Did you know that many of the snacks that we eat today have ancient origins? It’s true. Some of your favorite sweet and savory treats date back hundreds — or even thousands — of years.

Since a snack tastes a whole lot better with a backstory, let’s explore the secret history of some of the world’s oldest snacks. From popcorn and pretzels to doughnuts and beyond, these treats have been satisfying snack attacks since way before you were born.

Beef jerky

Photo of a bowl of beef jerky
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Did you know that beef jerky was once considered the perfect snack to take to the afterlife? In 2012, archaeologists discovered a greenish-black substance in a 2,000-year-old tomb in Northwest China. As it turns out, it was an ancient beef snack. Based on the lack of shrinkage, they were even able to determine that it had been dehydrated before being put in the tomb, meaning that they may have discovered the world’s oldest beef jerky.


Photo of an assortment of doughnuts
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Throughout the world, just about every culture has its own version of a fried dough treat. Some, like the Polish pączki, can be traced back to the Middle Ages.

The holey treats we know as doughnuts are descendants of the Dutch olykoek (“oily cake”), which was brought to the U.S. by immigrants in the 1800s. Early versions of doughnuts were fried and sweetened but had no hole.

The hole is said to be an American creation. As legend has it, a sailor named Hanson Gregory was steering his boat in stormy waters and speared his donut on the spoke of the ship’s wheel so that he could save his snack while getting a better grip. Donut believe it? There’s proof: A commemorative plaque noting his contribution to society can be found in his native Rockport, Maine.


Photo of decorated gingerbread man cookies
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Gingerbread cookies are a popular holiday treat, and they have been for a very, very long time. In fact, gingerbread hit the culinary scene shortly after ginger first came to Europe in the first century.

At the time, ginger wasn’t just considered a flavoring but was a natural preservative. It became a frequent addition to all sorts of recipes, from meat dishes to bread. By the 1600s, this ginger-infused bread had evolved into “lebkuchen,” which roughly translates as “cake of life.”

As time went on, gingerbread made its way throughout Europe. The English had further adapted the recipe, adding eggs and sweeteners, which yielded a more cookie-like finished product.

As for gingerbread men? Queen Elizabeth I is credited for their rise in popularity. During her reign, she presented visiting dignitaries with gingerbread figures formed in their likeness. The royal trend caught on, and the custom was brought over to the New World with the initial settlers ... and the rest is history!


Photo of a pile of soft pretzels
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These tasty, twisty-turny snacks have been satisfying appetites for thousands of years.

A beta version of the pretzel was discovered as early as the 6th century by an Italian monk and baker who made dough twists as a treat for young church congregants. This may have something to do with the name — the Latin word “pretzola” translates roughly as “little reward.”

Few can resist the siren call of a delicious pretzel, so the custom spread through neighboring areas. Then, the pretzel hopped over the pond to the U.S. with German settlers and was further developed and commercialized into the soft pretzels we know and love today.


Close up photo of a bowl of popcorn
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Did you know that popcorn precedes both movies and microwaves by thousands of years? The oldest ears of popcorn, which were discovered in New Mexico in the late 1940s, are said to be at least 4,000 years old.

Popcorn figured prominently into the lifestyle and ceremonies of the Aztec people. Their custom of tossing ears of corn into a fire and letting it pop certainly left an impression. Mentions of the popped kernels show up in documents from early explorers dating back as early as the 1500s. We’ve been enjoying it ever since.

Snack attack!

Aerial photo of various popular snacks including candy, popcorn, pretzels, chips, and ice cream
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The next time you’re craving one of these sweet or savory snacks, rest assured that you’re in good company. These tantalizing treats have been popular favorites for many years, and there’s no sign of their popularity waning any time soon.