In the 1982 classic "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," a lost and loveable alien bonded with his human hosts over Reese's Pieces. Coca-Cola and McDonald's have crept their way into the farthest reaches of the world. One of the most-significant college championship football games is literally called the Sugar Bowl. Junk-food culture is as ingrained into the American psyche as cars, Hollywood, and baseball—in fact, you'd be hard-pressed to watch an auto race, a movie, or a baseball game where a snack maker's logo wasn't featured somewhere in the mix.
Americans eat an average of 10 billion donuts and 22 pounds of candy every year, about 25% of us consume fast food every single day. The negative consequences of these diets have been well documented: We're one of the fattest, sickest countries on Earth, and obesity and its many detrimental side effects creep closer toward epidemic levels every year. Even so, the country's love affair with junk food is enduring, and in a way, sentimental. It's almost certain that Ronald McDonald, the Kool-Aid Man, and Tony the Tiger are more instantly recognizable to more Americans than most former presidents.
From Twinkies and Girl Scout Cookies to chocolate bars and popcorn, snack food conjures up memories of childhood, specific situations like movies or first dates, and nostalgia for simpler, or at least sweeter, times. Some snacks are specific to a generation or decade. Others transcend time and are intimately familiar to the masses regardless of age. All of them, however, have brought moments of joy and satisfaction to the masses, even if the tradeoff was a few—or a few dozen—pounds.
From chasing ice-cream trucks in the summer as a kid to tearing open a bag of some delicious, processed food-like substance on a first road trip, snacking is an undeniable part of the American experience. Here's a look at the snacks that defined decades and generations. Some are savory, some are sweet. Some barely resemble their original design while some have remained unchanged for more than a century. Either way, it's likely that at least some readers will get hungry just reading about them.
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No one could ever mistake the stacked, curved crisps as anything but Pringles. That's largely because of the iconic tall, cylindrical container that has housed Pringles since chemist and food storage technician Fredric J. Baur developed the container for Procter & Gamble in 1966. When Bauer died in 2008, his children honored his wish and buried him with a can of Pringles—original flavor, of course.
People's love affair with Chex Mix goes much farther back than when its pre-packaged incarnation arrived in stores in 1987. The popular party snack made its original debut in the 1950s when the Ralston Purina Co. unveiled Chex cereal, which included recipes for a party mix on the back of the box.
Oreos have been a staple of American junk-food culture since the National Biscuit Co. (Nabisco) introduced them to the world in 1912. The cookies, which are both vegan and kosher, comprise exactly 29% creamy center and 71% cookie. The most popular cookie in the world, Oreos do more than $2 billion in annual sales.
If movie-theater candy had a Mount Rushmore, it would have to include Junior Mints. Candy maker James Welch invented the chocolate-covered mint creams in 1949 and named them as an homage to a Broadway play, and later a radio show starring Shirley Temple, called "Junior Miss."
A bag of gummy bears on Halloween is a rarely traded score, and it all started with an innovative German confectioner named Hans Riegel who experimented with soft, gelatinous, dancing-bear-shaped candies when his hard candies weren't selling. Gummy candy—like the mountains of bears still sold by brands like Haribo and Black Forest—was born, but the technique was hardly new. People had been cooking sugar and fruit to preserve it for generations, so gummy bears are close relatives of jellies, jams, and marmalades.
Arguably the world's most-famous snack chip, Doritos were invented in the 1950s in Casa de Fritos, a Mexican-themed restaurant run by the Frito company in the newly opened theme park Disneyland. At the suggestion of an employee, the restaurant stopped throwing away its stale, unused tortillas and instead cut them into triangles, seasoned and fried them. Today, Doritos does nearly $1.5 billion in sales, more than double Tostitos, the next-closest competitor.
Developed by the Mars Corporation (now Mars, Incorporated) in 1930, Snickers was the name of Frank Mars' favorite horse. All Snickers contain about 16 peanuts—100 tons are used to create 15 million Snickers bars every day. The world's most popular candy bar, more than $2 billion worth of Snickers are sold annually in 70 countries.
When confectioner Milton Hershey walked away from two previous failed ventures at the turn of the 20th century, chocolate was a luxury reserved mostly for the wealthy. Hershey changed all that by wholesaling Hershey's cocoa so he could make chocolate for the everyman, and the Hershey bar was born. Hershey was a prolific philanthropist who donated his entire fortune—but not before building a network of charitable schools and even Hershey Park for his employees and their families to enjoy.
