Snack foods play an important part in American food culture. Snack foods are typically produced to be durable, accessible, inexpensive, and easy to eat out of a bag or package without further preparation. In addition to sweet snacks like candy and chocolate, and frozen treats like ice cream, Americans enjoy snack products in several major categories:
Chips and Crunchy Salted Snacks:
- The potato chip is the preeminent American snack food. Americans eat over $6 billion worth a year; the potato chip industry employs over 65,000 people. Native American George Crum worked as a chef at the well-known Saratoga Springs resort in New York State. In 1853 a guest complained that his French fries were too thick. More as a joke than anything else, Crum produced a plate of ultra-thin crisps; the taste and texture caught on with the public. By the turn of the twentieth century, commercial potato chip production began, enhanced by innovations in peeling, slicing and processing equipment.
- Today’s potato chips are available in many configurations, plain and flavored (often with onion, sour cream, or tangy barbecue flavors), mass-produced or craft cooked in small batches. Pringles, first brought to market in the 1960s and known technically as “potato crisps,” are uniformly shaped chips made from dough rather than from sliced potatoes. While not the most flavorful of chips, the Pringle performs particularly well as a conveyance for even the sturdiest dip.
- The traditional knot-shaped pretzel, legend has it, was invented by an Italian monk in an attempt to mimic the shape of praying hands; the only certainty about the pretzel’s origin is that it is very old, has European, possibly German, antecedents, and first became popular in Pennsylvania (where consumption remains highest). Snack pretzels are sold as nuggets, thin short sticks, thick long sticks, in knots about three inches across, in mini-knots and other miniature shapes. Unlike most crunchy snacks, pretzels are baked rather than fried. Soft pretzels, always in the traditional knot shape, are well known as street foods in New York City and Philadelphia.
- Tortilla chips are an important American snack, invented in the United States as an accompaniment to Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Southwestern cuisine. Plain or in colors, the chips are diamond shaped wedges cut from corn or flour tortillas then fried or sometimes baked; major brands include Tostidos and Doritos. Corn chips are used similarly but are produced from a corn-based dough; a popular brand is Fritos. Either variety of chip is likely to have a Mexican-sounding brand name, though invariably one that is easy for an English-speaking American to pronounce. These chips are available plain, in which case they are used to scoop up the piquant tomato and hot pepper dip called salsa or the thick avocado-based dip called guacamole, or flavored to be eaten as a self-contained snack.
- Developed by Native Americans thousands of years ago, popcorn is a special kind of corn kernel that puffs up when exposed to heat. It is available pre-popped in plain and candy-coated form and sold freshly popped from carts and kiosks, in which case it is usually enjoyed with salt and melted butter, from bags or large tubs. Americans prepare popcorn at home using popcorn making appliances, pre-packaged stovetop kits in disposable aluminum pans, or in special packets designed for microwave ovens. The act of attending a motion picture at a theater (or even watching one at home on television) is strongly associated in American culture with the consumption of popcorn.
- F.W. Reuckheim introduced Cracker Jacks at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Reuckheim developed a method—still a trade secret—of keeping the product’s molasses-coated popcorn and peanuts from sticking together. Toy prizes were added to every box in 1912; searching for the toy is one of the great traditions of American childhood. The snack was immortalized in the iconic American baseball anthem Take Me Out To The Ballgame.
- Crunchy cheese puffs are created from cheese-flavored cornmeal that is either baked or fried into a number of bite-sized shapes and flavor variants. The most popular American brand is Cheetos.
- A number of health chips are marketed as stand-alone snacks or for use with dips: sweet potato chips, beet chips, various “veggie chips,” and pita chips.
Nuts, Seeds and Dried Fruit:
- Italian immigrant Amedeo Obici invented a process to blanch and de-hull roasted peanuts and founded the Planters Nut Company in 1906; the company’s distinctive Mr. Peanut trade character has been on the scene since 1916. Though botanically it is actually a legume, the peanut is certainly a nut in American culinary terms. Salted peanuts are available in small packages for snacking; roasted peanuts in their shells are popular at outdoor and sporting events.
- Peanuts, a variety of other nuts (almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios), and nut mixtures are sold in transparent bags, glass jars, or vacuum packed cans in food markets (or by weight out of bins in natural foods stores). Fresh roasted nuts are sold, salted or unsalted, by weight from kiosks, stands and food carts. Sugar and honey roasted peanuts are a popular option. The macadamia nut, a native of Hawaii, is a popular luxury food, rarely mixed with other nuts. Nuts are often available coated in chocolate or other flavorings.
