use of laboratory and cleanroom environments to engineer a new generation of macronutrients to meet the nutritional needs of our growing world population.

And judging by your responses, we’ve hit on a rich seam of interest to our industry and community. After all, whether we indulge in these 21st century victuals or not, it’s always interesting to see where we could be headed if the promise of early adoption is fulfilled. But one direction we haven’t get pursued is a reflection on the kind of items that are so characteristic of our nation and society: snack foods.

Beloved of Super Bowl and tailgate parties, midnight snackers, and kids everywhere, Cheetos have been in the news recently.

Certainly in the past couple of years, the trademarked name has been bandied about in the news, social media, and everyday conversation, albeit in reference to a – shall we say, cultural – phenomenon other than the snack chip itself. However, when it comes to the actual food, the subject is no less interesting. Did you know, for instance, that Cheetos were originally created by Richard Montañez, a janitor who happened to work at Frito-Lay? Or that research into incorporating dried cheese into snacks was pioneered by the US military as a way of increasing caloric intake and nutrition for troops? Or that worldwide, the traditionally spicy-cheesy snack is available in 50 flavors including strawberry and Pepsi.(1)  

No, those nuggets of trivia had passed us by too. So what is the fascination with these fried, orange, cheesy cornmeal extrusions? And why are we discussing them today? All great questions – let’s take a look…

Cheetos is a brand produced by Frito-Lay, a company established in 1932 by C. E. Doolin and Herman W. Lay, a couple of young entrepreneurs with an interest in food.

Doolin had purchased a recipe for corn chips which he used to make batches in his mother’s kitchen, feeling them out of the back of his Model T Ford. Lay had purchased a potato chips company and, in 1965, the pair began a mutualistic business relationship wherein Doolin’s Frito Co. sold Lay’s potato chips in the Southwest and Lay reciprocated by bringing corn chips to the Southeastern market. Merging with Pepsi-Cola in 1965, the new PepsiCo created a nationwide distribution network to offer snack foods to all and the Cheeto quickly became a national favorite quickly outstripping the company’s other brands, like Rold Gold, Ruffles, and The Walking Taco line of foods, in sales.

Enough with the history – how are these neon orange snacks made?

We’re glad you asked because, according to an article in Wired, the process of turning ‘a hunk of cornmeal into a knobby Cheeto may take only a few minutes, but it requires a fine-tuned industrial dance that leaves no room for error.’(2) And, as we well know within the contamination control industry, no errors in food production should always be a manufacturer’s highest goal. Stored in a silo, the base ingredient, cornmeal, is pumped into a hopper and then to an extruder to be ground between metal plates. In the same way as wheat is is milled into flour, the friction leads to a breakdown of the corn, melting the starch, and allowing trapped moisture to escape. This sudden release of moisture causes the cornmeal to ‘pop,’ thereby resulting in the iconic Cheeto shape. From the extruder, the cornmeal passes through a fryer, before being sprayed with an oil and powdered cheese blend in a tumble drum. Once cooled, the product is packed for distribution, and a savory snack for those with midnight munchies is ready for consumption.  

And this all seems relatively harmless, after all it’s just a fun snack food.

For most people, consuming Cheetos or other similar chips may not be a problem but, according to CBS News, a 17-year old in Memphis, TN, lost her gallbladder to overindulging in such spicy foods. Reportedly eating up to four bags per week, the teen succumbed to what gastroenterologist Dr. Cary Cavender of Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, a pediatric medical center in Memphis, TN, described as an increase in ‘gastritis and ulcer-related stuff’ which he traces in part to the consumption of spicy snack foods.(3) However before rushing to judgement of the teen’s over-use of the humble snack, let’s recall that the brain has evolved to associate the sound of crunching with the idea of freshness and therefore health. Add into that mix the concept of ‘vanishing caloric density’ – a term coined directly in relation to Cheetos – it becomes easier to understand why we crave these products. According to Publishers Weekly, ‘vanishing caloric density’ refers to the phenomenon whereby food that melts in the mouth fools the brain into dismissing the caloric content: ‘No calories, no reason for the brain to tell you to stop eating already.’(4)

Furthermore, the salt in highly processed snacks leads to what food scientists term ‘flavor burst’ – wherein the substance interacts with the tongue immediately to hit the brain’s pleasure zone. And what do these chips contain in abundance? Salt. Flip over a packet of Cheetos Crunchy and you’ll see salt listed as an ingredient no fewer than four times, the sodium content representing (at 250mg) 11% of the daily value. And that is for a serving of just 21 pieces, or 28 grams.  

