Today, we’re looking at whether vegans can eat Cheetos, a popular cheese-flavored snack. The term “flavored” is key here because not all cheese flavored snacks use actual dairy ingredients.
So, while most are aware that cheese is off-limits for vegans, it’s not always obvious whether something marketed as having a cheese flavor would contain dairy ingredients.
In sum, are they vegan? Cheetos are not vegan. This goes for the Original and Flaming Hot varieties. While they contain cornmeal as their primary ingredient, both are coated with a seasoning mix that includes milk in various forms, from whey protein to milk powder.
That said, here are two great vegan alternatives to Cheetos:
What we’ll do here is compare two of the more popular varieties of Cheetos, discussing why they’re unsuitable for vegan diets. Then we’ll look at other products on offer by the brand and whether or not any qualify as vegan-friendly.
Why Original Cheetos Are Non-Vegan
As mentioned, cheese-flavored snacks don’t have to contain cheese. For example, some brands carrying cheese-flavored popcorn get their flavor from yeast and other microorganisms.
On that note, make sure to check out the article on whether Skinny Pop is vegan. There we cover some pretty good vegan-friendly popcorn flavors including cheese.
From the official Cheetos website, the original variety (crunchy with the non-spicy cheese coating) contains:
Enriched cornmeal (cornmeal with thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, and ferrous sulfate), vegetable oil (canola, corn, and/or sunflower oils), cheese seasoning (whey protein, milk, cheese cultures*, enzymes**, corn maltodextrin, salt, canola oil, natural and artificial flavors, salt, whey protein concentrate, MSG [monosodium glutamate], citric acid, lactic acid, Yellow 6 [an artificial color]), and yet more salt.
The ingredients panel is then finished off with a big fat CONTAINS MILK INGREDIENTS warning.1
*Cheese cultures, believe it or not, are not actually non-vegan in themselves. They’re just cultures of lactic acid bacteria used in cheese making to process the lactose. When added to milk, they convert the lactose sugars to lactic acid making the proteins curd.
**Enzymes can be of animal origin. Most of the time when you see them listed on food labels, they’re perfectly fine for vegans—for example, in bread products. But, cheese and cheese-flavored foods are an exception.
This is because rennet, a set of enzymes present in the stomachs of ruminant mammals, contains a protease enzyme that curds milk, so it’s useful for cheese-making.
There are both microbial and plant-based alternatives for enzymes that curd proteins—and some are used in vegan cheese making—and I suppose they could be used in making real cheese. But when we’re talking real cheese and cheese products, enzymes are the least of our worries.
So, the main culprit here is whey protein and dry milk powder. Now, we’ll look at the Flamin’ Hot variety.
Why Flaming Hot Cheetos Are Non-Vegan
I think I get asked more about the hot and spicy variety than the original. This probably has to do with the coating being more spicy than cheesy and having a red color instead of the original orange cheese color.
Unfortunately, the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, are not any more vegan-friendly than the original. The red powdery substance on the outside contains several milk derivatives.
There are several spicy varieties so we’ll look at them all one at a time.
The Original Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Are Non-Vegan
The same enriched cornmeal mixture (cornmeal with ferrous sulfate, and B vitamins), vegetable oil, salt, and the patented Flamin’ Hot Seasoning mix which includes corn maltodextrin, sugar, salt, citric acid, MSG, yeast extract, artificial color (Red 40 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake, Yellow’s 5 and 6), sunflower oil, milk, salt, cheese cultures, buttermilk, enzymes, whey and whey protein concentrate, onion powder, garlic powder, natural flavor, sodium diacetate, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate.2
Milk proteins include whey and casein. Casein is the protein that curds to make cheese, and whey is used in processed foods mostly to improve texture.
While most know that milk and dairy are off-limits for vegans, it’s not uncommon for some in the community to inquire about small seemingly innocuous ingredients that are derived from dairy.
Also, a good portion of the vegan community is primarily interested in health and wellness. Since dairy additives are used in small amounts and don’t have the same negative health consequences as scarfing down a pizza or drinking full glasses of milk, it’s understandable that some would wonder whether these ingredients are really non-vegan.
