Cheetos are one of America’s best and most mysterious snacks, boasting both a flavor and a texture not seen anywhere in nature. The industrial processes involved make it basically impossible to replicate the Cheeto at home; not many people have massive cornmeal extruders sitting next to the KitchenAid stand mixer. But thanks to the wonderful laws laid out by the Food and Drug Administration, we can see what’s actually in them, and a little extra research can tell us whether all those chemicals are actually things we want to be eating.
Cheetos are made by creating an “enriched cornmeal” -- basically cornmeal with a bunch of other stuff in it, and feeding it through an extruder that heats the liquid inside to, basically, pop like popcorn, creating the uneven texture that Wired describes as “craggy.” It’s then deep-fried quickly, rather like floating donut dough in oil, and sprayed with powdered cheese product, which is not too different from the cheese powder in a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.
So that’s how Cheetos are made. But what’s in them?
Here’s the ingredients list:
- Enriched corn meal (corn meal, ferrous sulfate, niacin, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid)
- Vegetable oil (corn, canola, and/or sunflower)
- Cheese seasoning (whey, cheddar cheese [milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes], canola oil, maltodextrin [made from corn], salt, whey protein concentrate, monosodium glutamate, natural and artificial flavors, lactic acid, citric acid, artificial color [yellow 6])
First, let’s look at that enriched cornmeal. The cornmeal itself is no big secret: it’s the dried and ground kernels of field corn, a type of corn that’s much tougher and with a lower sugar content than sweet corn -- the kind you’ll buy during the summertime for eating. But what’s it enriched with?
Ferrous sulfate is a scary-sounding one, but weirdly very innocuous. It's, basically, iron. Iron is an essential nutrient, but Frito-Lay, the makers of Cheetos, aren’t necessarily adding it to make you healthier. The FDA’s site dedicated to food additives notes that ferrous sulfate is a common ingredient in enriched flours as a replacement: these flours are so heavily processed that their natural nutrients are bled out. Then they’re added back in, in pure powdered form, to make up for the nutrient depletion. It’s like boiling an apple until it’s no longer red (or green, or whatever) and then coloring it with food coloring so it looks sort of like it did before.
Bs across the board
Niacin, same deal: an essential nutrient that has to be added back into the mix. Niacin is also known as vitamin B3, and without it, you’ll quickly develop weird weaknesses: anemia, headaches, dizziness, nausea, that kind of thing. Good! Add it back in, please.
Thiamine mononitrate is also an additive; it’s a version of thiamin, otherwise known as vitamin B1, though not a naturally occurring one. Thiamin is another nutrient kind of like niacin; it’s not that taking more of it makes you healthier, it’s that without it, you develop serious health problems. Thiamin deficiencies tend to affect the nervous and cardiovascular system.
Anyway, producers like Frito-Lay use thiamine mononitrate, a synthetic powder version of vitamin B1, to replace the regular vitamin B1 that grains like corn naturally contain before they’re bled out. It’s used instead of natural thiamin because it’s cheap and very stable and easy to use; it’s the thiamin replacement of choice for packaged goods.
Sigh, another member of the vitamin B group. Riboflavin is also known as vitamin B2, and is a yellow color the precise shade of urine. In fact, if you take riboflavin as a vitamin, it’ll turn your urine neon yellow. Cool fact!
Riboflavin is necessary for a lot of synthesis of various chemicals into other more useful chemicals throughout the body. Though it’s common in cereals (and yeast is extremely high in it), processed flours like the cornmeal in Cheetos is like the Sahara for riboflavin. It’s estimated that the processing eliminates about 60% of naturally occurring riboflavin, so it’s added back in along with the other nutrients.
And finally we come to the last re-added vitamin B-type nutrient: folic acid, otherwise known as vitamin B9. But this is an interesting one: folates are a loose group of vitamins, without which humans will end up with diarrhea and possibly nerve damage. But folic acid is not folate; folic acid is a synthetic, lab-made replacement that supposedly converts other stuff to folates. But recent research indicates that humans are not very good at using folic acid to create folates, that it’s an inefficient and slow process. That further indicates that, well, folic acid might be bullshit.
OK, finally out of the enriched cornmeal. The next ingredient is a bizarrely vague combination of up to three different vegetable oils. Research indicates that it’s not likely that people will suffer an allergic reaction to one specific type of oil -- not even peanut oil, as long as it’s been fully refined -- but, like, come on. You don’t know what kind of oil you’re using?
