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The Enduring Appeal of the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Processed Snack

The ingredients and production of Cheez Balls and Dunkaroos are murky, but these snacks retain a nostalgic pull for anyone who ate junk food in the ’90s

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A canister of Planters Cheez Balls with a colorful ’90s background. Courtesy of Planters

“It’s one part nostalgia, one part pure love for cheddar-dusted corn snacks,” says Lindsay DiMarcello, a 29-year-old freelance editor and proofreader, of Planters Cheez Balls, the gumball-sized puffed corn snack in a blue canister. “I remember being very small and sitting under a coffee table in my living room that was right next to a heater vent, and eating a whole can.”

In 2006, Planters discontinued the snack, and in 2014, DiMarcello published a petition on called “Bring back Planters Cheez Balls and P.B. Crisps!” It received 818 signatures, a reasonably small response. One day, during the summer of 2018, she opened the front door of her home in Oaks, Pennsylvania, to a camera crew recording her.

She had nearly forgotten about the petition by then, but when she saw a peanut-shaped trailer parked in her driveway and someone in a full-body Mr. Peanut costume, she figured it out: Planters, the nut brand owned by the Kraft Heinz food conglomerate, was bringing back the snack. The Planters marketing team had gotten in touch with her boyfriend, who helped plan the surprise visit to coincide with the relaunch.

“I still desperately miss P.B. Crisps. It sucks that didn’t happen,” says DiMarcello.

“There is a bit of a nostalgic halo to the brand,” says Samantha Hess, brand manager at Kraft Heinz; compared to other bright orange cheese powder-dusted corn puffs on the market, she believes Cheez Balls excels. Around since the late 1970s, the product was most popular in the ’80s and ’90s, she explains, and that’s why Kraft Heinz marketed the relaunch as a throwback to the ’90s. It was shelved in the mid-2000s as part of an effort by the company to refocus on its core products: nuts. The look and taste of the snack have been carefully preserved to assure customers that it’s the same product they remember. The only noticeable difference is a burst on the canister that reads: “It’s Back.”

Cheez Balls are not the only ’90s snack food to reappear. The Coca-Cola Company reintroduced its discontinued soda Surge in 2014, also employing a ’90s nostalgia marketing strategy. General Mills recently announced Dunkaroos will return this year, writing on its blog, “’90s kids now have a new reason to rejoice.” The kangaroo-shaped cookies in a plastic tray with a pool of frosting for dipping, which were available in the U.S. from 1990 to 2012, had received shout-outs from Kim Kardashian West, Chrissy Teigen, and Lilly Singh.

With today’s ’90s kids in their late 20s and 30s, big food makers are tapping into deep reserves of childhood brand recognition for their “new” items. “It costs a lot of money to introduce and market new products, so you see a lot of repackaging and re-introductions of old stuff that was successful,” says Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, which explores the ways that big food companies have engineered snack foods to be addictive.

But, like Bill and Ted thrust into another era, many totally, righteously ’90s snacks are an odd fit for a consumer base that increasingly demands more healthful and wholesome foods. Moss describes a divergence in thinking among the biggest food companies that took place around 2017. Confronted with declining sales, as more people became concerned with what they were eating, some packaged food companies resolved to sell more good-for-you products, or at least the illusion of that.

“But then you saw another part of the industry that was like, screw that, there’s always going to be a few million people who are just in it for the craving and the fix,” says Moss. These companies chose to double down on junk food. “That’s why you’re seeing products that pretend to be healthy and others that have no pretense at all — it’s just pure junk food.”

Today, though, these cheap-calorie snacks sit beside plenty of alternatives that tout their healthful virtues. Could nostalgia give them an edge? Troubled since almost the day the two food giants merged in 2015, Kraft Heinz appears to be gambling on that approach with its Cheez Balls comeback campaign. And General Mills, a conglomerate whose biggest business, breakfast cereals, is in the midst of a long and well-publicized sales decline, might be testing a parachute with its Dunkaroos revival. Forget the healthful hyperbole. Forget the barnyard imagery and “Harvest Cheddar” flavor names, even. This time, going back in time to a simpler place means forgetting everything you ever learned about high-fructose corn syrup.

“One of the addictive properties of a cheese puff is when you put it in your mouth and press your tongue onto the roof of your mouth, the puff dissolves because it gets half of its calories from fat,” says Moss.

In food manufacturing, this phenomenon is called “vanishing caloric density”: the notion that when a food is so light that it requires little chewing, the brain doesn’t signal that you are overeating.

Then there’s “dynamic contrast” — essentially, exciting variations in textures and colors, as with Oreo cookies or Dunkaroos. This, says Moss, is just how humans are wired: “The brain loves information for information’s sake, so the more ways you can excite the brain, the better.” According to some studies, Moss says, people — like animals — are attracted to bright colors when shopping for food; this is something that the food industry discovered way back in the 1950s and ’60s. “Which is why the grocery store, when you walk in, you’re just faced with neon colors,” he says.

“If you look at the space these products take up in a supermarket, it’s evident they’ve got a hold on our brains,” says Mark Schatzker, author of The Dorito Effect.

Much of the appeal of junk food items comes from the natural and artificial flavorings added to them. In the flavor labs Schatzker has visited, scientists work to reproduce the chemical compounds in certain real foods to add to food products. The problem with engineering brilliant flavors, he says, is creating an addictive snack out of a morsel that you wouldn’t otherwise want or need to eat much of. Like extruded cornmeal.

