Pass the cheese, please 

Orange snack chips color your appetite

Orange foods have been unfairly categorized as "healthy." Sure, carrots are good for your eyes, tangerines have ridiculous quantities of vitamin C and egg yolks are crammed with protein, but what about foods that were born naked and only came into their orange-ness after being bathed in unpronounceable chemicals? Yes, my friends, I'm talking about your favorite "so-bad-it's-good" food--snack chips. And not just any snack chips, but the most unnaturally, offensively orange snack chips on the planet.

This short list is topped by Doritos and Cheetos. The latter is especially dear to my heart as it was part of a childhood ritual involving a bag of original flavor and a tub of real sour cream. While watching Saturday morning cartoons, I would ceremoniously take each crunchy tidbit between the thumb and third finger of my right hand and roll it until it was stripped of its MSG and imitation cheese plumage. Then I dipped it in sour cream, ate and repeated. When they had all been thusly devoured, I scraped the cheesy deposits off my fingers with my front teeth and let them dissolve in my mouth. Don't even try to psychoanalyze that one ...

The point is, there is something very American and basic and comforting about cheese-flavored snack chips. Part of the reason is they are almost exclusively produced by Frito-Lay, which is owned by Pepsi-Co (who we're pretty sure owns most of this planet and some of the beachfront property on Mars). The other part of the reason is that they're food for the child-like soul that is drawn to bright colors and the faint smell of vegetable oil. Health-wise, they may not have antioxidants and vitamins, but I would bet on the fact that these snacks possess some of the qualities generally associated with "natural" orange vittles--like promoting physical energy, mental activity and sexual appetite. The color is also purported to jolt parts of the brain that control feelings of happiness and contentment. So the next time you feel down, wrap your arms around a party-size bag of partially hydrogenated goodness.

Some of you might be wondering what that heinous little grid on the back of the bag has to say about the "health benefits" of artificially flavored, artificially colored "cheese food." If you consult the Web sites of these two classics, you'll notice a lot of emphasis on responsible indulgence (try breaking that concept down for a 10-year-old; it's like trying to explain the Northern Lights to a mollusk). Cheetos are even issued with this warning: "May cause a little dose of cheese-mania. Symptoms may include orange fingers, an orange tongue and a dangerously cheesy attitude!" What they don't say is that this dangerously cheesy attitude comes at the price of 160 calories, 10 grams of fat, 290 milligrams of sodium and 15 grams of carbs--and that's just one serving, one-ounce, 21 irregular knobs of cornmeal endorsed by a pant-less Cheetah! However, they do have two grams of ill-begotten protein and enough flavor to make it all worth it.

If original isn't your bag, try Flamin' Hot, Flamin' Hot with Limon (limon?), Twisted, Puffs, All-Natural White Cheddar Puffs or the baked variety (which doesn't have nearly as much "cheese food" to roll onto one's fingers ...). Mixed in with propaganda about the wonder of Cheetos are tips to balancing fun snacks with a healthy body. Highlights include something called wet head games (I'm not even going to touch that one) and a link called "managing your child's weight" that connects to a blank page. Oh, the humanity ...

On the Dorito end of things, there is almost no end to the shades and flavors of orange. There's Nacho Cheesier, Black Pepper Jack, Four Cheese, Light Nacho Cheesier, Mini Nacho Cheesier, Baked Nacho Cheesier, Reduced Fat Nacho Cheesier, Rollitos Nacho Cheesier and Spicier Nacho. In the time it takes you to figure out what the difference is between "light," "baked" and "reduced fat," you could burn off the full-fat version's 11-chip serving of 140 calories, 7 grams of fat, 200 milligrams of sodium and 17 grams of carbs, redeemed once again by the token two grams of protein. If you need extra motivation, just heed the grossly modified Latin catch phrase: "Cheese the day."

In the end, they may not be the best for your waistline, but these distant cousins of real orange food add a lot of color to our otherwise fiber-rich, low-sugar existence.

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