The untold truth of Flamin' Hot Cheetos

Potato chips, pretzels, corn puffs — for a long time, it seemed like every snack food that could be invented already had been. Thankfully for our taste buds, not everyone was convinced that there was no room to grow in the world of all things salty, crunchy, and craveable

The inventor of Flamin' Hot Cheetos says that he has a PhD — in being Poor, Hungry, and Determined. It was that determination that lead him to create the first bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, a new addition to the Cheetos family that's now one of the most popular snacks at Frito-Lay. 

Cheetos, plain or hot, are a beloved snack in the U.S. Cheetos is the number one cheesy snack brand in America, and makes almost $1 billion a year. 

Flamin' Hot Cheetos is maybe the most beloved of the Cheetos flavors. It's inspired fashion lines, fashion shows, and restaurants; its fans range from school children to famous rappers… and many of them end up with gastrointestinal distress. There's got to be something special about a snack so good, people keep eating it through the pain, right?

So what's the real story behind Flamin' Hot Cheetos? How did they come to be, and why are they so popular? The true story might surprise you. 

Flamin' Hot Cheetos were invented by a janitor

If your idea of a major snack food being invented involves lab coats, complex chemical analysis, and secret flavor formulas, then the story of how Flamin' Hot Cheetos were invented will probably warm your heart (although most of the time, the former method is right on the money). 

It all started with Richard Montañez. He was a janitor at a Frito-Lays plant, but was also interested in how the business was run, especially after a company-wide message from the CEO encouraging each employee to act like an owner of the company, so that they would feel personally invested in its success. 

That inspired Montañez to think outside the box. One day, the machine that made Cheetos spit out a batch that were totally unseasoned. Montañez took them home and decided to experiment. He had noticed that Cheetos didn't have any spicy flavors, so he seasoned the plain corn puffs he had gotten with spices and chili powder to make them hot and spicy. 

He then, boldly, called the CEO of the company, who was so impressed by Montañez's initiative that he set up a meeting for him to present his invention.

The CEO was sold, and within six months, Flamin' Hot Cheetos were being tested. In 1992 they saw a national release. The snack became legendary, and these days, Montañez is the VP of multicultural sales for PepsiCo.

There's going to be a Flamin' Hot Cheetos Movie directed by Eva Longoria

The story of how Richard Montañez invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos is pretty cinematic. A janitor who couldn't read, inventing a multi-million dollar product and going on to become a vice president at PepsiCo? Think of the drama — the second the idea popped into Richard Montañez's head, the bold call to the company CEO, the nerve wracking first presentation, and joy of his success. It's a story that has everything, and Hollywood seems to agree, because there's going to be a Flamin' Hot Cheetos movie

The film will be a biopic that traces the story of Montañez's life, from family farm hand and elementary school burrito salesman, to janitor, inventor, and businessman. 

The movie, Flamin' Hot, is set to be directed by Eva Longoria. She may be best known for her role as Gabrielle on Desperate Housewives and for her other acting jobs, but she has directorial experience too. 

Longoria expressed her excitement about the project on Twitter, where she said "It's my privilege…to bring the story of Flamin Hot Cheetos (which we all love!) to life!"

Flamin' Hot Cheetos might literally be addictive

If you've ever found yourself coming out of a fugue state with an inch thick coating of Flamin' Hot Cheetos powder on your fingers in all its spicy glory, and a rumble of heartburn bubbling in your chest, then you may have had the thought "man, this stuff is addicting!" 

It turns out that casual observance might actually be a lot more accurate than one would think. That's because the chemical makeup of Cheetos really does trick the brain into wanting more.

Some of it has to do with their texture. Apparently, the puffy, melt-in-your-mouth texture of Cheetos tricks the brain into thinking that the food is low-calorie, a phenomenon called "vanishing caloric density." That means your brain doesn't stop you from eating it because it doesn't seem like substantial food. 

Another hypothesis is that Flamin' Hot Cheetos are "hyperpalatable," thanks to their combination of sugar, salt, and fat. Eating those foods can cause the body to release natural opiates — endogenous opioids, or endorphins — and the capsaicin in the chili used to season Flamin' Hot Cheetos can apparently maximize the opiate release when you eat them

That might explain why, even if your mouth is burning and your stomach is churning, you can't help but reach for another handful of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. 