“They all kind of run on the same formula, which is a processed carb with flavor powder on it,” says Schatzker of cheese-coated corn-based snacks. “It’s hard to stop eating them because they’re engineered to be continued to be eaten.”

Despite the scientific precision of the nutritional information printed on food packaging, it can be almost impossible to understand what, exactly, many food products are. Or to visualize how they’re made. And few foods are less transparent than Cheez Balls and Dunkaroos; unlike potato chips, a cheese ball represents nothing organic, and with their uniform, molded shapes and plentiful packaging, Dunkaroos are emphatically not just-like-homemade. They’re a throwback to a time before artisanal, small-batch, and all-natural messaging would dominate labels, and meet-the-maker videos flourished.

Kraft Heinz declined to describe how Cheez Balls are made, and few people seem to wonder about their production. But it turns out that cheese curls, puffs, balls, and doodles were invented around 1939 by an animal feed manufacturer in Wisconsin, as Ernie Smith explored for Atlas Obscura. When a grinder jammed, an employee ran some wet corn through the machinery and discovered that it puffed up while exiting the grinder. He seasoned the corn, and the resulting snack was eventually called Korn Kurls. According to the University of Wisconsin, employees of the animal feed company continued to experiment with frying techniques and flavorings, like cheese powder.

Extruded cornmeal-based snacks are everywhere now. And they’re not just snacks; biodegradable packing peanuts, made from cornstarch or other edible, food-based starches, are created using the same kind of process with high-heat extruders. A representative for Puffy Stuff, a biodegradable packing peanut company, told me on the phone that they’re entirely edible. “We joke around and we eat them,” she said. I’ll admit to letting one or two of these things dissolve in my mouth, too. And if you break apart a cornstarch-based packing peanut and smell the inside, it will remind you of a cheese curl.

“In the ’80s and ’90s there was an explosion of processed food,” says Kristin Lawless, a nutritionist and author of Formerly Known as Food: How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture. Behind the shift in supermarket shelves was a significant change in industrial farming. Around this time, Monsanto, founded as a chemical company, began stepping up its efforts in biotechnology, producing corn and soy along with pesticides to control them. Corn and soy, Lawless explains, “are the backbone ingredients of all processed foods.”

Just as this year’s relaunch of Planters Cheez Balls required elaborate marketing efforts, these products were heavily advertised to their target audience. As processed corn- and soy-based products proliferated in the ’90s, Saturday morning cartoons were bookended by commercials for a wacky range of foods marketed to children — like bouncing cartoon kangaroo-shaped cookies. And the boom in processed food followed an increase in advertising focused on African-American consumers during the ’70s.

“With the rise of more ethnic market research firms and advertising agencies, the big companies, like Quaker Oats and General Mills, really concentrated on promoting the use of convenience foods for traditional, black cuisine and encouraging the consumption of packaged foods,” says Marcia Chatelain, author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America. Because African Americans tend to have less access to health care and fewer choices in the marketplace for quality groceries, on top of the stresses caused by racism, says Chatelain, they’ve been particularly impacted by this kind of eating.

Before the 2000s, most people had never heard of GMOs. Americans had no way of knowing whether they were eating trans fats, let alone that they were bad for you and would eventually be banned. Eric Schlosser hadn’t written Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan hadn’t imbued omnivores with a best-selling dilemma. Millennials are definitely not the first generation with highly processed comfort foods — boomers have that unique honor. But during the ’90s, the processed food industry was on a serious modified food starch high.

“I’m tasting the Dunkaroo in my mind and it is so sweet and texturally very satisfying, and it just brings me back to the playground,” says Eve Turow Paul, a consultant and author of the upcoming book Hungry: Avocado Toast, Instagram Influencers, and Our Search for Connection and Meaning.

She sees the reboots of Dunkaroos and Cheez Balls as a way of tapping into a shared memory or identity, and finding community around that. Given the performative aspect of tweeting about Dunkaroos or “liking” a Facebook group calling for the return of a discontinued snack, a nostalgic food can take on an almost meme-like quality. It’s less about making informed food choices than indulging in an escapist pleasure. “You are essentially excusing yourself from your general adult worries in life,” she says. But memes aren’t necessarily appetizing.

“To be honest, if I saw those in a store, I would probably point them out to my husband and be like, ‘Oh my god, remember Dunkaroos?’” Turow Paul says. “But I probably wouldn’t buy them.”

Nostalgia is a formidable, and some might say toxic, force that defines a large chunk of the U.S. restaurant industry, so it’s no surprise that packaged goods manufacturers are using this theme to sell their products, too. Perhaps the most famous food associated with nostalgia is the madeleine recalled in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. This singular, shell-shaped tea biscuit spurs a flurry of memories for the narrator. If, as the novel implies, everyone has their own madeleine memories — locked deep in the subconscious and accessible only with a certain key — perhaps we all have one food that succeeds above all others in triggering our memories. And maybe we should indulge in it from time to time, Red 40 and all.

Lindsay DiMarcello, who started the Cheez Balls petition, still loves dipping them in chocolate milkshakes, a habit she picked up as a kid. A dynamic contrast if there ever was, she says, the salty cheddar dust paired with sweet, cold chocolate ice cream is deliciously balanced.

But, she adds, “This also works great with Herr’s Cheese Curls.”

Cathy Erway is the author of The Food of Taiwan: Recipes From the Beautiful Island and The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove.