Nestled among the Oreo-flavored wine and cappuccino-flavored potato chips in your local grocery store are classic snacks with serious staying power. Here are a few of the oldest snack foods still being eaten today.
Popcorn and pretzels may pair at a party, but there's little doubt which of the crunchy snacks is older. In 1948, in New Mexico, archaeologists discovered a number of tiny, ancient corncobs with minuscule kernels that could only have been consumed as popcorn. They believed the cobs could be 5600 years old based on radiocarbon dating. Research in the 1980s using more refined technology put their age at 3100 years old, which dovetails with evidence from other agricultural sites in the area.
Pretzels are another of the world's oldest snack foods. Italian monks crafted the first pretzels in the Middle Ages as treats to reward their youngest church attendees. The German word pretzel is likely derived from the Latin word bracchiatus, meaning "with branches, with arms," referring to the pretzel's shape resembling two arms folded in prayer.
Nabisco invented its tasty shredded wheat cracker in 1900 in Niagara Falls, New York. The company advertised Triscuits as being “baked by electricity!” a nod to the then-new concept of electric ovens. In fact, historians have suggested that the cracker's name is actually a portmanteau of elecTRIcity and bisCUIT.
4. Oreo Cookies
Nabisco also pioneered milk’s favorite cookie pretty early on. The first Oreos were made in 1912 in the company's factory on the west side of Manhattan. The company created Oreos to compete with Sunshine Biscuits's Hydrox sandwich cookies, which had debuted in 1908.
5. Cracker Jack
Cracker Jack can be traced all the way back to 1871, when German immigrant Frederick William Rueckheim started cooking up and selling his own popcorn in Chicago. Allegedly, Rueckheim and his brother Louis introduced the sweet and crunchy treat we know as Cracker Jack to the audience at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. 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 introduced its 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 Lay's chip empire across the United States.
Fritos are nearing their hundredth birthday. Entrepreneur Elmer Doolin purchased the corn chip recipe from his former employer, San Antonio restaurant owner Gustavo Olguin, and started mass producing his chips in 1932. Doolin knew his snacks: he also invented Cheetos.
In 1930, baker James Alexander Dewar conceived an idea to use his bakery's cream-filling machines year round. When strawberries were in season, he'd make strawberry cream-filled cakes, and then switch to banana filling for the rest of the time. Yes, “the golden sponge cake with creamy filling” originally held banana cream, though banana rationing during World War II forced the switch to vanilla flavoring. It proved popular enough to stay on as the official Twinkie taste.
Jell-O’s key ingredient, gelatin, has long been used to hold together desserts and other sweet treats. 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, which was initially sold in raspberry, lemon, orange, and strawberry varieties.
In ancient Egypt, the first "marshmallows" comprised the sap of the marsh mallow plant (Athaea officinalis) with honey and nuts. The confection was used to soothe sore throats. In the 19th century, French candymakers began whipping the concoction to give it the familiar pillowy texture. But it wasn't until 1948 that they achieved the familiar cylinder shape, made possible by an extrusion process.
11. Necco Wafers
One of America’s very first candies, the New England Confectionary Company began manufacturing Necco wafers in 1847, envisioning the treats as its 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.
This article was originally published in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.