When Forrest Mars took control of the Mars company from his legendary confectioner father Frank Mars, he already had an idea to coat chocolate in candy to keep it from melting, a concoction he first learned of in Europe. Mars, who already had a patent for the candy, met prominent chocolatier Bruce Murrie who partnered with Mars on the idea. Mars & Murie, or M&M, was born.
Cracker Jack is such an American institution that the molasses-flavored, caramel-covered popcorn is mentioned in the lyrics of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," which has been played at ballparks since the 1030s. Invented by a German immigrant who was hired to come to the United States to help clean up in the wake of the Chicago fire in 1872, Cracker Jack was first sold at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.
Swedish Fish are sort of like gummy candies, but they're firmer and they don't contain gelatin, which has long made them popular among vegetarians and vegans with a sweet tooth. A Swedish company called Malaco introduced the starch-based chewable to the U.S. candy scene in the 1950s, and by the 1960s and 1970s, there was hardly a movie theater concession stand in the country that didn't feature the import under its glass.
Rice Krispies received a lukewarm reception when it hit the shelves in 1928. The cereal gained superstar status, however, a decade later in 1939 when Kellogg's employee and Campfire Girls troop leader Mildred Day sold hundreds of the gooey, sugary squares that would come to be known as Rice Krispies Treats for a fundraiser. She took an old recipe for "puffed rice squares" and experimented by adding marshmallows and butter.
Twenty-one million Raisinets are made every year: enough to give 17 of the movie-theater staples to every man, woman, and child in the United States. Nestle's simple formula of dipping ripe California raisins in milk chocolate was the original business model of Philadelphia's Blumenthal Brothers Chocolate Co., which debuted the candy in 1927. Raisinets are known for their luster—each one is now, and has always been, polished to a shine after the chocolate hardens.
The Just Born company's legacy began in 1910 when Russian candymaker Sam Born immigrated to the United States. Around 30 years later in 1940, the successful confectioner hit gold with his first true global blockbuster—Mike and Ike, a jelly bean-esque fruit-flavored candy that became a cinema must-have.
The year 1991 was special for Newton, Mass., which has been indelibly linked with the fig-based Nabisco cookie that has borne its name since Fig Newtons debuted in 1891—although then the treat was just called "the Newton." It was the cookie's 100th anniversary, and few snacks are more synonymous with a place, in tradition as well as in name, as Fig Newtons and the town of Newton, which staged a massive celebration and community-wide barbecue in 1991 to celebrate the relationship.
The white, seven-loop curlicue that adorns the classic Hostess CupCake is famous worldwide. The flagship product of one of the biggest baked-goods companies in the world, the Hostess CupCake celebrated its centennial celebration in 2019, and has been delighting kids of all ages since the Continental Baking Co. introduced it to the world in 1919.
In 1963, Kellogg was riding high as the king of the cereal aisle and the top dog in terms of kids' breakfast. Its chief competitor, Post, responded by developing pastries stuffed with fruit filling that could keep without refrigeration, but the company went public too soon and Kellogg brought the idea to market first. Part dessert, part snack, part breakfast food, the Pop-Tart was born.
Arguably the most-fun candy to eat in history, PEZ is known as much for its endless variety of pop-culture dispensers as it is for the tiny brick-shaped hard candies that pop out of their heads. When they were developed in Austria in 1927, they were actually circular and sold in tins. Today, PEZ is sold in 90 countries across the world and some of the most-coveted dispensers are worth a small fortune.
Created in 1983 by the company that would become Nestle's Wonka brand, Nerds are tiny, tangy, and crunchy little sugar bombs known for their unique packaging. Each pack comes with two flavors separated by a divider inside the two-in-one cardboard pack. Each side comes with its own pour spout.
Gooey, stringy, and taffy-esque, Charleston Chews are bars—and later bites—of nougat covered in milk chocolate. A flapper-era original, the candy was named for the famous 1920s dance, the Charleston, when it debuted in 1922. The candy has been known through the decades for doubling as a crackable hard candy after a stint in the freezer.
Known for their rich, chocolaty taste and tooth-pulling stickiness, Tootsie Rolls today are made with the same recipe as when Austrian immigrant Leo Hirshfield invented them in 1896. Hirshfield insisted that a portion of the batch from the day before be incorporated into each new batch to ensure continuity, a process that remains in place today. One of the last candies that sells for a penny apiece, 64 million Tootsie Rolls reach consumers each day.
A solid, malleable panel of sticky fruit paste, Fruit Roll-Ups have been tossed into lunchboxes across the country since the early 1980s. Although it's discarded as an afterthought, the plastic film that makes them rollable was at least as much a feat of engineering as the snack itself. General Mills inventor Bob Zoss developed the nonstick cellophane backing, and if he hadn't, Fruit Roll-Up would not be unrollable.
