Lab-made, lip-puckering, a chaotic flavor profile that’s almost … gross? Yes, Tostitos Hint of Lime is a perfect chip.
The chip smells like nothing, but tastes like a smörgåsbord that’s both confusing and arousing, like Steve Buscemi. Flecks of spring green – the kind generated from radioactive waste – coat the unwieldy triangles. The seasoning is a kaleidoscope of Day-Glo dust particles that perishes under saliva and tongue.
And when you truly take the taste in, it’s not just lime that’s hinted at – it’s also sour candy and umami and summertime and guilt.
Except: there’s no lime in Tostitos Hint of Lime.
Three recently proposed class-action lawsuits against Frito-Lay, owned by PepsiCo, sought $5m in damages on the basis that the chips allegedly contain a “negligible amount of lime”.
One complaint filed in California federal court listed “flavor expert” Bob Holmes to explain the science of imitation: limes get their signature tart flavor from a combination of odor-active compounds, like alcohols and terpenes, but Tostitos Hint of Lime contained none; instead, a lab analysis revealed “a relative abundance of limonene and citral” meant to mimic lime’s “woody” and “piney” notes.
Not only did the chips not contain any lime, the suit said, it also just didn’t taste like what Tostitos was promoting.
Law blogs picked up the news and went pun-crazy, calling the case “a mixed bag” thrust “into the lime light”, served up with “a hint of chemicals”.
Pundits saw this as the unmistakable handiwork of Spencer Sheehan, a Long Island plaintiffs’ attorney behind hundreds of similar putative class actions against nearly every manufacturer in the supermarket – strawberry Pop-Tarts, Betty Crocker brownie mix, pineapple-mango Vizzy Hard Seltzer’s, to name a few – though his bread-and-butter are vanilla products that contain little to no actual vanilla bean, earning him the nickname “Vanilla Vigilante” and praise from consumer advocacy groups.
In the last few years, he has emerged as an extremely prolific filer, submitting an average of three cases a week. The historic 375 lawsuits filed against the food and beverage industry last year – a 1,600% spike since 2008 – mostly came from Sheehan, according to Perkins Coie, a corporate law firm that tracks such cases.
Charles Sipos, a defense lawyer with the firm who has been opposed Sheehan a handful of times, says recent changes in consumers’ demands for food transparency have led to a kind of wild west playing out in the grocery aisle today. Suing food corporations also happens to be a lucrative business enterprise, Sipos said.
“If all the companies were diligent about complying with the limits set by [FDA] regulations and kept their statements and packaging within those boundaries, it would mean that there would be no cases like this,” Sheehan said. “But as long as companies try to push the boundaries of what is allowed, there inevitably are going to be situations where they go too far and represent products in a way that will mislead consumers.”
Alas, Tostitos Hint of Lime will never see its day in food court. The cases were “voluntarily dismissed”, a typical outcome in cases like Sheehan’s that indicates a settlement agreement. Sheehan couldn’t give me specifics, but he told me that anyone could draw their own reasonable conclusions.
Frito-Lay and Sheehan probably entered into a private settlement in exchange for money and an agreement to change the Tostitos Hint of Lime label, according to defense attorney Joshua Kipnees, who co-edits his firm’s false advertising blog, Misbranded. Even for the most baseless of claims, manufacturers will find it cheaper to settle rather than gamble with the drawn-out unpredictability of litigation.
The only one who stands to cash in his chips would be Sheehan, Kipnees added, as the plaintiff’s counsel typically receives about one-third of the settlement fund, on top of case costs.
very little exists in the annals of the interwebs about Tostitos Hint of Lime. Many nights I’ve sucked down crusty mossed fingertips and typed away in a green-out (like a blackout, but from eating too much Tostitos Hint of Lime), searching for a like-minded fanclub, historical taxonomy, or even a press release .
Nothing. There’s no trademark on the product name, and no patent on the chip itself that I could find, unlike Ruffles.
I guess I craved an explanation for why I had always come back to these chips. There are vivid memories of Hint of Lime by my side, some difficult and sad, like eating them alone for dinner in high school. Mostly, though, I popped open the green bag like champagne on birthdays and vacations, a good-time snack to serve at life’s milestones and rest stops.
They’re my comfort food, and I wanted to find a fellowship in that.
There are some ironic usernames on TikTok, plus the mandatory once-a-year mention from the official @Tostitos social accounts (maybe written by a bot who hates limes or itself or both), and a steady stream of uninspired tweets from normies, save a few blue-check mentions – like a Late Night with Seth Meyers writer calling the chips a “lime holocaust in your mouth” and a Bachelor contestant naming the chips as “the best thing” in his life and saying “it’s not even close”.
The chips’ more beloved cousins in the Frito-Lay family have an outspoken fanbase and get regular media attention, like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Rabid stans of the discontinued Tostitos Hint of Jalapeño regularly accost social media managers on Hint of Lime posts. Even Stacy’s Pita Chips has an origin story.
Until the lawsuits, Hint of Lime remained the ugly Quasimodo sister we didn’t talk about in mixed company.
But we’re out there, somewhere. In October, on Mike and Tom Eat Snacks, a podcast where comedian Michael Ian Black and actor Tom Cavanagh eat and rate a snack on a 10-point scale, the hosts stumbled on to a startling discovery: Tostitos Hint of Lime had updated their packaging.
The new bag, in Black’s possession, was a bolder hue of green, and instead of tortilla chips, the label read “flavored triangles”. Automatic two points deducted.
The most important difference between old and new packaging is that the transparent outline of a lime wedge – a window into the goodies – is now that of a tortilla triangle. No one can prove that Sheehan’s filings prompted Frito-Lay to update the Tostitos Hint of Lime packaging, but one can speculate.
The important question was: did it taste the same?
The two men dug in, and soon the listener is caught between one man’s moan and the other’s guttural cry. “It comes up and slaps your face,” said one. “The texture crunches like a motherfucker,” said the other.
“Sometimes, I’ll let it sit flat on my tongue so it can absorb that lime,” Cavanagh said. “I just let it sit there and then when the chip itself starts getting a little soggy.”
Their final rating was a resounding 8.5 out of 10.
I reached out to Tostitos’s PR to ask about the history of Hint of Lime. When was the brand first produced and marketed? Where does Hint of Lime fit into the Tostitos flavor portfolio? How many bags are sold each year and what region boasts the most sales?
I got a chipper response from an account supervisor at Ketchum, Frito-Lay’s outsourced PR agency. He said he’d get me answers within a week. Two weeks later, they said they were unable to provide answers and politely passed on the opportunity to talk to me.
It’s unclear why they stonewalled me; Maybe the recent lawsuits have executives tight-lipped. Or maybe any peek into their chips’ past was kiboshed after an LA Times investigation exposed the supposed inventor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Richard Montañez (and the subject of an upcoming biopic directed by Eva Longoria) as “urban legend” and had PepsiCo executives tripping over each other’s statements to the press. Or it could just be what happens when Frito-Lay-cum-PepsiCo is asked about ingredients, like when a science writer tried to find out why there were pork enzymes in Doritos.
In a last-ditch effort, I finished my third bag of Hint of Lime in the name of journalism and messaged an 80-year-old on Facebook asking if he was the same person Snack Encyclopedia credited with developing Tostitos for Frito-Lay in 1978 I never got a response.
The food fight to uncover the history of Tostitos Hint of Lime continues – until then, I’ll let the chips fall where they may (right into my mouth).