How Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Became the Hottest Snack of 2018

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: The Kitchn)

Two summers ago, less than six months after an eBay bidding war over a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto resembling Harambe (the late Cincinnati Zoo gorilla turned Internet meme) reached upwards of $100,000, I found myself standing in a hall of mirrors filled with an assortment of oddly shaped Flamin’ Hot Cheetos submitted by people all across the country. The cheese dust-covered oddities were affixed to mini pedestals in plexi-glass display cases just begging for tourists of the most highly trafficked area of New York City to Instagram them.

It was there, in a limited-time-only Cheetos exhibit in a corner of the Times Square Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, that I asked myself: How on earth did we get here? Let’s look at the facts.

Cheetos are America’s “bliss point.”

First and foremost, we have science to thank for that. According to a 2013 deep dive into the snack food industry in New York Times Magazine, decades of corporate food scientists and engineers were tasked with identifying certain snack foods’ “bliss point.” The objective? To create snacks optimized to promote “the greatest amount of crave.”

According to food scientist Steven Witherly, Cheetos are the perfect example of a bliss point in action. Witherly says they’re “one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet in terms of pure pleasure.” He even goes as far as to codify their melt-in-your-mouth effect: “It’s called vanishing caloric density … if something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there are no calories in it … you can just keep eating it forever.”

The top-secret Cheetos recipe achieves this, in that our brains have difficulty signaling that we’ve had enough. They’re designed such that those who try them, crave them — intensely. But it’s more than the fact that we love them as a snack; Cheetos have transcended the snack classification. Whether you like it or not, America’s burning passion for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos has left a mark on the cultural footprint of the world. Here are just a few of the ways in which Americans have demonstrated a cultural insatiability for the snack that defies logical explanation.

Cheeto-lovers have their own vocabulary.

There’s an official name for the fluorescent “cheese” dust that sticks to your fingers when you’re elbow deep in a bag of Cheetos. It’s called “cheetle” and it’s “more magical than pixie dust.” (While this has been confirmed by the verified Twitter of Chester Cheetah, the baritone “spokescheetah” of Cheetos who wears sunglasses inside, it has not yet been confirmed by Merriam-Webster.) Despite the fact that the word is not yet in the dictionary, it’s catching on among Cheeto devotees (exhibits A, B, C, and D).

The Cheetos Museum was a thing that existed.

As previously mentioned, back in the summer of 2017, Cheetos partnered with the Times Square location of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! to create The Cheetos Museum. The gallery was inspired by the overwhelming number of people posting photos Cheetos that had an uncanny resemblance to other things on social media.

The exhibit included a visit to the Infinity Hall of Cheetos, in which particularly odd-shaped Cheetos were on display in glass boxes and surrounded by mirrors. Another room was strictly made of walls covered in Cheetos, both crunchy cheese and Flamin’ Hot. While the pop-up has come and gone, the exhibit is now immortalized in the form of a single Cheeto, permanently housed in Ripley’s Odditorium.

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos relentlessly continue to pop up in foods in which they don’t belong.

According to the court of popular opinion, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos impart a smoky flavor when cooked. This is why they make for an appealing topping on other cheese-flavored things, perhaps most notably pizza and mac and cheese, in which one could argue, they most certainly belong.

But Americans are relentlessly putting Flamin’ Hot Cheetos on and in foods in which they do not belong. We’re talking soft-serve ice cream, cupcakes, macaroons, doughnuts, and bagels. I would also be remiss not to mention the viral Flamin’ Hot Cheetos encrusted turkey recipe, circulating since Thanksgiving 2017.

Two Cheetos-themed restaurants opened (then closed).

You likely never got the chance to dine at The Spotted Cheetah (a pop-up in NYC which sold out in two hours and had thousands on a waitlist back in 2017) or the Flamin’ Hot Spot (a pop-up in LA this past fall) — both of which are now closed for business.

The brand partnered with celebrity chefs Anne Burrell in NYC and Roy Choi in LA to create Cheetos-centric menus (and venues) and prove that Cheetos are more than just a snack — they’re fine dining material. Menu items included Flamin’ Hot Cheddar Mac n’ Cheetos, Cheetos Sweetos Sweet and Salty Cookies, Hot Cheetos Burrito, Flamin’ Hot Elotes, and Flamin’ Hot Chipotle Ranch Wings. Although the pop-ups have come and gone, the recipe ideas remain.

There was a Cheetos clothing line.

In the spring of 2017, the snack powers that be partnered with Betabrand to create a line of Cheetos-inspired formalwear. Clearly a joke, it included a blazer with snack-pocket shoulder pads, suspenders with Cheeto pockets, and pants with cheetle napkins attached to the pockets, all of which were auctioned off via Facebook contests. Ridiculous? Yes, but yet another example of harnessing America’s viral love for Cheetos.

A movie about the origin of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is in the works.

Earlier this year it was announced that Fox Searchlight Pictures bought the rights to bring the origin story of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos to the big screen. As the story goes, credit for the original idea goes to Richard Montañez, a former janitor at Frito-Lay, who took home a few flawed, un-cheese-dusted Cheetos to experiment. He created a recipe inspired by elote, grilled Mexican street corn, and pitched the idea to executives. The rest, as they say, is history.

People are effectively overdosing on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are what Chester Cheetah likes to call, “dangerously cheesy,” but it’s all fun and games until someone eats too many. In this past year, there have been reports of people being hospitalized on account of eating too much of the spicy snack. In response to the issue, Dr. Cary Canvender, a gastroenterologist interviewed by WREG of Memphis, TN, said that spicy snacks are likely contributors to gastritis and ulcer-related conditions. Earlier this fall, rapper Lil Xan also blamed a hospital stay on a poor diet of “too many hot Cheetos.” We reached out to a rep from Frito-Lay for comment and heard back saying that they are “unable to comment.”

Is it safe to say that we, as a nation, have reached peak Cheeto yet? I sure hope so.