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It’s no wonder that so much of human culture throughout history has revolved around our relationship with food. After all, it’s one of the necessities to maintain our health and wellbeing.

We design our social events around it, we have built entire industries atop it, and we keep finding ways to be both creative and practical with it. As our lives have become increasingly busy across the centuries, we have met our nutritional needs and desire for sweetness with the development of snacks. 


We tend to think of snack foods as a purely contemporary phenomenon. However, for almost as long as humans have had to balance their nutritional requirements with a full day of activities, we’ve sought to make food simpler. Let’s take a look at how snacks have been a part of our history and continue to play a role in our lives.      

The Rise of the Snack

So, why do we snack, other than the fact that sweet treats are just too tempting to resist? It comes from our tendency toward grazing behavior. While we’ve developed this construct of having 3 set meals around our working days, this is more of a social habit than a nutritionally satisfying way for us to eat. As such, we occasionally grab something small to sate our hunger between meals. Indeed, some of the earliest forms of snack foods were created from staple crops. We know that indigenous people of the Great Lakes region made popcorn using heated sand and pottery and that 1000-year-old popped kernels of corn have been discovered by archaeologists.


Though, the way we treat snacks today — often as much as a little treat — dates back as far as the 6th century. An Italian monk would bake an early form of pretzel to provide to his congregation as a reward for coming to church services. While there have been frequent attempts even as early as the 18th century to instill healthy eating practices in society, this has not been sufficient to quell the consumption of snack foods. Indeed, as the industrial age began to rise, the commercial possibilities for giving the public the little morsels they crave between meals developed alongside it.


One of the first snacks marketed to the public was Fig Newtons in the early 1890s, although these were also initially presented as a treatment for digestive issues. Cracker Jack’s combination of molasses and caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts was then introduced to the public at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The concept of snacking as an industry truly solidified from the early 20th century onwards. We got our first taste of Oreos in 1912 and, particularly as a result of prohibition in the 1920s, Americans adopted snacking as their vice of choice — food companies were only too happy to meet the demand.

Standing the Test of Time

While today we have a dizzying array of snacks at our disposal, there are those which have become long-standing favorites. Some of these have developed a solid footing in food culture over several decades. Others have their roots in centuries-old approaches to convenient nutrition. 


Those that have stood the test of time include:


●        Jerky

Especially popular among those who undertake outdoor activities, jerky has enjoyed a long history of being a popular snack as a result of its varied flavors and significant nutritional value. Usually made from beef, pork, or turkey, it is a source of iron, essential proteins, and energy. Jerky has its roots in indigenous South American culture as far back as the 16th century, when natives preserved dried meat products they referred to as “Ch'arki.” We also know that pirates of the 17th century dried and cured meat and the word “buccaneer” comes from the French word “boucan:” a smoker of dried meats. It has since been a continual presence as a favorite snack food — most notably in continental America, where there continue to be several popular brands producing the product on both industrial and boutique scales.


●        Twinkies

For more than 90 years, the Twinkie has been a staple of the North American snack selection. While cakes in general have been a popular snack choice since the 18th century, there have been few brands or recipes that have made such a cultural impact as this specific cream-filled sponge. The Twinkie was invented by the Continental Baking Company as an alternative use for shortbread pans. The snack not only found a place in people’s kitchens, it has also become a point of pop-cultural reference in movies (“Ghostbusters” and “Zombieland” among them), and even the shorthand for an outlandish legal defense.

The Present and Near Future

Today, we have greater access to health information, and we know that some of our snacking activities can have a detrimental effect on our long-term health. Indeed, we are more cognizant of whether trendy dental treatments might be useful or if they lead to potential damage. Brushing with activated charcoal or gargling hydrogen peroxide may restore some of the whiteness that excessive snacking has depleted. However, such activities can have an even more abrasive impact on our teeth and gums. This is why, rather than simply following the trends, it can be more important to adjust our snacking behavior with consideration to our overall health.


To meet our health-conscious lives, a wider range of snacks is now produced with fewer fatty oils. There are also many companies creating snacks that maintain the sweet or salty flavors we crave but are made from fruits and vegetables that have high nutritional values. Instead of devouring potato chips, we can snack on dried fruit products that have a similarly satisfying crunch and consistency — a practice that harkens back to methods 18th-century citizens used to get through the winter.  


As we push toward the future, there is also more emphasis being placed on making certain that our snacking choices are more sustainable. Our connected society means that the public is frequently alerted to such issues as deforestation that is caused by palm oil production. As such, we are making more informed snack purchasing decisions to have a positive impact on our planet.


Snacks have been a key part of our way of life for centuries. As our society has progressed through industrial expansion, so too has the range of small treats available grown. While we are likely to keep snacking for the foreseeable future, we are starting to make more mindful choices about how we approach our consumption.


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.