Sunday, February 10, 2008

Things You Can Learn from Cheetos

The following is a cross post from my sciency blog. For whatever reason, I felt the need to expound upon my love of Cheetos (which I have already done once).


I like to eat healthfully, generally make sure that my food is indeed made out of food and not supremely processed, over-salted and preserved food-like substances. I love lentils and brown rice and have put away a fair amount of tofu in my time.

But then there are Cheetos. I cannot explain my love for Cheetos. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Maybe it started at the vending machine in high school which provided my daily kick of the neon orange glow sticks. I got hooked. They are so good in such a bad way.

The last time I splurged on the dietary horror that is a bag of Cheetos, I did what I have long since trained myself not to do – I looked at the ingredient list. Oy vey. If I brought Cheetos to inorganic chemistry class in college, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten a C – they would have been a great cheat sheet.

I want to know what all that chemical garbage is doing in my food. Why is it there? What role does it serve? The internet came to the rescue of this miniature chemistry lesson.

The following is the (almost) complete ingredient list from a bag of Cheetos, annotated by yours truly:

Enriched corn meal, with all usual vitamin supplements

Vegetable oil

Salt – the third ingredient on the list – no wonder I love Cheetos.

Maltodextrin – polysaccharide produced from starch (rice, corn or potato); easily digestible and absorbed as easily as glucose.


Monosodium glutamate – an amino acid that acts as a potent flavor enhancer. MSG triggers the umami taste receptors, making food taste more savory.

Autolyzed yeast extract – often contains free glutamic acids and is, for that reason, used as a supplement to MSG. “…consists of concentrations of yeast cells that are allowed to die and break up, so that the yeasts’ digestive enzymes break their proteins down into simpler compounds.”

Citric acid – Used for tart flavor and as an antioxidant.

Artificial color – apparently, neon orange doesn’t come easily – Cheetos are colored by no fewer than four food dyes

Partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil

Hydrolyzed soy protein – ”...Soy protein is used for emulsification and texturizing. Specific applications include adhesives, asphalts, resins, cleaning materials, cosmetics, inks, pleather, paints, paper coatings, pesticides/fungicides, plastics, polyesters and textile fibres.” Ok, I am sure that soy protein isn’t as scary as that passage just made it sound, but it sure does give a girl pause.

“Cheddar cheese” – I am sorry, I couldn’t help putting cheese in quotation marks.

Whey – “Whey proteins primarily consist of α-lactalbumin and β-lactoglobulin. Depending on the method of manufacture, whey may also contain glycomacropeptides (GMP).”

Onion powder

Whey protein concentrate – often used in body-building supplements, this is basically pure, milk-derived bioactive protein. Why it is included in my most favorite of bright orange “foods,” I can’t seem to figure out. It doesn’t sound terribly sinister, so I will forgive its inclusion.

Corn syrup solids – sweetener and thickener, dried corn syrup consisting mostly of dextrose. “Corn syrup contains no nutritional value other than calories, promotes tooth decay, and is used mainly in foods with little intrinsic nutritional value.”

Natural flavor – huh?

Buttermilk solids – analogous to dried milk as far as food additives are concerned. “Buttermilk is the liquid remaining from the cream after the butter has been removed from the churn. (This buttermilk should not be confused with the fluid buttermilk sold to consumers, a cultured lowfat milk that resembles buttermilk.)”

Garlic powder

Disodium phosphate – “Disodium phosphate is a sodium salt of orthophosphoric acid and is used as an antioxidant synergist, stabiliser and buffering agent in food. It is also used as an emulsifier in the manufacture of pasteurised processed cheese. Disodium phosphate is added to powdered milk to prevent gelation.” Note: harmful if ingested in quantity. Oooook, limiting Cheeto intake starting…. Now.

Sodium diacetate – basically vinegar in solid form, this additive is used as an antimicrobial/preservative and to add a tangy flavor to foods.

Sodium caseinate – milk protein conjugate used as a binder, emulsifier, or thickener, likely used in the “cheese” in Cheetos.

Lactic acid – ”...fermented from lactose (milk sugar), most commercially used lactic acid is derived by using bacteria such as Bacillus acidilacti, Lactobacillus delbueckii or Lactobacillus bulgaricus to ferment carbohydrates from nondairy sources such as cornstarch, potatoes and molasses. usually either as a pH adjusting ingredient, or as a preservative (either as antioxidant or for control of pathogenic micro-organisms).”

Disodium inosinate – disodium salt of inosinic acid. That clarifies everything, huh? Used in concert with MSG to trigger the umami taste receptors.

