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 1932 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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August 29, 2014 - 2:00pm
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