Home News The best puffed cheese snacks and the cheat-oh-nos

The best puffed cheese snacks and the cheat-oh-nos


Bright orange puffs of corn infused with salty, fatty, cheesy deliciousness are the epitome of junk food — messy, nearly devoid of nutrition, and so munchy, crunchy scrumptious that they are hard to resist.

Accidentally invented in 1935 by an animal feed producer, cheese puffs are an extruded snack made with corn and oil, then dusted with cheese-based powder. They were first introduced as a snack — for humans, not cattle —  in the 1950s, then hit the mainstream in 1971, when Frito-Lay began marketing them as Cheetos Puffs.

While Cheetos remains the most popular brand on the snack aisle, a hefty handful of companies have jumped into the category, producing a mountain of messy balls and curls to choose from. Curious, we took a dive into 10 brands of curls and balls to find out which ones were worth the indulgence.

Good cheese puffs are tender but crisp, with a punch of tart, nutty cheese flavor and just enough salt to satisfy. Bad cheese puffs are wildly salty, have tough, almost chewy texture, or taste like rancid oil. And to be clear, none of them taste like real cheese. The cheese flavoring is typically a combination of powdered cheese and other milk products. Many use dyes and artificial flavors; others rely on spices and natural flavors to enhance both flavor and appearance.

Here are details on the puffs to please, and the sad fails best left on the shelf. Nutrition info refers to 28 grams, or about 1 ounce.

Simply Cheetos White Cheddar Puffs

These light-colored curls have big cheese flavor, a satisfying crunch and a tart kick that is dangerously delicious. This is one of the few cheese snacks we tried that delivers on all fronts. 160 calories, 9 g fat, 280 mg sodium, 2 g protein. $4.69 for 8 ounces at Target. (4 stars)

Sprouts Cheese Puffs

Fans of sharp cheddar will love these puffs. They’re salty, cheesy and both tender and crisp. As an added bonus, they have slightly less fat than most. 130 calories, 6 g fat, 240 mg sodium, 2 g protein. $2.99 for 6 ounces. (4 stars)

Trader Joe’s Reduced Fat Cheese Puffs

The extra-fresh flavor of these snappy, corn-forward snacks makes for a satisfying bite. Add more cheese flavor and they’d be perfect. 140 calories, 7 g fat, 220 mg sodium, 2 g protein. $2.49 for 5.5 ounces. (3½ stars)

Annie’s Organic Cheddar Cheesy Smiles

A hit of toasted cheese and minimal salt make for a delicious mouthful, but these large curls won’t please anyone wanting a crunchy snack. These are pillowy soft. 149 calories, 8 g fat, 205 mg sodium, 2 g protein. $4.99 for 4 ounces at Sprouts. (3 stars)

Utz Cheese Balls

A generous dusting of neon orange cheese powder make these buttery snacks fun to eat, but they are more salty than cheesy. 150 calories, 9 g fat, 300 mg sodium, 3 g protein. $7.33 for 23 ounces at Walmart. (2½ stars)

Cheetos Puffs

If looks were the only criterion, these giant, neon-colored curls would win. Sadly, they look far better than they taste — the salt level quashes the hint of cheese. 160 calories, 10 g fat, 270 mg sodium, 2 g protein. $4.99 on sale for 8 ounces at Target. (2 stars)

Pirate’s Booty Aged White Cheddar Puffs

If crunch is all you’re after, these may please. They’re extra crunchy snacks, but the flavor of aged white cheddar has gone missing. 140 calories, 6 g fat, 170 mg sodium, 2 g protein. $3.50 on sale for 4 ounces at Sprouts. (1½ stars)

Market Pantry Cheddar Cheese Balls

These colorful balls are pleasantly crispy and colorful, but they are desperately lacking in flavor. 160 calories, 9 g fat, 200 mg sodium, 16 carbs, 2 g protein. $6.79 for 40 ounces at Target. (1 star)

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