People snap into about 1 billion Slim Jims every year, but the ultra-processed meat cigars bear little resemblance to their predecessor at the snack's genesis in the 1950s. When a condiment salesman named Adolph Levis experimented with what would become Slim Jims in the 1940s, he worked with a meat packer to create a sausage that was small and easy to eat for sale to customers in bars. With the arrival of the Interstate Highway System and the "On the Road" travel culture of the 1950s, however, they were sold in jars of vinegar as snacks for long road trips.
Claiming arguably the most-foreboding name in the history of snacks, Jawbreakers are definitely for licking and not for crunching. They're made almost entirely from sugar, and to achieve their legendary nearly unbreakable hardness, they're cooked at a high temperature for 14-to-19 days.
Known for generations as undeniably delicious grandma candy, Werther's Originals get their name from Werther, the small European village where candy-maker Gustav Nebel created them with butter, cream, brown and white sugars, and salt. The caramels are known for their sweet, savory flavor and creamy texture.
Mallomars first appeared at a grocery store in Hoboken, New Jersey, on Nov. 13, 1913. In an homage to classic campfire s'mores, Mallomars consist of a marshmallow on a graham cracker covered in chocolate. They were originally available only from September through March because they melted in the summer, and despite modern refrigeration, the tradition remains in place today.
Andes Crème de Menthe is the undisputed king of after-dinner mints. The individually green-foil-wrapped chocolate is instantly recognizable for its three-layered, brown-green-brown stacking. The candy was a hit since it arrived on the scene in the 1950s.
What would you do for a Klondike Bar? That's the question ice-cream lovers have been asking since 1982, when the famous advertising slogan began, and the chocolate-coated ice cream square went national. Until the 1970s, Klondike Bars were sold only in Pennsylvania and Ohio, followed by New York, New England, and finally, all the United States.
First sold in 1923, Milky Way bars were developed by candy giant Frank Mars, who experimented with them in his own kitchen 100 years ago. Contrary to popular belief, the gooey, nougat-and-caramel-laden candy bars are named not for Earth's galaxy, but for a popular drink from the era called malted milk. Today Milky Ways do $100 million in annual sales.
In 2018, after 116 years of captivity, Barnum's Animal Crackers finally broke free from their circus cages—at least the menagerie that graces the boxes—thanks to a campaign from animal-rights group PETA. Nabisco agreed to a more contemporary look for the iconic packaging, which was developed in 1902 and named for legendary showman P. T. Barnum, who created and marketed modern circus culture.
In 1917, the Mistletoe Troop in Muskogee, Oklahoma, baked the world's first batch of Girl Scout Cookies in its school cafeteria for a fundraiser, and in 1922, Girl Scouts began baking cookies and selling them door to door. The moment sparked a tradition, and the tradition earned a cult following that continues today—200 million Girl Scout Cookies are sold every year.
Nabisco has sold Nilla Wafers only since 1967, giving crunch to banana pudding everywhere for more than half a century. The same cookie, however, was sold as early as 1929, only under the extended name, Vanilla Wafers.
Nestle's famous four-fingered, chocolate-covered wafer was born in 1935 in England, but back then it was known as Rowntree's Chocolate Crisp. Two years later in 1937, Rowntree Marketing Director George Harris rebranded the treat Kit Kat after the Kit Kat club, a 17th-century literary club in England.
Ho Hos joined the Hostess lineup and became a snack sensation in the 1970s, thanks largely to the memorable 1970s ad campaign "Happy Ho Ho." The first one was made by hand in a San Francisco bakery in 1967.
Ho Hos may be an American favorite, but Twinkies are an American legend—one of the yellow, cream-filled cakes was included in President Bill Clinton's 1999 millennium time capsule. Hostess created Twinkies during the Depression, but the snack became an icon when it partnered with "The Howdy Doody Show" in the 1950s. To this day, Hostess makes 1 million Twinkies every 24 hours.
Bugles have filled party snack bowls for over 50 years—General Mills still maintains and displays the original May 18, 1964, news release announcing the snack's arrival. It was one of three new products that signified the company's expansion into snack food. The other two were Daisy's and Whistles, neither of which survived the decades like their enduring cousin.
First, they're sour, then they're sweet. This chain of events has puckered then sweetened taste buds since the late 1970s when the Canadian candy conglomerate Jaret created Sour Patch Kids. They were originally shaped like Martians and sold as Mars Men, but they took on their current name and form in 1985 when they were exported to a Cabbage Patch Kids-obsessed American public.
