Do Spicy Snacks Really Cause Gallbladder Problems?

Bags of Flamin' Hot Cheetos
(Image credit: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty, file)

A Tennessee teen needed gallbladder surgery after consuming large amounts of spicy snacks, according to news reports. But could spicy snacks really have caused her gallbladder problems?

The 17-year-old, Rene Craighead, estimated she was eating about four bags of hot snacks a week, like Flamin' Hot Cheetos and Takis, according to local news outlet WREG. But that was before the teen started feeling "sick to her stomach" and needed gallbladder surgery, WREG reported. The teen's mother, also named Rene, said she believed her daughter's love for spicy snacks was to blame for her health problems.

"She loves them. Every time I go out she says, 'Bring me back some Hot Takis, bring me back some Hot Chips,'" the mother told WREG. "She was eating big bags and would take them to school with her."

Experts say that spicy foods per se aren't a known risk factor for gallbladder problems, but fatty foods like chips are a risk factor. (The gallbladder is a small organ under the liver that stores and releases bile, a fluid that helps digest fat.) [9 Snack Foods: Healthy or Not?]

"To my knowledge, something that's spicy doesn't necessarily lead to gallbladder problems," said Dr. Sabrena Noria, an assistant professor of surgery at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who was not involved with Criaghead's case. But "dietary fat consumption is definitely a risk factor" for gallbladder problems, Noria said, and some spicy snacks have high levels of fat. For example, Cheetos Flamin' Hot snacks have 11 grams of fat in every 28-gram serving; Takis Fuego Chips have 8 grams of fat in each 30-gram serving.

"It probably was the chips [that contributed to the gallbladder problems], but by virtue of the fact they were chips" eaten in a large quantity, Noria told Live Science.

Dr. Carrie Firestone Baum, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami who wasn't involved in Rene's case, said it's unclear whether eating spicy snacks can lead to gallbladder problems. But she said that spicy snacks can cause gastritis, or irritation of the lining of the stomach, and stomach pain.

"We see it pretty often — teenagers come in eating bags of [spicy] chips on a weekly basis" and they complain of belly pain, Baum told Live Science. Because of this, she recommends limiting how much of these spicy snacks a person eats.

Buchanan Public Relations, which represents Takis, said in a statement to WREG:

"We assure you that Takis are safe to eat, but should be enjoyed in moderation as part of a well-balanced diet. Takis ingredients fully comply with U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, and all of the ingredients in each flavor are listed in detail on the label. Always check the serving size before snacking."

Frito-Lay, the maker of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, also issued the following statement:

"At Frito-Lay, food safety is always our number one priority, and our snacks meet all applicable food safety regulations as well as our rigorous quality standards. Some consumers may be more sensitive to spicy foods than others and may choose to avoid spicier snacks due to personal preference."

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.