cheetos

Finding food has never been easy. Our ancestors fought off predators while hunting and gathering. The best fruits? Well, they’re out on the limbs, of course, where climbing has always been most dangerous. But the challenges of our less-evolved brethren pale in comparison to our extreme food obsessions of modernity. No, this isn’t binge eating, or even a diagnosable eating disorder for that matter. It’s much weirder.

Lining up around the block for something called a Cronut is one thing, as is paying thousands of dollars for the (perceived) last Twinkie. But those extreme displays are actually rather mild when compared with, say, going to the emergency room because you ate too many Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or drank too many energy drinks. That’s precisely what’s happening though. But these emergency visits aren’t the result of binge eating. “Too many” Cheetos in this case can be just one or two serving-size bags.

According to Medical Daily, spicy Cheetos are sending scores of people—usually teens and tweens—to the ER with gastritis symptoms including bloating, burning, and vomiting. And it’s not because they have an (obvious) allergy to the cheese or corn…no, it’s much gnarlier than that. “Pediatricians across the nation believe that spicy hot Cheetos and other chips are causing plenty of unnecessary emergency room visits.” Is spice overloading a medical condition? Apparently it is now. “Not only do doctors see kids doubled over with stomach pain after downing several bags of the snacks, but they also see lot of worried parents who believe their child’s stool has blood in it, due to the dark orange and red coloring of the snacks.”

The hot snacks are also loaded with salt and fat reports Medical Daily: “about 21 pieces of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos contains 160 calories, 250 milligrams of sodium, 11 grams of fat, and 1.5 grams of saturated fat.” And because the product has been selling so well for Frito-Lay, other snack companies have gotten into the market with products like Hot ‘N Spicy Crunchy Nuggetz, Sizzlin’ Cheese Flavored Twists, and Sizzlin’ Hot Crunchy Kurls. They pour on the hot peppers and push the products to market without much consideration for kids who tend to eat these snacks while playing video games or watching movies and not watching how many servings they’ve eaten.

The problem doesn’t stop there. What are many kids washing these suicide snacks down with? Caffeinated energy drinks, of course. And that can also be a deadly mistake. According to NPR, “energy drink-related [ER] visits rose from 10,068 in 2007 to 20,783 in 2011,” Prior to 2007, “energy drink incidents were too few to report.” In 2012, the FDA confirmed at least five deaths related to consuming caffeinated energy drinks, including a 14-year-old girl.

While schools have banned many of the culprits, kids are still gaining access to these food products—often at markets that are on the way to and from school. And their parents aren’t far behind them, either.

“At home, consumers are more careful about what they eat,” Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst at research firm NPD Group told Bloomberg Businessweek. “At restaurants, they are more indulgent.” And research confirms that, notes Businessweek, “only 8 percent of consumers said they look for healthy options when they go out to eat.”

Restaurants, particularly fast food chains, now have ample opportunity to meet both of their consumers’ appetites: they’ve been adding the gratuitous “healthy” salad or reduced calorie burger that the customer claims to want, but they’re also responding in kind to cravings for the extreme, according to Businessweek. “Most fast-food chains have added a dish or two that could conceivably qualify as healthy and several that definitely wouldn’t. In March, Burger King began offering burgers stuffed with bacon and cheddar and topped with onion rings, as well as tater tots filled with bacon and onions. It also started selling turkey and veggie burgers. The bacon cheeseburger has 650 calories and 39 grams of fat; the veggie burger, served with mayonnaise, has 410 calories and 16 grams.”

And let’s not forget the Taco Bell Doritos Locos Taco, which quickly became the best-selling menu item of all time. More than 375 million have already been sold and the companies recently introduced a Cool Ranch flavor. For a taco.

If there’s an anti-kale, I’m pretty sure that’s it. And perhaps that’s the problem. With so many efforts to get Americans to eat healthier, it also triggers the scarcity response—the feeling that we’ll never have the opportunity to eat greasy burgers and fries again. So, we begin to crave all those foods in no particular order. In fact, flavor mash-ups are the new Super-Size. But when we run out of spices to load into a Cheeto or fried things to stuff into a burger, what happens then? Do we just go back to eating actual plain and simple food? How extreme would that be?

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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