Would a Cheeto by any other name taste as dangerously cheesy?
That’s the conundrum in Germany, where, due to some savvy trademarking by the country’s largest snack food corporation, Cheetos have been illegal since 1980.
I first became aware of the situation while browsing the aisles of a Berlin “ethnic” grocery store that will remain nameless. Its selection of North American goods had been expanding recently, and I was excited to see everything from Tajin to Takis in stock. But what were these bright orange packets with a familiar cheetah on the front and a red sticker covering up the brand name on top? Were these misprinted bags where Chester was saying the F-word or something?
No, the internet informed me, the censorship stickers were actually a loophole. For over four decades, the Düsseldorf-based conglomerate Intersnack—whose chips, pretzels and corn puffs dominate the German market—has been suing anyone who dares to sell Cheetos in Germany, on the grounds that the name “Cheetos” is too similar to that of one of Instersnack’s own products, Chitos.
The shop owner, agreeing to speak to me under conditions of strict anonymity, confirmed that this legal issue was the reason for the big red sticker.
“Other stores have gotten letters saying they’d have to pay thousands of euros for violating the trademark,” they said. “Our lawyer told us that as long as the name isn’t visible, we should be okay. But we’re still not 100 percent sure.”
Indeed, censoring your Cheetos won’t guarantee you safety from the wrath of Intersnack Group. Earlier this year, a German seller was fined €2,538.10 because the sticker they’d slapped over the logo on each bag could be “easily removed,” thus leading to “brand confusion.”
Which might be perfectly reasonable grounds for a lawsuit—if there were any such thing as a Chito.
It’s true that one of Intersnack’s marquee 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 person I’ve talked to—young or old, from the former 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 site, which features a Photoshopped-looking 75-gram bag of circular snacks described as “the airy crispy rings of delicious potato dough, with an aromatic cheese note refined with delicious onions.” Sounds… delicious? And fake. Very fake.
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 potato, wheat, rice and/or corn products for snack purposes” but also “ready-to-eat goods to be prepared in a toaster, particularly sweet and savory sandwiches,” “hard and soft biscuits,” “gingerbread and honeycake,” and “candy, especially toffees, bonbons and fondant.” Chitos are a color, an emotion, a state of mind. They’re 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: “The trademark protection for Chitos is still valid, and national campaigns with Chitos will soon be forthcoming.”
Not likely, a spokesperson from AmericanFood4U told me. This is an import business that keeps Germans supplied with ranch dressing, Pop Tarts, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and crunchy cheese-coated corn snacks sold under the dubious label “Cornchos.” After months of legal entanglements with Intersnack, AmericanFood4U is convinced that “as long as their lawyers can keep making money off of this, it’ll continue without end.”
Meanwhile, those “forthcoming national campaigns” that Intersnack mentioned are more along the lines of In-N-Out Burger’s four-hour European pop-up locations: the bare minimum of operation required to hold onto the copyright.
“They’ll make and sell maybe 10 bags of ‘Chitos’ per year,” said the AmericanFood4U spokesperson.
You may be tempted to view Intersnack Group as the villain in this story, a miserly megacorp screwing over homesick Americans who just want to lick powdered cheese off their fingers again. But you could also see the Chitos gambit as an act of heroism, Germany’s last line of defense against a tidal wave of snack-food imperialism that has already engulfed most of the world.
Have I mentioned yet how proudly, resolutely boring the German savory snack industry is? While other countries experiment with bacon, wasabi, dill pickle, 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 tons of paprika per year, making it the Hungarian spice industry’s single biggest buyer.) How does paprika taste in chip form? In the words of Sir Patrick Stewart, “It’s possible that these would not exactly delight you in the way some cruder chips do. But there is a subtle flavor…”
It’s no wonder that Intersnack would feel threatened by Cheetos. What is subtlety in the face of a blaze-orange MSG bomb? There’s something oddly patriotic about holding the line, verboten though patriotism is in this country. After all, Intersnack isn’t the only David using copyright law to fend off an American food Goliath. In the Netherlands, one little hole-in-the-wall fry shop named Wendy’s has kept a certain pigtailed corporate redhead out of the entire European Union for decades.
Then again, even if the name Cheetos suddenly became legal in Germany, Cheetos as a product wouldn’t be. The classic fried version of the snack contains high amounts of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen that’s A-OK in the United States but strictly regulated in Europe. And so the so-called “Cheetos” that Frito-Lay manufactures in Poland, Spain, and Cyprus are wan, puffy imitations that may be ketchup-flavored or football-shaped but never, ever crunchy, let alone flamin’ hot.
Specialty shops like AmericanFood4U have been able to get away with importing small amounts of the real thing, but the spokesperson told me supplies are now dwindling—“Cornchos” have been sold out on the website for a long time.
“We’re actually looking into manufacturing our own version of them,” the spokesperson said.
Until that happens, many Americans who live in Germany are sourcing their Cheetos the good old-fashioned way: by stuffing suitcases full of them every time they hit the motherland. That’s how Chris Haskins, who runs the kitchen at Berlin craft beer pub Manifest Taproom, gets the garnish for his signature mac and cheese.
“I knew I wanted it to be American-style, and I wanted it to stand out visually,” says Haskins of his decision to top the dish with crumbled Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. “It’s the super-artificial color, that pinkish-red… when you bring it to people’s tables, there’s definitely a ‘wow’ factor.”
Every time Haskins goes to see family in Washington, DC or Atlanta, he brings back some 10 bags of the spicy snack. “Luckily, I only use them for this one item, so I just need one bag every two weeks. The hardest part is making sure my staff doesn’t eat them.”
Haskins, AmericanFood4U, and the supermarket owner I spoke with all agree that German demand for Cheetos—especially Flamin’ Hot ones—has been growing, even as the supply shrinks. Blame their ubiquity on TikTok, where Cheetos are used in viral recipes for everything from salad to Korean corn dogs.
Its valiant efforts to protect Germany’s mediocre snack legacy notwithstanding, it seems that Intersnack can only enforce the paprika-flavored status quo for so long. If its executives truly knew what was good for them, they’d take advantage of this market gap and give the people what they want. Flamin’ Hot Chitos, anyone?