Would a Cheeto by any other name taste so dangerously cheesy?
That’s the enigma in Germany, where, due to a savvy trademark of the country’s largest snack food company, Cheetos have been illegal since 1980.
I first became aware of the situation while browsing the aisles of an “ethnic” Berlin grocery store that will remain nameless. Its selection of North American products had expanded recently and I was thrilled to see everything from Tajin to Takis in stock. But what were those bright orange packets with a familiar cheetah on the front and a red sticker covering the brand name on the top? Were they misprinted bags where Chester said the F-word or something?
No, the internet informed me, the censorship stickers were actually a loophole. For more than four decades, the Düsseldorf-based conglomerate Intersnack, whose crisps, pretzels and corn puffs have dominated the German market, has been suing anyone who dares sell Cheetos in Germany, on the grounds that the name “Cheetos” sounds too much like this one. of one of Instersnack’s own products, Chitos.
The store owner, agreeing to speak to me on conditions of strict anonymity, confirmed that this legal issue was the cause of the big red sticker.
“Other stores have received letters saying they should pay thousands of dollars for infringing the mark,” they said. “Our lawyer told us that as long as the name is not visible, it should be fine. But we’re still not 100% sure.”
Indeed, censoring your Cheetos will not guarantee you safety from the wrath of the Intersnack Group. Earlier this year, a German seller was fined €2,538.10 because the logo sticker he affixed to each bag could be “easily removed”, leading to “brand confusion “.
who could be perfectly reasonable grounds for a trial – if there was such a thing as a Chito.
Chio, Chitos and Cheetos: a legal tongue twister
It’s true that one of Intersnack’s flagship chip brands is called Chios, no “T”. But Google Chitos with a T, and the first result you get is, of course, “did you mean Cheetos?”
No German I’ve spoken to – young or old, old East or West – has ever seen a Chito in the wild. Chitos are not sold in stores or online. The only proof of their existence is this page on the Intersnack website, which features a photoshopped-looking 75-gram circular snack bag described as “the crisp, airy rings of delicious potato dough, with a refined aromatic cheesy note with delicious onions.” It looks tasty? And wrong. Very false.
According to Intersnack’s official trademark registration for the brand (publicly available via the German patent office), the list of things that can be called Chitos includes not only “extruded products of potato, wheat, rice and/or corn for snacking” but also “ready-to-eat products to be prepared in a toaster, in particular sweet and savory sandwiches”, “hard and soft cookies”, “gingerbread and honey” and “candies, especially caramels, candies and fudge”. Chitos are a color, an emotion, a state of mind. It’s that look in his eyes when you tell him you love him. They are you and me.
In response to my multiple emails and phone calls, Intersnack’s press department issued only the following cryptic statement: “Brand protection for Chitos still stands, and national campaigns with Chitos will be available soon. .”
Unlikely, a spokesperson for AmericanFood4U told me. It is an import company that supplies Germans with ranch dressing, Pop Tarts, Pabst Blue Ribbon and crispy cheese-coated corn snacks sold under the dubious “Cornchos” label. After months of legal entanglements with Intersnack, AmericanFood4U is confident that “as long as their attorneys can continue to make money off of this, it will go on forever.”
Meanwhile, these “upcoming national campaigns” mentioned by Intersnack sound more like In-N-Out Burger’s four hour european pop up places: the bare minimum of operation required to retain the copyright.
“They will make and sell maybe 10 bags of ‘Chitos’ a year,” the AmericanFood4U spokesperson said.
European potato chips versus American potato chips
You might be tempted to think of Intersnack Group as the villain of this story, a miserly megacorporation that fucks homesick Americans who just want to lick powdered cheese off their fingers again. But you could also see Chitos’ bet as an act of heroism, Germany’s last line of defense against a tidal wave of snack imperialism that has already engulfed most of the world.
Have I already mentioned how proudly, resolutely boring the German savory snack industry? While other countries are experimenting with bacon, wasabi, dill pickles or crab chips, we’re stuck with…paprika. Or sweet paprika. Or, if we really want to go crazy, “wild” paprika. (Intersnack alone imports 210 tonnes of paprika per year, making it the largest buyer in the Hungarian spice industry.) How does paprika taste in crisp form? In the lyrics of Mr. Patrick Stuart“These may not thrill you exactly as some coarser chips do. But there is a subtle flavor…”
It’s no wonder Intersnack feels threatened by Cheetos. What is subtlety in the face of a bright orange MSG bomb? There’s something oddly patriotic about holding the line, forbidden although patriotism is in this country. After all, Intersnack isn’t the only David to use copyright law to fend off an American Food Goliath. In the Netherlands, a small hole in the wall fry shop named Wendy’s has kept a certain pigtailed corporate redhead out of the whole European Union for decades.
Then again, even if the name Cheetos suddenly became legal in Germany, Cheetos as a product would not. The classic deep-fried version of the snack contains high amounts of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen that’s A-OK in the US but strictly regulated in Europe. And so the so-called “Cheetos” that Frito-Lay manufactures in Poland, Spain and Cyprus are pale, puffy imitations that can be flavored with ketchup or shaped like a soccer ball but never, never crispy, let alone hot.
Specialty stores like AmericanFood4U were able to get away with importing small amounts of real produce, but the spokesperson told me that inventory is running low now — the “cornchos” have long since sold out on the website.
“We’re actually considering making our own version of it,” the spokesperson said.
How Germany Gets Its Valuable Cheetos
Until that happens, many Americans who live in Germany stock up on Cheetos the old-fashioned way: by stuffing suitcases with them every time they travel to the homeland. That’s how Chris Haskins, who runs the kitchen at Berlin’s craft beer pub Manifest Taproom, gets the filling for his signature mac and cheese.
“I knew I wanted it to be American-style, and I wanted it to stand out visually,” Haskins says of his decision to top the dish with crumbled Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. “It’s the super artificial color, that rosy red… when you bring it to people’s tables, there’s definitely a ‘wow’ factor.”
Every time Haskins visits his family in Washington, DC or Atlanta, he brings home about 10 bags of the spicy snack. “Fortunately, I only use them for this article, so I just need a bag every two weeks. The hardest part is making sure my staff don’t eat them.
Haskins, AmericanFood4U and the supermarket owner I spoke with all agree that German demand for Cheetos, especially Flamin’ Hot, has increased, even though supply is shrinking. Blame their ubiquity on TikTok, where Cheetos are used in viral recipes for everything from salad for Korean Corn Dogs.
Despite their valiant efforts to protect Germany’s mediocre snacking legacy, it seems Intersnack can only impose the status quo on paprika for so long. If its leaders really knew what was good for them, they would take advantage of this market gap and give people what they want. Flamin’ Hot Chitos, anyone?