But all animal products, however small, are considered off-limits for vegans. This is because the vegan diet is largely a boycott of foods and ingredients derived from animals.3-5
Cheetos Flamin’ Hot Puffs Are Non-Vegan
These are like the Flamin’ Hot variety above, but the corn mixture is puffed.
As you can imagine, the cheese and spice mixture is basically the same.
Rumor has it that this variety in the UK comes without milk products. I was not able to find any. Since the UK version is just a rumor and since the US version always contains milk, I’m listing these as non-vegan.
Enriched cornmeal, vegetable oil (canola, corn and/or sunflower oils), salt, sugar, corn maltodextrin, artificial colors (Yellow 6 Lake, Red 40 Lake, and Yellow’s 5 and 6), monosodium glutamate, citric acid, yeast extract, milk, cheese cultures, enzymes, garlic and onion powders, hydrolyzed corn protein, whey protein, natural flavor, whey protein concentrate, buttermilk, sodium caseinate*, corn syrup solids, skim milk, sodium diacetate, disodium guanylate, and disodium Inosinate.6
*We talked about casein above and sodium caseinate is just a form of casein.
I do get asked sometimes if it’s vegan even from folks who know casein is dairy-derived. This may be because the “sodium” in sodium caseinate kind of obscures the ingredient.
In any case, caseinate in any form (calcium caseinate, sodium caseinate, etc.) is always considered dairy-derived. At least, for now. Apparently, the brands that brought you super realistic vegan meat are also working on plant-based casein.
Crunchy Flamin’ Hot Limon Cheetos Are Non-Vegan
Ingredients for these includes:
Enriched cornmeal, vegetable oil blend, sugar, salt, MSG, yeast extract, corn syrup solids, citric acid, artificial colors, milk,cheese cultures, enzymes, hydrolyzed corn protein, corn maltodextrin, garlic and onion powders, whey protein, lime juice, whey protein concentrate, buttermilk, natural flavor, and preservatives, sodium diacetate, disodium inosinate, and disodium guanylate.7
The XXTRA Flamin’ Hot Crunchy Cheetos Are Non-Vegan
These are non-vegan, and the usual culprits are to blame.
The ingredients include:
Enriched cornmeal, vegetable oils, salt, sugar, hydrolyzed corn protein, corn maltodextrin, yeast extract, MSG, citric acid, whey protein concentrate,artificial colors (Red 40 and Yellow 6 Lake, Yellows 5 and 6), enzymes, garlic powder, onion powder, cheese cultures, corn syrup solids, sodium diacetate, whey protein, natural flavor, and buttermilk.8
Buttermilk strikes again. It’s common in processed foods. While it doesn’t contain any butter, it is real milk and thus non-vegan.
What About Other Cheetos Products? Any Vegan Options?
Unfortunately, all products offered by Cheetos are currently non-vegan. They make what seems like dozens of products, and they manage to put milk in each one.
- White Cheddar Bites. These are like the generic cheese balls you’ll find in supermarkets, but they’re white cheddar. They contain whey protein and milk.
- Simply Cheetos. This line puts out the original and spicy varieties, but they use fewer and supposedly higher quality ingredients. Unfortunately, they all contain milk derivatives.
- Baked Cheetos. These are cheese flavored and have all of the usual milk ingredients, but they’re baked so they can be advertised as having less fat. Perhaps healthier, but still non-vegan.
- Cheetos Paws. If you thought the original couldn’t be any more processed, think again. These are like the original but they’re baked into the shape of a cheetah paw. As you’d imagine, they’re still loaded with milk ingredients.
- Fantastix. These are similar to the original but they’re made with more whole grain. Unfortunately, they still have dairy products.
There are plenty of other products, but these are the most relevant to Cheetos snack foods.
Vegan Alternatives to Cheetos
Searching high and low, I did find a few suitable replacements for the Original and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos snacks.
I’ve tried both and was glad to find that they had the Cheetos texture (one puffy and one crunchy), even though they’re made with other ingredients.