Disodium guanylate – “… often added to foods in conjunction with disodium inosinate; the combination is known as disodium 5’-ribonucleotides. Disodium guanylate is produced from dried fish or dried seaweed and is often added to instant noodles, potato chips and snacks, savoury rice, tinned vegetables, cured meats, packet soup. ...The food additives disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate are useful only in synergy with MSG-containing ingredients, and provide a likely indicator of the presence of MSG in a product.”

Nonfat milk solids

Sodium citrate – sodium salt of citric acid, added for tartness and to balance pH.

Carrageenan – obtained from seaweed, indigestible large protein used as a thickening, stabilizing and gelling agent.


What I found most interesting in this chemical roster is the amount of MSG and MSG analogs – no fewer than four separate chemicals to trigger that sought-after umami flavor. Cheetos also contain a fair number and preservatives and stabilizers, all chemicals with natural derivations, but chemicals nonetheless.

My conclusion? You probably won’t die from eating a bag (or eight) of Cheetos every once in a while, perhaps it’s best not to make a habit of it.


Aisha said...

Anna- I have a thing for hot cheetos, have you tried them? They are so bright orange they may glow in the dark. Speaking as someone who has actually worked in a Frito Lay plant, it's best to not think too much about what you're eating, but just enjoy the taste and not eat too much.

JC said...

Those spicy Cheetos rock. When I was little I used to eat those Planters cheese balls that came in a can. They're a little bit airier than standard Cheetos, but they have that same "cheese" taste. I knew MSG was a flavor enhancer, but I had never heard of it being tied to umami, which actually makes a lot of sense. Cheetos have a lot of umami, no? Maybe that's why they're so addictive. Gotta love "Cheeto fingers" too!

Deborah Dowd said...

You are right you are best not to make a habit of cheeto consumption, but I find it very hard. They are definitely my guilty pleasure!

Anna said...

Aisha - It's actually the hot Cheetos that I listed the ingredients for. I should probably disclose that. I don't think they are hot at all! I find them more sour than anything else. I totally forgot that you worked at Frito Lay! Do you have any special insights to share? Are Cheetos more or less bad for me than I think?

JC - I have never tried the cheese balls but am endlessly curious about them. They sound like a good match for bad beer. MSG is the main umami trigger. Cheetos are pretty umami, I would say. I think scraping the cheese off my fingers may be my favorite part of Cheeto consumption.

Deborah - They are addictive, aren't they? I have trouble turning them down.

Anonymous said...

damn it!

does this mean I will stop by at CVS tomorrow,..... and as as result another 1440Kcal to burn?

NO, I'm not gonna surrender this time! No way!


One Food Guy said...

On the science subject, this post triggered a memory. A friend of mine used to eat a lot of cheetos, and he'd wash them down with some Hawaiian Punch. One day, while reading the ingredients of the Hawaiian Punch, he noticed something strange...

Glycerol Ester of Wood Rosin. Apparently it's is a food additive used as an emulsifier and stabilizer, to keep oils in suspension in water. Pretty freaky, huh? Wood Rosin!!

Anna said...

Mehdi - That's it! Be strong! Let me know how it goes... My motivations never last too long.

One Food Guy - Wood rosin? That really doesn't sound like something I want to be ingesting. Although to tell you the truth, I think Hawaiian Punch may have bigger problems than wood rosen.
On a completely different topic - feeling inspired by your gorgeous fritattas, I made one of my own with chorizo, roasted peppers, and leeks. The taste was good but the texture was off again - this time it was rubbery. What am I doing wrong? Help!

Luis Mac said...

Hey, just eat all the cheetos you want and hit the supplement weightloss products and the excersize room.

Great place to start is :)

Julie said...

Cheetos are staple food!!

Michelle said...

Ha ha - this is funny, because our lab has sort of developed a "menu" (if you will) of food that is required at lab meetings - cheetos is one of those foods. There must be something in that ingredient list cheetos that is close to crack...scientist crack.

Anna said...

Luis Mac - Thank you for that completely obnoxious spam comment. 'Preciate it. Please check your spelling next time though.

Julie - I think so too! I can't seem to get enough of them.

Michelle - Scientist crack! I love it! It's funny how every lab has its favorites and must-haves. In my old lab, we used to have donuts from Dunkin' every week. Haaaaad to have the donuts. Ick.

Amanda said...

I totally feel you--Cheetos were once my kryptonite. But then I found Bearitos crunchitos:

They're at Whole Foods. Do give them a try!

phyllis tipton said...

Now after reading all of thus I must now go to store and get some... NOW

phyllis tipton said...

Now after reading all of thus I must now go to store and get some... NOW