Cheetos rest on a paper plate.
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book excerpt / science

How the US Military Helped Invent Cheetos

How the US military figured out how to make self-stable cheese ... and helped invent Cheetos to boot.
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Who doesn’t love something they get for free or at a third of the original cost? But what could one do with football fields full of potato flakes, a cave stuffed with dried eggs (the army’s strange storage location for one hundred million pounds of the stuff), or a mountain of dehydrated cheese?

Well, there was one group always interested in lowering the cost of finicky fresh ingredients: the grocery manufacturers, businesses such as Swift, Quaker Oats, General Foods, General Mills, Libby’s, Borden, McCormick, Colgate?Palmolive, Gerber, Scott Paper, Kellogg’s, Pillsbury, and Kraft. (The strength of the companies that produced the packaged goods that lined the nation’s nascent supermarkets, many with deep military ties, only grew over the next century, as did that of their trade group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, today the food industry’s most powerful lobbying organization.)
Perhaps instead of real cheese, the food corporations could mix in the cheap powder to add flavor. Not only would they save outright on the cost of ingredients, they’d pay a lot less to ship and store it—after all, that was the army’s primary purpose in developing dehydrated cheese in the first place. These ration conversions inspired a flood of fledgling products, particularly in the new and growing categories of convenience and snack foods.

In 1948 the Frito Company (it merged with H. W. Lay & Company in 1961 to become Frito?Lay, Inc.) debuted the country’s first cheesy snack food, made with the same Wisconsin cheddar the army used for its dehydrated products. Frito Company founder Charles Doolin had been a military supplier, even building a facility in San Diego, where there is a naval base, to service his contracts.

According to his daughter Kaleta Doolin, “During the war, tins of chips were sent overseas to be served in mess halls and sold in PXs. This venture helped put the company over the top as a nationwide business.” Afterward, new plants were opened in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City, where soon cornmeal and water were being extruded, puffed, fried in oil, and coated with finger?licking, orange dehydrated cheese. Cheetos!
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