Cheeto challenge: taste-testing cheesy snacks

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Dan Bolyard/courtesy photo Taste tests show all cheese puff brands are not created equal.

We’ve all seen Cheetos in the store and are quite familiar with the different flavors of the crunchy and puff varieties. I’ve also seen the store brand versions and wondered if they were any good. I sought out the answer.

Cheeto-style snacks are made with cornmeal. One account of the manufacturing process states “The meal enters an extruding machine, which rubs, melts and heats the cornmeal, which boils and pops into a cylindrical shape. The extruder expels the Cheetos, which fall onto a conveyor belt. The Cheetos are fried as they travel through a pan of hot vegetable oil. They are fried until crunchy, when their moisture level falls to less than 2 percent. When done, they move to another conveyor belt. Nozzles spray a mix, consisting of oil and powdered cheese, onto the Cheetos, coating them thoroughly. The coated pieces fall onto another conveyor belt, where they cool before they are packaged and shipped from the factory.”

On a trip I had to visit the manufacturing plant in Vancouver, Wash., I saw pallets of 50-pound sacks of a powdered cheese blend made by Land O’Lakes. I suspect the cheese powder is a lot like the stuff you find with a box of macaroni and cheese you’d find at the local megamart.

In order to find out what is the best available in the area, I rounded up Utz Baked Cheddar Cheese Balls, Frito-Lay Cheeto Puffs, Frito-Lay Simply Cheetos Puffs, Kroger Puffed Cheese Balls, Great Value Cheese Puffs, WinCo Cheese Puffs, Frito-Lay Chester’s Puffcorn, WinCo Crunchy Cheese Curls, Frito-Lay Cheetos Baked Crunchy Cheese, Great Value Cheese Crunch, Frito-Lay Cheetos Crunchy, Kroger Crunchy Cheese Curls and, for fun, Popchips Nutter Puffs, which I jokingly told one wary bystander was a regular puff I left in the car too long. Certainly one of these inexpensive brands from the local megamarts would be better than Cheetos, right?

I convened a test panel of 10 people from all walks of life. The youngest was 16, the oldest 70-something. All products were presented in a random order, but with the puffs grouped together, then the crunchy versions. All were asked to rate each on aroma, texture, and taste. When setting up the test, I noted that the eye appeal of each was not a significant factor, save for the Simply Cheetos Puffs and the Popchips Nutter Puffs, which were very different in appearance from anything else.

I did not get any of the hot varieties. Most store brands seem to go only so far as the plain cheese variety.

The Utz Baked Cheddar Cheese Balls were the first to be tasted. One person asked, “Where’s the cheese?” Others said, “Real American cheese flavor.” “Tastes like powdered milk.” “I could finish these off.” “Cheery orange color.” ”Not a strong flavor.”

Next up were the Frito-Lay Cheeto Puffs: “”Could use more cheese flavor.” “I want to be a Cheeto.” “This is the Cheeto.” “Good crunch.” “Fake cheese flavor, but acceptable.”

The Frito-Lay Simply Cheetos Puffs: “The bland-wagon has arrived.” “Needs salt.” “Looks like extruded worms.” “What flavor?” “White cheese tastes closer to mozzarella.”

Now we have the Kroger Puffed Cheese Balls. “Puff comfort food!” “Awesome cheese flavor.” “Vegetable oil flavored puff.” “Gross.” “Fake cheese, but similar to boxed mac and cheese.”

Great Value Cheese Puffs: “Is this the same vegetable oil-flavored puff I just tasted?” “Tastes like the orange bug spray stuff.” “No real cheese flavor.” “Has a weird taste.” “Off-nasty smell.”

WinCo Cheese Puffs: “Too salty.” “Oil city!” “Smells like a back alley.” “Texture like Styrofoam.” “Tastes like bad cheese.”

Frito-Lay Chester’s Puffcorn: “Looks like giant popcorn with a little mac and cheese powder.” “Pretty decent stuff.” “Slightly toasty flavor – but not cheesy.” “Texture put me off.”

Popchip Nutter Puffs: “Very good crunch.” “Not a pleasant texture – sticky.” “Smells like rancid peanuts.” “I wanted a bit more sweetness.” “Peanut butter smeared on Styrofoam.”

WinCo Crunchy Cheese Curls: “Smell makes me not want to try it.” “Typical crunchy-but thinner and smaller.” “Tastes like nasty fake cheesy cardboard.” “No taste whatsoever.” “I would not buy.”

Frito-Lay Cheetos Baked Crunchy Cheese: “Smells like fake rotten cheese.” “Good flavor coverage.” “Where’s the cheese?” “Lackluster taste.” “Boring-like cardboard.”

Great Value Cheese Crunch: “Smells like Cheetos.” “Smells like good cheese:” “Great flavor coverage.” “Oily flavor.” “They taste very cheesy.”

Frito-Lay Cheetos Crunchy: “Almost too cheesy.” “Higher cheese coverage than the last one-but less flavor:” “Like ripoff Cheetos.” “Toasty and right amount of salt.” “Very crunchy.”

Kroger Crunchy Cheese Curls: “Bland.” “Texture is good.” “Decent cheese flavor.” “Are these the Cheetos?” “Could I finish the bowl later?”

Tabulating the results for the puffs was difficult, as there was no clear favorite. It came down to the Frito-Lay Chester’s Puffcorn, Frito-Lay Cheeto Puffs, and the Kroger Puffed Cheese Balls that seemed to garner the most favorable scores, followed by the Utz Baked Cheddar Cheese Balls. No one liked the Great Value Cheese Puffs. If you need a cheesy snack, the Kroger and Utz brands are a good value over Frito-Lay Cheeto Puffs, unless you find them on sale, and they do come up that way frequently. The Puffcorn seems like a pretty good value, if you can keep from eating the bag in one sitting.

In the crunchy category, the Great Value Cheese Crunch carried the day, followed closely by the Frito-Lay Cheetos Crunchy. The Frito-Lay Cheetos Baked Crunchy Cheese scored the lowest, not really liked by any of the panelists. Anyway, it looks like you can get your crunchy fix for a fraction of the price, though it is hard to beat the genuine Cheeto. Look for those when they are on sale.

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