Aug. 3, 2018 -- The staff at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, TN, took part this week in an unusual taste test.
Doctors brought in several varieties of spicy snack chips such as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Takis.
“We had a taste testing with all my residents and students just so they’d know what they taste like because we’re seeing it all over the place,” says Cary Cavender, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at the hospital.
The chips are dusted with a fiery red powder that brings about 100 kids a month to their specialty clinic with complaints of agonizing stomach pain, and sometimes blood-red vomiting and what often looks like slimy, blood-streaked stool. Doctors say it’s actually just red from the food coloring in the chips, but it can scare parents, especially if they don’t know what their kids have been eating.
They tend to see this problem in school-aged kids and teens, Cavender says, though he’s treated a 2-year-old who ate several bags after getting them from an older sibling.
He says he’s heard from colleagues around the Southeast that they’re seeing similar problems.
“Kids who come into our clinic with abdominal pain, heartburn, maybe reflux, generally that’s become one of the first questions we ask them, is have they been eating hot chips?” Cavender says.
A check of the FDA complaint database for food reveals that the agency has received about two dozen reports over the last 15 years of children and adults who’ve needed medical treatment for stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting after eating spicy snack chips. That’s probably just a fraction of the number of people with similar complaints, though, since most people -- and even most doctors -- don’t know how, or don’t bother, to file a complaint with the FDA.
A spokesman for the FDA encourages the public to let them know about problems with any food. “We provide phone numbers for consumer complaint coordinators for each state and have a web-based reporting form that consumers can either complete online or print out and mail,” Peter Cassell says.
In a written statement, Takis says their chips are safe to eat in moderation and as part of a balanced diet. “Takis ingredients fully comply with U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations and all of the ingredients in each flavor are listed in detail on the label. Always check the serving size before snacking,” the statement says.
Frito-Lay, the company that makes Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.
Some of the problems with hot chips seem to be rooted in poverty and lack of fresh, healthy food. But the chips have also become a cultural phenomenon glamorized by videos on YouTube.
“We have kids in our most prestigious high school, they’re eating just as many there as places that are less socioeconomically advantaged,” Cavender says.
“Certainly around here in Memphis we’ve got areas with ‘food deserts’ where kids are limited in what fresh fruits and vegetables they can get to, much less prepare and eat,” he says.
The chips become part of an eating pattern that includes too many sugary drinks, too much fat, and too little fiber, all of which are unhealthy.
“It’s all those foods,” says Martha Rivera, MD, a pediatrician at Adventist Health in downtown Los Angeles. “Where I work, kids eat junk.”
Rivera has been sounding the alarm about spicy snack chips for years. She’s even experimented with them to find out what makes them so painful to the stomach. She mixed crushed chips with a little water and tested the slurry with a paper strip designed to measure pH, which tells you its acidity.
Normal gut pH is about 5, she says. The pH of the chips was 3, making them even more acidic than the gut’s natural environment.
“We’re starting to see chronic diseases in children that we used to only see in adults,” she says. She says her patients have been diagnosed with diabetes, stomach pain (called gastritis), obesity, and high blood pressure.
She says the pharmacists in the hospital where she works have noticed more kids taking prescription drugs to manage stomach acid, called proton pump inhibitors.
“It’s really sad,” Rivera says.
She says that about a third of her patients that come in with stomach pains have gotten them from hot chips.
“It’s an addictive kind of food. They like the taste so they just eat it and they just want more,” Rivera says.
Nutrition researchers call these kinds of foods ‘highly palatable’ because they stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers, driving people to overeat, even when they aren’t hungry.
A 1-ounce serving of the chips has 11 grams of fat. They also contain a hefty dose of salt and other flavor enhancers like MSG, which can aggravate asthma. Then there’s the ultra-hot spice, which is described on the label as "natural flavors."
Many bags contain several servings. Kids can eat several bags at a time before they start to feel the pain.
Cavender says that’s because nerves that sense pain in the stomach lie on its outer wall, not in the lining, and it takes several hours for the spice to penetrate. The fat in the chips also slows down digestion, making the burn last even longer.
“Six hours later, when they’re hurting or complaining, they’ve eaten other stuff in the meantime. They don’t relate it to the hot chips themselves,” he says.
The problem is so bad that some schools have tried to ban the chips, including schools in California and Colorado.
Cavender says kids still find ways to get them. One of his patients is a hot chips "dealer” who buys big bags of spicy snacks, repackages them and sells them to his classmates.
“He said he makes $20 a day selling hot chips at school. He was sad when summer came,” Cavender says.
Rivera says when she sees kids come in with stomach pain from hot chips, she spends a lot of time talking about the importance of a healthy diet and what kinds of foods are healthy and which ones aren’t.
“You really have to educate people about what they’re eating,” she says. “When you educate people and they start eating better, they feel better.”
Cavender and Rivera say the pain can be treated with antacids, over-the-counter medications that block stomach acid.
Rivera says she doesn’t like giving proton-pump inhibitors to kids. She says a more natural way to reduce the pain is to eat a weak ice pop, such as a Pedialyte pop, and to drink some aloe vera juice, which not only soothes the pain but helps the bowels move to get the chips out.