In recent weeks I’ve made jokes about my love of Cheetos, and admitted to indulging in excessive amounts of them. Then Audra, in a comment on this post, planted a seed: there are probably healthier versions out there!
Audra specifically recommended Barbara’s, which I didn’t find at the Ralph’s, Gelson’s, and Sprouts that I shopped at over the past three weeks. I did find other options, though, and I’m sure there’s more out there!
I decided, while shopping, to look for versions that offered some sort of twist on the basic Cheetos model, just to establish some parameters (there’s a lot of snack companies and brands out there!).
And, for my purposes, I decided that ‘healthier’ would be determined by the facts and figures on the nutrition label. I honestly don’t care too much, when I partake in an occasional treat, about organic, non-GMO, artificial-this-versus-natural-that.
For the sake of comparison, classic crunchy Cheetos (as opposed to the puffs) have, per serving: CALORIES – 160. FAT – 10g. CARBS – 15g. PROTEIN – 2g.
Let’s check out what I found!
CANDIDATE #1. Beanitos Mac N’ Cheese Crunch.
The differentiators that caught my eye were 1) made from beans and 2) specifically mac and cheese flavored. And man, did they nail that mac and cheese flavor! There’s the tang that reminded me exactly of the Kraft powdered cheese package.
Cooked navy beans are the first ingredient listed, and rice is the second, so these don’t have any corn, and I couldn’t tell the difference. They’re slightly lower in calories, fat and carbs, but I would have guessed, thanks to the beans, that they’re higher in protein than they actually are. (Technically, they have 50% more protein than Cheetos, but that sounds more exciting than just pointing out that they have 3g and Cheetos have 2g.)
CALORIES – 140. FAT – 8g. CARBS – 14g. PROTEIN – 3g.
CANDIDATE #2. I Heart Keenwah Quinoa Puffs.
These get automatic demerits for the lame name. Phonetic spelling is a pet peeve. But set that aside, and these are very tasty. There’s a hint of sweetness that reminds me of Kix cereal, but the cheese flavor is sharp (they specify that this variety is “aged cheddar”), and I find the smaller puffs more satisfying, because you can eat more.
And, of all the products I tried, these had the least amount of cheese dust residue left on my fingers afterwards, which I think is a good thing, unless you really want that full Cheetos experience.
Quinoa is a superfood – it’s the only grain that has all 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein source. These puffs had the most protein and fewer calories than Cheetos.
CALORIES – 120. FAT – 3g. CARBS – 18g. PROTEIN – 5g.
CANDIDATE #3. Sprouts Mini Cheddar Corn Cakes.
These are more like PopCorners or Popchips that Cheetos, but I bought them because they had a little over half the calories as Cheetos – the least caloric item on this list.
They taste good, and like those other molded popcorn snacks, they’re light as air. There was a good cheddar flavor and an appealing crunch, too. And while they are a perfectly delicious snack, that’s not all that bad for you (if you eat them in moderation), never once, while I ate them, was I reminded of Cheetos. So, not bad, but they didn’t hit the mark as a Cheetos alternative.
CALORIES – 100. FAT – 1.5g. CARBS – 20g. PROTEIN – 2g.
CANDIDATE #4. Skinny Pop Puffs (White Cheddar).
Oh man, was I bamboozled by the packaging on this one. I was in a hurry at the store when I saw these on the shelf, and I was tempted by the “65 calories per 10 puffs” label on the front. WHOA – that’s almost 100 calories less than Cheetos!
When I got home I realized that ten puffs isn’t the serving size. It’s half of a serving size. A full serving has 130 calories, which is 30 calories less than Cheetos, but still comfortably in the range of everything on this list, and not nearly as ‘skinny’ as the inference on the package would lead one to believe.
Crafty marketing aside, these were perfectly fine, enjoyable puffs. They’re also the least memorable. Pass.
CALORIES – 130. FAT – 7g. CARBS – 15g. PROTEIN – 3g.
And the winner is…
I Heart Keenwah! Great flavor, the most protein. Plus, the bag is smaller (three servings versus 7-10 for Cheetos and other brands), so if I was prone to over-snacking, the damage wouldn’t be as bad. Plus, according to their website, there are other flavors that, while un-Cheetos-like, also sound delicious, like Sweet Chili and Herbes de Provence!
Fortunately for me, this very unscientific nearly-month-long project has more than satisfied my Cheetos cravings. And now I have a place to turn next time that craving comes back.
Keep it up, David.