Spicy snacks could be doing serious harm to your kid’s digestive system, sometimes leading to gastritis or ulcers. In the pediatric emergency room doctors talk about the “hot spicy snacks sign” when a child comes in with abdominal pain and has bright red dust on their fingers, it’s probably the hot spicy snacks. Kids eat lots of other junk foods, but hot spicy snacks are products that brings kids to the ER. Why? Because with 39 grams of fat per serving, plus loads of artificial color and burning spices, it’s no surprise they cause gastrointestinal upset and slimy red poop. Yet the kids keep eating them and just can’t stop. What makes hot spicy snacks so addictive?
No one knows for sure, but the best medical hypothesis is that hot spicy snacks addiction is actually a kind of mild opiate addiction. Here’s how: the red pepper kind of spice in hot spicy snacks causes a burning sensation in the gastrointestinal tract. Capsaicin is the natural chemical in peppers that makes them hot. Our body has capsaicin receptors that respond to pepper spice. In response to this burn, our bodies release natural opioids that are normal neurotransmitters called “endogenous opioids” or “endorphins.” Mix in just the right combination of salt, sugar, and fat, and you have a snack engineered to taste good and then keep you feeling good. Until the opiates are gone. Then you need to eat more.
This habit-forming type of food is what David Kessler, MD, former FDA commissioner has termed, “hyperpalatable”. These are foods that provide such a rewarding experience that we keep coming back for more. Sugar, salt, and fat ingestion can also cause release of natural opiates, which is why so many people binge on ice cream, potato chips and other traditional junk foods. But hot spicy snacks add the burning sensation, which may maximize the opiate release.
Marketers spend billions attracting kids to junk food. But the lifelong cost to your children’s health is high. As parents, advocate for your children and get hot spicy snacks and other similar snack foods out of the hands of children. Here’s what you can do:
- Talk to your child’s school, ask for hot spicy snacks and other similar hyperpalatable foods to be removed from the menu and/or vending machines.
- If your child’s school expects parents to provide classroom snacks, work with the school nurse to develop a list of healthy school snacks.
- Advocate for limited marketing of junk food to kids. The Disney Channel recently stopped airing junk food ads. Write a letter to Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, or your child’s favorite channel and ask them to stop marketing junk food.
- Stop buying it. Make a pledge that your house will be junk food-free.
Editor’s note: Always consult with your child’s medical provider or pediatrician for information about nutritional or diet restrictions.