Ah ha, the cheese powder. First ingredient: whey. Whey is not cheese; it’s the garbage you get while making cheese. Let’s do a really simple cheese, a fresh farmer’s cheese (aka paneer, queso blanco, ricotta): you take milk, heat it up, and add a souring agent like lemon juice or vinegar. The souring agent reacts with the fats in the milk, and solids begin to form, separating from the liquid. Eventually you’ll strain and drain those solids, which are your cheese, and you’re left with a sour, weird liquid: whey. Whey has some uses; it’s a very good meat tenderizer, for one thing. But it’s strange for a cheese product to have as its first ingredient an item that is sort of the opposite of cheese.
The cheddar cheese is, again, damnably vague, though everything listed is fairly standard. To make cheddar cheese you need to do more than that simple farmer’s cheese: you need to inoculate the milk with bacteria, and then typically you’ll use a stronger chemical to separate the cheese from the whey (technically the cheese at this stage is “curds,” not cheese, but whatever) than lemon juice or vinegar. The bacteria is typically called a “culture,” and different types of bacteria produce different types of cheese. The strong separating chemical is typically rennet, a liquid full of weird powerful enzymes that’s produced in the stomachs of animals like cows.
Frito-Lay lists “cultures” and “enzymes,” which probably corresponds to cheddar bacteria and rennet, in some form or another, but we’re not getting very much detail here on specific strains and varieties.
Canola oil is an oil made from the rapeseed plant, a member of the cabbage and broccoli family. It is a normal oil.
There’s sugar in there, too
And here we come to the first sugar, and it’s one you may not be familiar with: maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a polysaccharide, meaning it’s a long chain made up of simpler sugars like glucose. It’s made, in this case, from corn, though you can make it from basically anything, and it’s pretty common because it’s so cheap and because we like sweet things. Or stable things or thick things; maltodextrin is sometimes used for those purposes rather than sweetening, and we can’t be sure exactly why it’s being used here.
Regardless, it has a glycemic index about twice as high as table sugar, meaning it’ll spike your blood sugar like crazy -- a risky thing for diabetics in particular. Spiked blood sugar is fine if you’re not diabetic and are exercising, but if you’re sitting on the couch, that maltodextrin won’t have anything to provide energy for, so it’ll be stored as fat. Bad fat.
Whey protein concentrate is pretty much what it sounds like: the proteins in whey, isolated. It’s commonly used by bodybuilders for a protein fix, and is not especially unhealthy.
MSG found its way in
Ah ha, here we go, an interesting one: monosodium glutamate, otherwise known as MSG. MSG is a naturally occurring compound, an amino acid that’s tasteless but that amplifies other flavors, especially savory ones. It’s found naturally in tomatoes, aged steak, and Parmesan cheese. And to answer the question: there has never been a single piece of evidence that anyone has a reproducible allergy to MSG. It’s a myth. Probably a racist one, too, relating to distrust of Chinese restaurants.
You’re getting both natural AND artificial flavors
Now we come to another instance where Frito-Lay is merely obeying the letter of the law: “natural and artificial flavors.” The FDA regulates these terms, according to a nice explainer from Serious Eats. “Natural” refers to any flavor extracted from a plant or animal, so if you have concentrated beef flavor made from boiled beef, that’d be natural, or something as normal as cumin powder, that’s natural too. Artificial flavors refer to anything else. These are in small enough doses that Frito-Lay doesn’t have to state exactly what they are... but that’s not to say it’s a good law.
Lactic acid is a naturally occurring acid that’s created in a couple different places: it’s in our muscles, and is responsible for the “burn” you feel while working out, but it’s also produced by certain bacteria called Lactobacillus, which convert sugars found in milk to lactic acid. It’s a basic souring agent, sourced both naturally and artificially, and is probably used here for a tangy flavor. We don’t know where it comes from, but lactic acid is pretty safe regardless.
Citric acid is similar: a souring agent, though this one is found more often in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits like lemons (and some other fruits; berries, mangos, kiwis, and even tomatoes contain substantial amounts of citric acid). It’s delicious.
Where that special color comes from
And finally, one of the last ingredients in the entire list, we get to Cheetos’ Big Bad. Yellow 6, whose full name is Sunset Yellow FCF, is made from petroleum, which, gross already, but studies have also indicated for some time that there’s something very wrong with the dye. It’s used to create yellow and orange flavors, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest also notes that: “Industry-sponsored animal tests indicated that this dye, the third-most-widely-used, causes tumors of the adrenal gland and kidney.”
The FDA says it’s safe in the amounts it’s used, but not all countries agree; it’s already been banned in Sweden, Norway, and Finland, and comes with a warning in the UK.
Salt is salt. And that’s what a Cheeto is, though perhaps “salty, crunchy snack” is good enough for you.
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Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer with a love-fear-hate-enjoy relationship with packaged foods. Follow him @dannosowitz.