If you have been practicing for a while, you’re probably old enough to remember the Life cereal commercial that featured Mikey, the “he likes it” kid, who would eat anything. It was falsely rumored that he died from eating too many Pop Rocks candy with soda pop, causing his stomach to explode. Although there was no truth to any of it, it was the rumor of the day. Well, today there is a new snack on the block that is sending many children and teens to the emergency department.
Flamin’ Hots characterize several brands of chips in which the snacks are covered in a chili pepper mixture. As the name implies, the chips are very hot, which only adds to the excitement associated with them. But we have seen an increase in ED visits by teens for severe abdominal pain and red stools.
If you examine the label, it lists “natural flavors,” which is the industry’s code word for their secret formula. In fact, nowhere on the label is chili or any other spicy seasoning listed. Even more interesting is that you can’t find anywhere on the Internet what makes Flamin’ Hot chips so hot. There is evidence to support that red pepper and chili peppers are related to gastric ulcers (Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2006;46:275-328).
Examining the food label, one might be misled into thinking it’s is actually a reasonable snack. The serving size is listed as 21 pieces, but the likelihood that anyone stops at 21 pieces is small. In fact, there are reports that there is an addictive component. As the chili pepper hits the stomach, it causes pain, which causes a release of endorphins. This leads to a feeling of pleasure, which in turns encourages the person to want more chips, hence the ingestion of multiple bags prior to the trip to the ED.
There have been many warnings of the deleterious effects of the chips. In 2011 California, and soon after that Illinois, banned it from schools, stating it was unhealthy. Many schools since then have followed suit. But despite all the hype, kids are eating them by the dozen. Although there are no data to support that there is a cause and effect relationship with Flamin’ Hots and ulcers, it is safe to assume with the number of ED visits and the diet of the average teen, that at least gastritis is an issue.
Beyond stomach pain, prolonged intake of spicy hot snacks will contribute to high cholesterol and obesity. Many children are under the false assumption that because they don’t eat big meals, they are eating well. But because so many of these unhealthy snacks are empty calories and increase fat intake (N Engl J Med. 2006 Apr 13;354:1601-13), children’s body mass indices continue to rise. Informing parents about the harmful effect is important so they can monitor intake as well as encourage healthier snacks. Understanding how to read a food label is another important thing to teach during well visits so that parents can understand how much fat is in these snacks and can adjust accordingly.
Dr. Pearce is a pediatrician in Frankfort, Ill. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.