Flamin' Hot Cheetos have long been the favored spicy snack in many elementary schools. At the school where I taught, the cafeteria sold small bags of them, and several students would sneak the Hot Cheetos out and snack on them in the halls between classes.
I didn't mind. Chris G. would rarely write his name on his papers, but I could always identify his work by the red-orange fingerprints smudged on it.
Then one day, in an enterprising bid to increase revenue, the cafeteria began to sell larger, 99¢ bags of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. A dozen fourth-grade boys bought bags, and each of them consumed considerably more than one serving.
Predictably, one of the students was unable to keep them in his stomach, and in a hysteria-driven domino effect, the rest of the lads turned the boys' room into a hot-pink horror story, triggering a three-custodian alarm and an epidemic alert in the nurse's office.
The big bags of Cheetos were pulled from the cafeteria the next day, and weeks later the small snack-size bags reappeared, to no further incident.
Flamin' Hots are still popular in elementary, but in many middle schools, it's Takis. Effective teachers at the school I visit have been using them as classroom perks, but now the teachers themselves prefer bags of Mini Takis, choosing them instead of candy and granola bars from the principal's complimentary snack basket.
Taste I tried the Takis Fuego, in the indigo bag. The little red rolled-up corn sticks are as hot as Flamin' Cheetos, but they're dense and crunchy, as opposed to the airy and crispy texture of Cheetos. However, I was unable to finish my first attempt, because of the overwhelming acidity and tartness of the lime flavor.
The second attempt was more satisfying. The tartness of a Taki is the key to its success. As I learned from Paul Pacult at a tequila tasting, sour foods make you salivate, and when you salivate, you get hungrier. Tart margaritas sell more Tex-Mex food, and tart, spicy snacks leave you craving more.
On the other hand, Flamin' Hot Cheetos, with similar corn, chile and citric acid ingredients, also contain cheese product, which coats the taste buds, dries out the mouth and dulls any craving past a certain point.
Guerilla Tak-tic So how did Takis become widespread? Not in supermarkets, where the Texas-based Frito-Lay empire commands yardage of shelf space, with Takis claiming but a few feet. The smart move by Takis owner Barcel, an arm of Mexico's Grupo Bimbo, was to invade convenience stores and gas stations. The Takis displays moved into the spots left by the departure of the Twinkie, which disappeared when Hostess Brands went bankrupt. Goodbye sugar, hello spice.
Classic Bad Internet It's not all smooth sailing for Barcel, however, especially online. The first Google result for "Takis" is a Snopes.com report, which addresses a rumor that the snacks cause ulcers and stomach cancer. This has all the classic symptoms of a rumor, as the claimant never mentions the name of the doctor referred to in the report. The reasoned response, from this McClatchyDC story about Takis and Flamin' Hot Cheetos, mentions the names of all the doctors.
As I noted before, the list of ingredients for Takis is nearly identical to those of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, except for the cheese. Sure, they both look like chemistry experiments, but if there was an epidemic of cancer from hot snacks, the M.D. Anderson Hospital would have picked up on it by now.
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Frito-Lay has Google problems, too, with reports of schools in California and New Mexico seeking to ban Flamin' Hot Cheetos. Those schools haven't learned what Houston schools figured out years ago -- don't give children more than a 2-ounce-serving bag of extremely spicy snacks with stomach-irritating citric acid.
Takis may be a tasty reward for academic striving, but they're also a lesson -- about rational thinking, gluttony and the right to choose for yourself what you want to eat.