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11 of the Oldest Snack Foods We're Still Eating

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The shelves of your local grocery store may be crowded with new-fangled taste sensations like coffee-flavored potato chips and candy bars stuffed with hip ingredients like bacon (always, always bacon), but plenty of snack foods we still consume in mass quantities have got some major staying power. Turns out, your great-grandparents might have chowed down on your favorite treat long before you were even born, and that very same grab-and-go snack will likely be around long after you’re gone. That’s something to chew on.

1. Pretzels

Pretzels are widely considered to be the world’s oldest snack food (although they’ve got a little bit of a friendly competition going with another entry on this list). Pretzel historians—yes, pretzel historians—hold that the modern pretzel’s predecessor was first made in the 6th century by an Italian monk, a crafty baker who actually used it as a treat to reward his youngest church attendees. That might be why the word “pretzel” is from the Latin word “pretzola,” which loosely translates to “little reward.”

2. Popcorn

Popcorn and pretzels may happily pair at a party, but the two crunchy snacks have long been caught in a terrible debate over which treat is actually the world’s oldest snack. History holds that Native Americans used to indulge in the snack, with archeologists reporting finding popcorn ears that they can date all the way back to being snacked on some 5,600 years ago. Clearly, no one was using a microwave at the time, but it’s believed that Native American would throw their ears right on a fire, in order to pop out kernels in impressive fashion.

3. Triscuits

Nabisco initially touted their Triscuit crackers as being “baked by electricity!,” a snazzy way to make a relatively timeless-tasting snack sound extremely modern. The shredded wheat cracker was first invented back in 1903 in Niagara Falls, where it really was cooked up using electricity. For its first two decades in existence, Triscuits were much bigger than their current counterparts: they were 2 ¼ inches by 4 inches. By 1924, they had been shrunk down to their familiar 2-inch by 2-inch size.

4. Oreo Cookies

Nabisco—formerly known as the National Biscuit Company—also pioneered “milk’s favorite cookie” pretty early on. The first Oreo was made in 1912 in Nabisco’s factory located in the Chelsea section of New York City. Weirdly, the Oreo came after the Hydrox cookie, and Nabisco created it solely to compete with Sunshine’s own sandwich cookie, which was first made in 1908.

5. Cracker Jack

Popcorn’s age may be in question, but one of its most famous related products will suffer no such indignities. The roots of Cracker Jack can be traced all the way back to 1871 Chicago, when German immigrant Frederick William Rueckheim started cooking up and selling his own popcorn. Legend holds that Rueckheim and his brother Louis introduced the sweet and crunchy treat we know as Cracker Jack to the audience at Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1893, though no actual evidence has ever been produced to back that claim up. Still, by 1896, Cracker Jack was being produced for sale, eventually becoming a favorite of popcorn lovers and baseball fans everywhere.

6. Lay’s Potato Chips

Lay’s – which has gone through a staggering number of name changes during the course of its long existence, including the incredibly clunky “Lay’s Lay Lingo Company” and “H.W. Lay Lingo & Company”—introduced their classic chip in 1932. The invention of the continuous potato processor in 1942 allowed the chips to be made in massive quantities, soon pushing the chip empire into the stratosphere.

7. Fritos

Although Fritos haven’t yet reached their hundredth birthday, they’re still a pioneer of non-potato chip technology and innovation. Corn chip obsessive Elmer Doolin purchased the chip recipe from a fellow San Antonio, Texas resident in the early 1930s—Doolin was particularly keen to find a chip that wouldn’t go stale too quickly – and started mass producing his chips in 1932. Doolin knew his snacks: he also invented Cheetos!

8. Twinkies

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“The Golden Sponge Cake With Creamy Filling” was invented in 1930 when industrious baker James Alexander Dewar conceived of an idea to use cream-filling machines that previously only stuffed shortcakes with in-season strawberry cream to fill cakes with banana cream the rest of the year. Yes, the first Twinkie held banana cream, though banana rationing during World War II forced the switch to vanilla cream, a switch that proved popular enough to stay on as the official Twinkie flavor.

9. Jell-O

Jell-O’s key ingredient, gelatin, has long been used to hold together desserts and other sweet treats, and “jelly moulds” were a hot dessert during the Victorian era. But because gelatin was hard to make, it didn’t catch on with a big audience until Peter Cooper patented powdered gelatin in 1845. In 1897, Pearle Bixby Wait trademarked his own powdered gelatin dessert, called Jell-O. New flavors soon followed, and the rest is (jiggly) history.

10. Marshmallows

Marshmallows have been around since ancient Egypt, and were often used to soothe sore throats (complete with sweeteners like honey mixed in to help with the work). By the 19th century, French confectioners mixed things up by whipping the marshmallow medicine, turning it into a real treat. By 1948, the extrusion process made it possible for marshmallows to be made in an automated environment, thanks to machines that gave them the cylindrical shape they’re now most recognizable for.

11. Necco Wafers

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One of America’s very first candies, the New England Confectionary Company (“Necco”—get it?) first manufactured the wafers in 1847, envisioning the thin treats as their signature item. The slim snack owes its history to Oliver Chase, who invented a cutting machine that allowed the slices to be made so thin.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted. 

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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