Many schools have banned Flamin' Hot Cheetos

Flamin' Hot Cheetos are delicious, but they're not exactly health food, which is one of the reasons they've been banned at certain schools. 

Certain school districts in three states, California, Illinois, and New Mexico, have banned Flamin' Hot Cheetos, both because they aren't nutritious, and because they "may create a brain response similar to what is seen in individuals who are addicted to illicit substances." 

Other kids have reported gastrointestinal distress, and multiple kids have gone to the ER after eating the fiery red snack food and seeing what they thought was blood in their stool, only to discover that the red dye in the Cheetos was what caused the discoloration. 

Though the red dye itself won't harm these kids, some doctors worry that it's a sign children are over-eating the "hyperpalatable" Flamin' Hot Cheetos. "Our stool doesn't usually become discolored unless you eat huge amounts of [red dye]," explained a doctor at St. Louis Children's Hospital, but "Flamin' Hot Cheetos is one food that people will eat enormous amounts of and will see a change in their stool."

Frito-Lay doesn't sell products directly to schools, and they don't actively market their snacks to kids ages 12 and under, but that hasn't stopped kids from getting their hands on Flamin' Hot Cheetos, so for some schools, the ban felt necessary. 

Rapper Lil Xan was hospitalized after allegedly eating too many Flamin' Hot Cheetos

Kids may not know about the nutritional value — or lack thereof — of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, but even adults who have a basic understanding of nutrition can't seem to stop themselves from binging on the crunchy, spicy, salty snack. 

Just look at rapper Lil Xan. The rapper went to the hospital in September of 2018 because, according to him, "I guess I ate too many hot Cheetos, and it ripped something in my stomach open, so I puked a little blood… Hot Cheetos are one hell of a drug."

However, there was some speculation as to whether or not eating Flamin' Hot Cheetos could actually send someone to the hospital (and some conspiracy theorizing that the whole thing was one big marketing campaign). 

While it is rare that eating Flamin' Hot Cheetos could, on its own, cause a tear in the stomach, some doctors confirmed that if someone already has digestive issues, eating spicy foods of any kind can exacerbate them. If Lil Xan had an ulcer or some other previously existing stomach issue, then yes, eating a ton of Flamin' Hot Cheetos or another super-spicy food could do some damage, but healthy people who are eating their favorite spicy snack food in moderation shouldn't have to worry about it. 

A Flamin' Hot Cheeto shaped like Harambe was sold on eBay for almost $100,000

Regular cheetos have a uniform, curved, puffy texture, but crunchy Cheetos are another matter entirely. Each cheesy bite is a vaguely lumpy log that occasionally branches off, and much like searching for shapes in clouds, imaginative snackers have found themselves looking for cool shapes in their Cheetos. 

The pastime is so popular that Cheetos actually created an online Cheetos Museum, and snackers from around the globe were invited to submit their wild Cheetos shapes. Prize winners included a unicorn, a football player, and a Flamin' Hot Cheetos giraffe.

But perhaps the most famous Flamin' Hot Cheeto of all was one that took the shape of Harambe, a gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2016 after a 3-year-old fell into his enclosure.

Harambe became an internet hero, both in sincerity (people were initially enraged that the gorilla had been shot) and ironically (and he then became a meme that took the internet by storm). So it makes sense… sort of… that a Harambe-shaped Flamin' Hot Cheeto sold on eBay for a whopping $99,900 in 2017. The snack food that captured the hearts and minds of America, shaped like the gorilla that broke the hearts and minds of America, for under $100k? Some might call that a bargain.  

There was a Flamin' Hot Cheetos restaurant

Sure, eating Flamin' Hot Cheetos on the couch at home is comfy, but have you ever wished you could take your love for the fiery snack food public, maybe at a trendy New York City or Hollywood restaurant? Well, for some Cheeto-heads, that wish came true. 

In 2017, Cheetos opened up The Spotted Cheetah, a pop-up restaurant helmed by celeb chef Anne Burrell. The food wasn't your usual "pour gas station nacho cheese into a bag of hot Cheetos," but rather an upscale look at how they can be incorporated into more sophisticated takes on comfort food dishes. 

