The fascinating histories behind today’s popular foods

Diet fads and trendy snacks may come and go, but there are still many timeless treats that have outlasted decades — some even centuries — proving that they’re not disappearing from our pantries anytime soon. A few of these delicious favorites have rich histories that prove each is more than just a modern grocery staple. 


In the 1930s, Forrest Mars noticed that soldiers in the Spanish Civil War were eating chocolate pellets coated with hard tempered chocolate to prevent them from melting in high temperatures. In 1941, Mars patented this idea and began producing M&M’s in New Jersey. 

The name stood for the surnames of himself and Bruce Murrie, the son of Hershey’s president, who owned 20% in the company and helped produce the chocolate. Originally the candies were produced solely for American soldiers fighting in World War II and came in a cardboard tube. In 1948, at the end of the war, they were made available to the public.

Mountain Dew  

Photo: 1950s Mountain Dew ad; via Wikimedia Creative Commons

Brothers Barney and Ally Hartman, who were Tennessee beverage bottlers, created the Mountain Dew recipe in 1940. Originally, the soft drink was created as a mixer for alcohol, preferably for mixing with whiskey, and the name Mountain Dew was Southern slang for moonshine. The Hartman brothers attempted to get input from Coca-Cola on their soda, but they refused, and today Mountain Dew is owned and produced by PepsiCo.


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In the 1940s, Italian pastry maker Pietro Ferrero created “pasta gianduja” — “pasta” meaning paste and “gianduka” named after a carnival character used in the original ads. Chocolate was in short supply due to rationing during World War II, so Pietro used hazlenuts in the spread, which were plentiful in the region. 

Pasta gianduja was first made in loaves, wrapped in foil and sliced, then served on bread. Children often would throw out the bread, so Pietro altered the product to be spreadable and sold in a jar, renaming it “supercrema gianduja.” In 1964, the product was renamed “Nutella.”


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Pez was invented in 1927 in Vienna, Austria, as a breath mint. The name was derived from the German word for peppermint, “pfefferminz.” In 1948, the dispenser was introduced — then called “Box Regulars” — and were designed to look like a cigarette lighter to encourage people to quit smoking. By the 1950s, the fruity flavors and character dispensers were introduced to market the candies toward children.

Chef Boyardee

Photo source: Flickr/paulsedra

To answer the obvious, yes, Chef Boyardee was a real person. His name was Ettore “Hector” Boiardi (1897-1985). He immigrated to the United States at 16 and eventually became head chef at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, then went on to open his own restaurant in Chicago. 

Patrons liked his spaghetti sauce so much that they asked to take extra home, so Chef Boiardi opened a factory to keep up with the demand. He used the simpler spelling Chef Boy-Ar-Dee for his brand to help Americans pronounce it, and later got rid of the hyphens.