Do Hot Cheetos Cause Cancer? Understanding The Evidence.

In this article, we will take a close look at the ongoing debate about whether Hot Cheetos can cause cancer. We will examine the evidence behind some of the ingredients in Cheetos being linked to cancer, such as Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and acrylamide. We will also discuss the broader implications of consuming ultraprocessed foods and their impact on overall health.
Jakub Hantabal

Jakub Hantabal

Postgraduate student of Precision Cancer Medicine at the University of Oxford, and a data scientist.

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How bad are ultraprocessed foods?

The consumption of ultraprocessed foods varies across countries, however, it is particularly high in the United States and United Kingdom. Ultraprocessed foods account for more than 50% of total energy intake in American and British adults.

On the other hand, the consumption of ultraprocessed foods is low in the Mediterranean region, accounting for about 10% of energy intake. In fact, the Mediterranean diet is associated with many health benefits [1].

The negative effects of ultraprocessed foods on an individual's health are now well documented, and are indeed concerning. A review of 43 studies found that 37 studies associated intake of ultraprocessed foods with at least one adverse health outcome. These included

Furthermore, no study published in scientific literature concluded any positive health outcome associated with ultraprocessed foods [2].

Consequently, public health and regulatory bodies are now looking to find ways to either reduce the intake of ultraprocessed foods in the population, or reduce the risks associated with their consumption. Lawmakers in California are currently deliberating on a new bill that would ban certain food items in schools due to their adverse impacts on health, including Cheetos [3].

Cheetos and Cancer: Scientific Evidence

Following the newly-proposed legislation in California, as well as non-scientific webpages, there is a worry that Cheetos, a popular snack in the USA, may lead to an increased risk of cancer.

To date, there is no peer-reviewed scientific study that would support this claim directly and establish a causal relationship between hot Cheetos and cancer in humans.

However, Cheetos, especially the "Flamin' Hot" flavour, are known to contain certain food colourings and chemicals that have been investigated in animal studies. The presence of these chemicals in Cheetos is one of the grounds on which the proposed California legislation is based.

Red 40 and Cancer

Red 40 is a synthetic red food colouring used commonly in ultra-processed foods, and is an ingredient in Cheetos. It is currently a subject of multiple ongoing investigations due to the emerging evidence indicating its role in development of colorectal cancer.

A study on mice concluded that Red 40 can cause DNA damage and leads to inflammation in the colon, especially when consumed in the presence of a high-fat diet (similar to that of an average American adult) for 10 months [4]. These conditions are indicative of a pre-cancerous condition as the epithelium of the colon is disturbed, leading to ideal conditions where a cancer can start. Additionally, some samples of Red 40 have been found to be contaminated with other known carcinogens [5].

However, it is important to note that studies on mice are not fully translatable to humans, and more research is needed to fully understand the relationship between Red 40 and cancer.

Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Cancer

Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 are yellow food dyes that are also commonly used in ultraprocessed foods, and are also ingredients of Cheetos. There is a variety of studies that suggest various adverse health outcomes with Yellow 5 consumption, including hyperactivity in children [6].

A study from 2015 suggested that Yellow 5 may also cause DNA damage in human white blood cells, causing the cells to mutate after only 3 hours of exposure. While this study was conducted on isolated cells outside of the human body, it is known that agents that mutate DNA are often carcinogenic [6].

As for Yellow 6, there is no direct evidence linking it to cancer, however multiple studies liked its consumption in excessive amounts to hyperactivity and attention disorders in children.

Therefore, there is now legislation in the European Union in place that all foods containing Yellow 6 must have a warning label stating "May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children" [6].

Acrylamide and Cancer

Acrylamide is a chemical that forms in starch-rich foods during high-temperature processes, such as frying or baking. It has been detected in numerous snacks, including Cheetos.

Currently, acrylamide is classified as a potential human carcinogen by International Agency for Research on Cancer [7]. However, the exact nature of the relationship between acrylamide and cancer in humans remains a topic of active scientific investigations, with a definitive answer yet to be determined.

There are studies which concluded no association between acrylamide intake through diet and cancer risk, including colorectal, gastric, pancreatic, esophageal [8], premenopausal breast cancer [9], and hematological malignancies [10].

On the other hand, there are studies concluding an increased risk of cancer in certain organs exposed to acrylamide in animal models, however, these findings have not yet been verified in humans [11].

Summary: Do Hot Cheetos Cause Cancer?

The scientific evidence whether hot Cheetos cause cancer is inconclusive, and more research is needed to understand the relationship. However, there are several facts that cannot be disputed:

  • Consumption of ultraprocessed foods has been conclusively linked to health issues;
  • Some ingredients in Cheetos may be or are already classified as potentially carcinogenic, with evidence linking them to DNA damage in animal models, and human cells.

It is important to take care to maintain a balanced diet, and consume ultraprocessed snacks in moderation. Visiting a dietitian may be a beneficial step in your journey towards good overall health.

For similar blogs, consider reading our blogs about whether Nerds gummy cluster cause cancer, magnalite pots and cancer or creatine and cancer.

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Jakub Hantabal

Jakub Hantabal

Jakub is a postgraduate student of Precision Cancer Medicine at the University of Oxford, and a data scientist. His research focuses on the impact of hypoxia on genetic and proteomic changes in cancer. Jakub also consults and collaborates with multiple institutions in the United Kingdom and Slovakia supporting research groups with advanced data analysis, and he also co-founded an NGO organising educational events in data science.