In addition, it’s not just sodium intake, gastritis, or other stomach-related problems that should concern consumers – it’s also the problem of product contamination. Take, for instance, the recall of Cheetos Cheddar and Jalapeño Crunchy Flavor. If you keep a close eye on the UK’s Suffolk Trading Standards blog – and who doesn’t? – you’ll already know that this particular product was pulled from British grocery shelves when it was discovered to contain milk, an undisclosed but very common allergen. Not only a nuisance for vegans and other plant-based consumers, milk is also a real risk for those with an allergy or even a lactose intolerance. And what’s worse is that the undeclared milk was later found to be in three additional Cheetos varieties: Crunchy Canisters, Flamin’ Hot Canisters, and Crunchy Cheese Flavoured (sic) Snacks.(5)  

But how are these products becoming tainted with such a well known allergen?

 After all, Frito-Lay’s website proclaims proudly that ‘[n]early 57,000 Frito-Lay associates across the country work hard to bring you the snacks you love. Whether in research and development, manufacturing, sales, transportation, marketing or beyond, our Frito-Lay family is dedicated to ensuring your snacking experiences are the very best they can be.’(6) Which should not include undisclosed ingredients. Moreover, this is especially true given that the company invested in an ultra-clean, high-tech manufacturing facility back in 2011.

However, on closer examination, the Arizona facility is clean in a wholly different way than we, in the contamination control realm, would expect when it comes to food manufacturing. According to Fast Company, Frito-Lay pioneered a ’75% net-zero energy plant that [it] is calling the “greenest manufacturing facility in the US.”’(7) The plant was engineered to recycle 75% of its waste water and to use municipally-sourced waste wood to power a biomass boiler. The plant also leverages a 5 megawatt photovoltaic system, a solar Stirling engine to convert heat energy to mechanical energy, a solar shade parking area, and high-efficiency transportation units. In terms of energy efficiency and the use of renewables, it’s certainly a good model to emulate and has the additional logistical and financial benefit that should changing local environmental conditions become problematic – say, a prolonged drought – the model already exists to support adaptation rather than relocation.

Which is great for the company, the communities in which these manufacturing plants are located, and – of course – for Cheetos addicts. But environmentally ‘clean’ facilities do not necessarily preclude the problems of product contamination. And concerningly for such a behemoth as Frito-Lay, the corporate website does not, at time of writing, offer any information regarding manufacturing safeguards and quality control. With Wired reporting that every ‘half hour, an in-house lab analyzes the chemical composition of samples pulled from the cooking line to verify that the Cheetos have the right density and nutritional content. Then, every four hours, a four-person panel convenes to inspect and taste the snacks, comparing them to perfect reference Cheetos sent from Frito-Lay headquarters,’ we would expect to find information on corporate protocols such as a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan or current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP).(8) But a site search left us empty-handed.

So where is the quality control?

We have to assume that good practices do exist in a company that touts itself as ‘putting consumers first in every decision we make’ but the lack of transparency when it comes to the kinds of safeguards we expect from food manufacturers combined with the tainting of products with potentially dangerous allergens leaves us concerned.(9) Environmentally clean production facilities are terrific but public health must also be a #1 priority. And the reputation of Cheetos, along with that of other Frito-Lay favorite, Lay’s Lightly Salted Barbecue Flavored Potato Chips, is suffering from avoidable errors.(10) For the company, it might be time for a review of quality control protocols, or perhaps it’s time for us, as consumers, to consider switching to a different kind of midnight snack…

With all of that said, if you remain a die-hard Cheetos fan, you might be interested to know that  the story of the snack’s inventor, Richard Montañez, is currently receiving the Hollywood treatment. Optioned by Fox Searchlight and to be produced by DeVon Franklin, ‘Flamin’ Hot’ will ‘tell the true story of Richard Montañez […] who grew up as a migrant farm worker picking grapes in the fields of Southern California before becoming a janitor at Frito-Lay. [Montañez succeeded in] transforming the Frito-Lay brand into a pop culture phenomenon and disrupting the entire food industry in the process. Now commonly referred to as the Godfather of Multicultural Marketing, it was that initial idea that would spark a billion-dollar brand and catapult him from janitor to elite corporate executive.’(11) Indeed the story of Montañez is one of the classic ‘American dream’: an immigrant with a low-wage job seizing an opportunity to create a product that ultimately becomes part of the national fabric. And the historical irony is perhaps not lost on those myriad Cheeto meme creators currently hard at work on political social media…

Are you a loud and proud Cheetos fan? Or do you restrict your urge for the cheesy chips to the annual Super Bowl party? Whatever your fondness for this iconic snack, we’d love to hear your thoughts!  



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