Simple, salted finger food, peanuts just might be the ultimate bar snack—and in the world of nuts, the name Planters tops all others. The Planters Peanut Co. was founded in 1906, but in 1916, something happened that would make the company among the most recognizable in the world—the monocled, top-hatted Mr. Peanut was born. Arguably the most-famous food mascot in history, Mr. Peanut appeared on TV commercials in the 1950s, making the name Planters synonymous with peanuts across the world.
Things going together like peanut butter and jelly is a popular analogy, but peanut butter and chocolate might be more fitting—a fact not lost on Harry Burnett Reese. Reese was a worker on Milton Hershey's dairy farm in the early 1900s and later worked in Hershey's chocolate factory, where he created confections in the basement. He formed his own candy company and developed peanut butter cups he originally called Penny Cups—they would go on to be his namesake creation and one of the most-famous and enduring snacks in history.
A delicate, decadent, and European twist on America's snack culture, the Milano might just be the perfect cookie. About 558 million of the flaky, ovular treats roll off Pepperidge Farm assembly lines every year. The sandwich cookies were originally an open-faced prototype called the Naples—the second cookie was used to seal in the chocolate topping after the Naples proved to melt too quickly in warm temperatures.
Milano cookies are Pepperidge Farm's most-elegant creation, but Goldfish are without a doubt its most famous—142 billion of the little orange cheesy crackers go to market every year. Goldfish joined the Pepperidge Farm lineup in 1962, but they didn't get their now-famous—and surprisingly hard-to-make—smiles until 1997.
Potato chips have been around since at least the 19th century, but they became a mainstream snack in the 1920s—it was a man named Herman Lay, however, that would become responsible for their presence on picnic tables and grocery store shelves across the world. Lay refined his chips during the 1920s—including the addition of ruffles and seasoning added during the cooking process—and by 1938, Lay's was a national brand synonymous with the crispy, salty, fried potato slices.
Pizzeria Pretzel Combos hit stores in 1981 and became a defining snack of the decade. Savory, crunchy, and cheesy, Combos are bite-sized hollow tubes of pretzel stuffed with a filling that is as addictive as it is processed.
Snyder's is to pretzels what Planters is to peanuts, and the tradition dates back to 1909 in Hanover, Pennsylvania, when Harry Warehime produced his first batch of Old Tyme Pretzels. His creation became a mainstay in napkin-lined bowls at parties across America. Today, the Snyder's lineup contains pretzel rods, sticks, sourdough, snaps, and even chocolate-covered pretzels.
Sweet summer refreshment on a stick, Popsicles are believed to trace their roots back to an 11-year-old boy named Frank Epperson, who froze a cup filled with powdered soda and a stick in 1905. Today, Popsicle is owned by the Unilever brand, which sells over 2 billion of them a year.
"There's always room for Jell-O" is one of the most-famous slogans in marketing history, and the wobbly, wiggly, gelatinous jelly that slogan was designed to sell is one of the most-famous snacks on Earth. In 1897, a carpenter named Pearle Waite created a gelatin dessert while experimenting with a cough remedy and laxative tea in his home. Jell-O was born, and it's now a mainstay at church gatherings, hospital cafeterias, birthday parties, and when vodka is added to the recipe, frat parties everywhere.
Featuring clusters of popcorn and peanuts bonded together by a caramel candy glaze, Fiddle Faddle is an offshoot of Poppycock that debuted in 1967. The original packaging was a milestone—it was the first snack ever packaged in a box with a handle.
The quintessential milk-dunker, Chips Ahoy! cookies get their name from the volume of chocolate chips that went into the original sales pitch—marketers promised you couldn't take a bite without hitting a piece of chocolate. Nabisco added several variations over the years, but the original is still king, and today sales float around $320 million a year.
MoonPies have been the original marshmallow cookie since their arrival in 1917. Affordable and filling, MoonPies get their name from the hungry Kentucky coal miners who wanted a snack as big as the moon. It was just one of over 100 snacks produced by the Chattanooga Bakery, but MoonPies quickly became the one thing the company couldn't keep on its shelves. Baby boomers adopted them as the snack of choice, and the big sandwich cookies are still a mainstay of American snack culture.
Newman Drake opened his namesake bakery in Harlem in New York City in 1896 and unveiled Genuine Drake's cakes in 1913—but they were originally large cakes cut to order by grocers. By 1926, the bakery had expanded to cities across the United States and the iconic Devil Dogs snack was born. Icons like Yodels, Drake's Fruit Pies, and Ring Dings would soon follow.