Scarlet-hued and finger-staining, Flamin' Hot Cheetos have a devoted following among students across the country who often ditch a healthy lunch for a soda and a crinkly snack bag.
The artificially flavored and colored junk food even has a preteen YouTube rap hit devoted in part to it.
"Snack, snack, snack, crunch," goes the refrain of the song, which was released in August by a Minnesota YMCA. "I can't get enough of these Hot Cheetos and Takis."
The consumption trend seems to have peaked, long after Cheetos-maker Frito-Lay released its first Flamin' Hot variety in the early 1990s. And while high-fat, high-salt snacks targeted at teens and urban markets are nothing new, the fierce devotion of students to Flamin' Hot Cheetos has some questioning whether they're addictive.
In recent years the snack has come under fire from school districts concerned about its nutritional value – or lack thereof.
Several schools in Pasadena, Calif., banned the snacks in 2006, with administrators saying the Cheetos would be confiscated if they were brought to campus by students. The policy has gotten increased media attention recently after a Chicago Tribune story examined the Flamin' Hot snack-food phenomenon, according to Pasadena Unified School District spokesman Adam Wolfson.
"We have to provide foods with a certain amount of nutritional value, and Flamin' Hot Cheetos do not meet that, along with countless other snacks," Wolfson said.
The confiscation policy at some schools was instituted because the Cheetos were causing too much disruption, with kids selling them "on the black market," Wolfson said.
"Are we on a witch hunt for Flamin' Hot Cheetos? No. Are they bad for kids and we're happy to make it harder for them to eat them? Sure," he added.
The nation's second-largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, like Pasadena Unified, follows California law limiting items that can be sold on public K-12 campuses by nutritional content. That generally means no Flamin' Hots or other low-nutrition snacks.
Schools in New Mexico and Illinois, meanwhile, have also reportedly banned the snacks or asked parents to stop buying them for kids, citing nutritional concerns.
A 1 oz. serving of the crunchy variety of Flamin' Hot Cheetos has 160 calories, 11 grams of fat, and 10 percent of day's recommended intake of sodium.
That doesn't sound so bad. However, the snack often comes in bags that offer two or more times that amount of Cheetos, which offer almost no dietary fiber or protein.
The "new bigger size" bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos contains 3 3/4 oz., or nearly 680 calories, 44 grams of fat, and 40 percent of day's recommended sodium, according to the package nutritional label.
For its part, Frito-Lay has recently responded to the controversy, issuing the following statement:
"Frito-Lay is committed to responsible and ethical marketing practices, which includes not marketing our products to children ages 12 and under. We also do not decide which snacks are available on school campuses."
The issue has been the subject of recent research on "hyperpalatable foods" and addiction.
Ashley Gearhardt, a clinical psychology professor at University of Michigan who studies neural similarities between drug addiction and problem eating behaviors, told the Chicago Tribune that people react differently to processed food – which is often simultaneously high in both fat and sugar, unlike natural, whole foods.
"It’s something that has been engineered so that it is fattier and saltier and more novel to the point where our body, brain and pleasure centers react to it more strongly than if we were eating, say, a handful of nuts," Gearhardt told the newspaper.
"Going along with that, we are seeing those classic signs of addiction, the cravings and loss of control and preoccupation with it," she said.