- Nutritious, chewy sunflower seeds, salted or unsalted, are a healthy snack option, as are the popular pumpkin seeds. Of all dried fruits, the American raisin, a dried grape, is undoubtedly king. Dried apricots are also well known, but health food marketers sell nearly every kind of fruit in dried or preserved form, sweetened or unsweetened. A mixture of nuts, dried fruits and seeds is known as health mix or trail mix, based on its utility as an easy-to-carry and nutritious food for hikers.
- Originally developed as a staple food for long sea voyages, the cracker has been an American favorite for more than two centuries. Popular brands like Triscuit and Ritz are eaten with cheese or other toppings, but many smaller varieties, flavored with cheese or spices, may be enjoyed out of hand as bite-sized snacks. Anticipating the most popular flavor combinations, many crackers are sold in sandwich form: a top and a bottom cracker with a filling of cheese, peanut butter, jelly or other delectable.
- The Pepperidge Farm division of Campbell’s Soup sells the Goldfish brand of crackers. Usually flavored with one or another type of cheese, these bite-sized fish-shaped snack crackers are popular with American children, but may well also appear as a thirst promoter on any American bar.
Cookies and Small Cakes:
- Of the hundreds of varieties of American cookies (the word is of Dutch derivation) three types are the most iconic: the chocolate chip cookie, the oatmeal cookie, and Nabisco’s Oreo cookie (a chocolate cookie sandwich with a cream filling). Cookies are sold in bags and boxes at food markets, pre-wrapped in individual portions for snacks, or fresh by the item or by the pound from stands and kiosks. While the variety of cookies manufactured by the large American food processing companies is extensive, freshly made local craft cookies are available in many food markets and specialty shops. The American Girl Scouts are known for the “Girl Scout Cookies” they sell in their fund-raising efforts.
- Animal crackers are truly more of a cookie than a cracker (since they are sweet rather than savory), but the term is so widely used that there is no changing it now. These small, bite-sized animal shaped cookies vary in theme depending on manufacturer, but elephants, bears, camels and lions are usually represented.
- Doughnuts (or donuts) are made from sweet dough that is shaped and deep-fried. A doughnut may form a ring with a center hole, a solid cake filled with cream or fruit jelly, or be prepared in the form of a twisted rope. Some forms of doughnuts are cake-like and chewy, others airy and light. The doughnut is often served coated with a glaze of white sugar or chocolate, with the possible addition of toppings like nuts or sprinkles. Most doughnut shops also serve coffee.
- Cinnamon buns are puffy yeast rolls, baked with a topping of sugar and cinnamon. They are available either packaged or freshly made from stands and kiosks.
- Small snack-sized coffee cakes, cup cakes, pound cakes, chocolate covered Swiss rolls, brownies, corn muffins, bran muffins, and the Twinkie (an oblong golden sponge cake filled with cream) are all available in pre-wrapped snack portions. Frozen fruit filled toaster cakes are also a popular home snack.
Other snacks include:
- Jerky: a preserved meat (usually beef) product with a Native American heritage, typically dried, salted and aggressively spiced.
- Fried pork rinds, usually with chili or barbecue seasonings and heavily salted, are particularly popular in the American south.
- Cheese is sold in snack size in extruded plastic-wrapped rods or in foil wrappers. Food markets sell pre-packed packets of sliced cheese and crackers ready for snacking.
- Puddings, gelatin desserts and flavored yogurts are available in dairy departments in single serving snack packages.
- Nutritional Bars: labeled as health bars, granola bars, energy bars, protein bars, diet bars, supplement bars, fruit bars. These products are wrapped like and resemble chewy candy bars.
- Fresh Fruit: sold by the piece, particularly apples, bananas and oranges.
- Certain snack foods like candies, nuts, cookies, crackers, small cakes, and small bags of pretzels and chips are commonly sold out of vending machines. Convenience stores are also major sellers of snack foods, but every sizeable food market in the United States has an extensive snack food aisle, as well as separate aisles for both crackers and cookies.
There is a general perception in the United States that snack foods lack nutritional value and contribute to the national epidemic of obesity. Sales of health-based snack foods have risen because of these concerns. Efforts have been made to limit the availability of vending machine snacks to schoolchildren.