Vegan replacements are rarely an exact match and these are no exception. Not only is the texture a little different, but the cheese coating doesn’t contain any real cheese—obviously, otherwise they wouldn’t be vegan.
But, while they’re a little different I found them to be just as good.
Original Cheetos Alternative
Here we have Ka-Pop Dairy-Free Cheddar Puffs. As you can tell from the name, they’re more of a replacement for cheese puffs than cheese curls. But, the puffed version of Cheetos is pretty popular and the coating is non-spicy so these are a good option.
They contain sorghum, sunflower oil, and a 100% plant-based cheddar seasoning that includes tapioca maltodextrin, nutritional yeast extract, salt, natural flavors, lactic acid, annatto extract, and paprika extract.9
If the lactic acid triggered an alarm, fear not because these days the ingredient is vegan/cruelty-free 99% of the time. If there is any non-vegan lactic acid still used in the food industry, it wouldn’t be in a product marketed towards vegans.
Cheetos Hot and Spicy Alternative
These are called Fiery Hot Peatos. Yes, it looks like they ripped off the name. Anyway, similar name, but no dairy derivatives. But, the non-dairy only applies to the Fiery Hot—the cheddar variety has real cheese.
The Fiery Hot Peatos contain a blend of pulse flour (pea flour, fava bean powder, lentil flour, and pea fiber), high oleic safflower and/or sunflower oils, maltodextrin, sugar, spices, citric and malic acids, white distilled vinegar, yeast extract, veggie juice (natural color), natural flavor, annatto extract (also for color), natural smoke flavor.
Whether you like the idea of consuming smoke flavor, it is vegan-friendly. It’s made from burnt wood, so it’s cruelty-free.
That’s it for the vegan status of Cheetos Original and Flamin’ Hot.
All products put out by the Cheetos brand, from the snack food to the mac ‘n cheese, sticks, and paws, contain milk in one form or another. There are tons of flavors but cheese is the common denominator.
No matter how small the amount, the presence of dairy always renders a food product non-vegan.
But, thankfully, nowadays there are so many specialty products on the market and several companies have taken to making dairy-free alternatives to popular snacks, both for vegans and those with milk allergies. So, it’s easier than ever to find alternatives.
Thanks for reading.
- CHEETOS® Crunchy Cheese Flavored Snacks. https://www.cheetos.com/products/cheetos-crunchy-cheese-flavored-snacks
- CHEETOS® Crunchy FLAMIN’ HOT® Cheese Flavored Snacks. https://www.cheetos.com/products/cheetos-crunchy-flamin-hot-cheese-flavored-snacks
- H. Pederson, V, Stanescu, et al., “Conclusion: Future Directions for Critical Animal Studies” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316349952_Conclusion_Future_directions_for_critical_animal_studies
- G. Steiner, Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism. Columbia University Press, April 2013. http://cup.columbia.edu/book/animals-and-the-limits-of-postmodernism/9780231153430
- G. Francione, “Animal Welfare, Happy Meat and Veganism as the Moral Baseline”, The University of California Press: The Philosophy of Food 2012 (pp 169–189). https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt7zw2cx
- CHEETOS® Puffs FLAMIN’ HOT® Cheese Flavored Snacks. https://www.cheetos.com/products/cheetos-puffs-flamin-hot-cheese-flavored-snacks
- CHEETOS® Crunchy FLAMIN’ HOT® Limón Cheese Flavored Snacks. https://www.cheetos.com/products/cheetos-crunchy-flamin-hot-lim-n-cheese-flavored-snacks
- CHEETOS® Crunchy XXTRA FLAMIN’ HOT® Cheese Flavored Snacks. https://www.cheetos.com/products/cheetos-crunchy-xxtra-flamin-hot-cheese-flavored-snacks
- Ka-Pop Dairy-Free Cheddar Puffs. https://kapopsnacks.com/products/dairy-free-cheddar-puffs-2
- Fiery Hot Peatos. https://worldpeasbrand.com/#peatos