Flamin' Hot Cheetos, Takis hard on kids' stomachs

There's a tell-tale red stain on a lot of children's fingertips lately, and it means one thing: They've been eating Flamin' Hot Cheetos and Takis, a Mexican chili-lime rolled corn chip.

Children across the central San Joaquin Valley and nationwide can't get enough of the salty and spicy snacks that have been banned by some school districts.

"At my middle school, all you see is Hot Cheetos or Takis everywhere," said Diana Aranda, a student at Fowler's John Sutter Middle School.

But their popularity has Fresno pediatrician Yvonne Juarez steaming.

The snacks are "processed fire" with too much salt and fat, she said.

The spice increases stomach acidity, so children "get stomach aches, sometimes so terrible they're doubled over in pain," said Juarez, chief of pediatrics at Kaiser Permanente-Fresno. "I've had patients go to the ER because of it. It's insane, absolutely insane."

She hasn't seen red stools, yet. But she has read about parents rushing children to hospital emergency departments, mistaking the red dye in the Cheetos and Takis for internal bleeding.

Stomach aches and discolored stools are only part of the problem. Melissa Ortiz, a Kaiser-Fresno dietitian, said the amount of fat and sodium in the snacks is a concern.

A 1-ounce bag of Hot Cheetos contains 11 grams of fat and 250 milligrams of sodium, and a similar-sized bag of Takis Fuego has 8 grams of fat and 420 grams of sodium, she said.

It's rare, however, for a child to stop at an ounce, she said. Too often, children and teens are eating 2 or 3 ounces of Hot Cheetos or Takis in a single sitting, she said. At that point, "it's not a snack, it's a meal."

Juarez suspects the snacks are addictive. Some research suggests foods high in fat and salt trigger areas in the brain linked to addiction, she said.

To tell her patients to stop eating the snacks is almost like talking to smokers about quitting smoking, she said. "They really don't want to hear that."

The snacks' popularity is beyond question. A video produced in August by children in Minnesota extols them. The children's snack rap went viral and has had more than three million hits on YouTube.

Ortiz said the attraction to Hot Cheetos came across loudly when she spoke at a recent community health event. "I held up the Flamin' Hot Cheetos and kids were cheering," she said.

According to teens spending a recent afternoon at River Park, Hot Cheetos and Takis are hard to resist.

Gabriella Gaona, 16, of Fresno, said her mother no longer lets her eat either snack after she got sick and had to go to the hospital: "I had Takis for six months straight and that's all I would eat."

Takis are such a hot commodity at Ariana Aranda's middle school that students will offer to buy them from each other for $2, she said -- about the same amount they would cost at a convenience store. The chili-lime snack is her favorite -- "I love spicy things."

Schools have tightened soda sales in recent years and school lunches have been under scrutiny to reduce fatty foods, but it's possible to get Flamin' Hot Cheetos -- the baked version -- from snack bars on school campuses in Fresno County, the teens said.

But Ortiz said a baked chip is not a healthy alternative. Baked Flamin' Hot Cheetos have less than half the fat -- 5 grams versus 11 -- than the fried version, and they have slightly less sodium at 220 milligrams, but both contain processed oils and grains and red dyes, Ortiz said: "It's really not a real food."

And whether baked or fried, the snacks are coated in chili powder and spices, Juarez said.

"Just be done with them," she said. "Realize they offer zero nutrition and they hurt our kids."