I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t love cheese puffs. There’s something irresistible about the snack, despite it just being puffed corn covered in a processed cheese powder. The satisfaction of the crunch, the yellow residue the powder leaves on your fingertips, that little curl shape…
Traditionally, the snack has never been seen as a health food. It doesn’t offer any vitamins, no fiber, and almost no protein. (Sodium however, it has in spades.) But this is 2020, a time where you can milk oats and eat ice cream made of chickpeas. And now, the humble cheese puff (or doodle, as it’s also known) has undergone its own healthy makeover.
Health-conscious food brands including Spudsy, Hippeas, Lesser Evil, and Brass Roots have all reinvented the cheese puff, using ingredients that range from sweet potatoes to legumes. The end result is a puffy snack that hits lots of the same nostalgic taste notes…with some added nutrition hidden in there, too. Who would have thunk it? Here, the brand founders give insider intel to how they are using good-for-you ingredients to reimagine the puff.
Cheese puffs 2.0: What they’re made of
Well+Good predicted that 2020 would be the year that chickpeas completely take over, and Hippeas has been building that momentum for years with its OG take on the healthy cheese puff. The brand bakes a ground chickpea flour and rice flour blend, then seasons it with salt, cane sugar, onion powder, garlic powder, and rosemary powder. The end result: Vegan White Cheddar Chickpea Puffs ($7) with four grams of protein, three grams of fiber, and 133 milligrams of potassium per serving. (The Nacho Vibes flavor ($20 for six) packs a similar nutritional profile.) “After months of labor and a lot of versions, we landed on these combinations,” says Lindsey Valliere, the brand’s vice president of marketing.
Since then, other brands have moved into the healthy cheese puffs space. Newcomer Brass Roots also turned to a legume to make its grain-free White Cheddar Crunch Puffs ($27 for six): lentil flour, which is blended with pea protein, cassava flour, and sacha inchi protein, a very high protein seed. “We started with a macronutrient profile we wanted to hit,” founder Aaron Gailmor says. “It wasn’t enough for us to make [the puffs] high in protein. We wanted the protein sources to have a good amino acid profile, so we looked at all the possible ingredients and pulses before we decided what to use.” The end result is a snack that has eight grams of protein per serving. For the white cheddar seasoning, the brand used a blend of nutritional yeast, lactic acid, sea salt, onion powder, garlic powder, and mustard seed.
Outside of the legume fam, sweet potatoes are also being converted into cheese puffs. “All of our sweet potato flour comes from imperfect, upcycled sweet potatoes that would have other wise gone to waste,” says Ashley Boeckle, founder of Spudsy. (The brand got its start on Kickstarter in 2018.) Besides sweet potato, rice flour, pea protein, and tapioca starch are also used to create the Vegan Cheesy Cheddar Sweet Potato Puffs ($27 for six), creating a puff that has three grams of protein per serving.
Lesser Evil, known for its Paleo-friendly snacks, has two healthy cheese puff options. The “No Cheese” Cheesiness Paleo Puffs ($30 for six) are made with cassava flour, coconut flour, sweet potato powder, and tapioca starch (and flavored with nutritional yeast, garlic powder, onion powder, and mustard seed). The Egg + Cheese Egg White Curls ($30 for six), is made with cassava flour and dried egg whites.
“We worked with an innovation center for three days to get the texture just right,” says Lesser Evil president and CEO Charles Coristine. “Without starchy ingredients like rice and potato, this took some experimenting. Cassava, coconut, and sweet potato are nutrient-dense, and we use them for the nutritional value they add to our snacks,” he says. “Along with the benefits, we chose ingredients that would create the right texture and density for the puffs that were still Paleo, vegan, and grain-free.” (While the Paleo puffs don’t have any protein, they do have 13 milligrams of potassium.) For the curls (which has six grams of protein per serving), Coristine says he was drawn to using eggs because they’re such a good source of protein. The eggs Lesser Evil uses to make its products are certified humane, he adds.
Watch the video below to see why a registered dietitian calls eggs “nature’s multivitamin”:
Eating your cheese doodles with your pinky out
Besides getting a nutritional makeover, the new cheese puffs go beyond just a cheesy flavor. Many of the healthy newcomers experiment with more elevated seasonings and flavor combos. Take Brass Roots, which has a Truffle Rosemary Crunch Puff ($29 for six) flavor that Gailmor says is a best-seller. “With our customers, we find that kids really like the white cheddar flavor, while parents like the truffle rosemary,” Gailmor says.
Both Lesser Evil and Hippeas have a puffed snack flavored with Himalayan sea salt—only the best, prettiest salt for sophisticated doodles lovers—and the latter brand also has a Sriracha flavor for snackers who want a bit of kick. Still, the brand says their classic white cheddar is their biggest best seller, with Nacho Vibes a close second. “We think vegan white cheddar is the most beloved because it has a delicious cheese flavor, just without the cheese,” Valliere says. “More and more consumers are looking for better-for-you alternatives or vegan options, and we think our vegan white cheddar really delivers on those needs. If you have a bit of a sweet tooth, Spudsy’s cinnamon churro may be your new favorite, seasoned with brown sugar, cinnamon, and sea salt.
Clearly, there are oodles of options when it comes to cheese puffs, both in terms of nutritional profile and flavor. Sometimes, you really can improve on a classic.
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