The Hollywood Flamin' Hot Cheetos pop-up in 2018, The Flamin' Hot Spot, was even more flashy, with bad-boy restaurateur Roy Choi in charge of the menu. It featured dishes like a Flamin' Hot Cheetos-crusted rib-eye steak, Cheetos Crunchy Xxtra Flamin' Hot Sweet N' Spicy Chili Meatballs, Flamin' Hot Cheetos Elotes (a nice nod to the legendary origins of the snack), and even a Flamin' Hot Cheetos-infused chocolate shake. 

Flamin' Hot Cheetos have made appearances in more casual restaurants, too. There are entire guides showing hungry diners where they can get some Flamin' Hot Cheetos in their meal in Los Angeles, and for a while Taco Bell was serving up Flamin' Hot Cheetos Crunchwrap Sliders, proof that it's a more versatile ingredient than one might think. 

Flamin' Hot Cheetos were originally marketed to the Latinx market

The inventor of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, Richard Montañez, knew he had a great idea on his hands when he realized that, in the snack aisle of his local convenience store, there weren't any products marketed to the Latinx people who frequented the store. Montañez, the son of Mexican immigrants, suddenly found inspiration.

When Montañez was enjoying some elotes, he decided that the combination of cheese and chili powder would also taste great on Cheetos. 

Montañez said that at the time "Nobody had given any thought to the Latino market… But everywhere I looked, I saw it ready to explode."

The product went on to be a huge success, and today Montañez is the VP of multicultural sales and community activation at PepsiCo. Not only has he worked with brands like KFC and Taco Bell to help them market to Latinx consumers, but he also does community outreach and gives college scholarships to Latinx students. "Latinos who have made it like myself have a responsibility to open doors to younger generations and teach them that they can do it," he said

Forever 21 sold a Hot Cheetos-inspired clothing collection

When it comes to fans of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, it looks like they've been able to take the phrase "wear your heart on your sleeve" literally, thanks to a collaboration between the snack brand and fashion company Forever 21. 

Cheetos x Forever 21 is a 21-item apparel collection featuring all sorts of accessories for those who are willing to suffer through the spicy bliss of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. Though some of the items are inspired by the plain jane Cheetos, other items sport red flames in honor of the spicier snack.

There's a necklace with a "Flamin' Hot" pendant, Flamin' Hot Cheetos crew socks, Flamin' Hot hoop earrings, a Flamin' Hot Cheetos tube dress, and a selection of trendy Leopard print (or should we say Cheetah print) clothes. 

Unfortunately, not even a spicy line of Flamin' Hot clothing could save Forever 21. In 2019 it was announced that the teen retailer was closing 7,000 stores and might be filing for bankruptcy protection. The Flamin' Hot Cheetos line was still being sold in stores and online as of September 2019, but if you can't buy up the stock now, at least you know there's always eBay! Hopefully a second-hand pair of Cheetos socks doesn't end up costing as much as the Harambe-shaped Cheeto. 

There was a Flamin' Hot Cheetos fashion show at New York Fashion week

The Flamin' Hot Cheetos x Forever 21 fashion collection wasn't exactly haute couture, but it was a start. In another viral campaign, Flamin' Hot Cheetos decided to hit the runway at New York Fashion Week in 2019, with a debut collection from the House of Flamin' Haute.

The collection was curated by fashion influencers Luanna, Hungry Hipsters, Alexa Jade, J. Bolin, and costume designer Ami Goodheart closed out the show. Everything at the show, from the models' hair and makeup to their accessories and clothes, was inspired by the Flamin' Hot snack. The clothing on the runway featured lots of bold reds and oranges, and no one shied away from the Flamin' Hot Cheetos logos. Some models even had cheetah print dyed hair, in honor of Chester the Cheetah (a style icon in his own right). 

The night wasn't just about watching the fashion show, though. For guests, there were small bites and cocktails infused with Flamin' Hot Cheetos, and there was even a Flamin' Hot Cheetos style bar where fans could get their makeup and nails done in the Flamin' Haute style. Red eyeliner, powdery orange nails, and cheetah print hair were the looks of the night.