The Invention of Cheetos: How the US Military Participated

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Sometimes, the food we take for granted has the weirdest origin story. Case in point: the invention of Cheetos, which happened with the involvement of the US military. Want to know the tale? Join us!

Do you ever get lost in a weird Internet wormhole? Where clicking link after link after link takes you to faraway interesting places and reveals unimaginable treasures? And by treasures, I mean stories, my one and only favorite kind of Internet loot. This happens to me all the time, especially when it comes to food and stories related to food. They tend to make everything more palpable and they create an even deeper emotional connection to various dishes and foods all around the world. After all, isn’t food culture just a type of story to tell?

Yeah, this whole poetic, melancholy introduction is for a rundown of the invention of Cheetos, one of these things I have discovered while navigating the webs. The story was revealed by Wired a while ago, when they published an excerpt from the book ‘Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat’, by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo. So yeah, Cheetos aren’t the only food innovation that owes its life to the military.

The invention of Cheetos: a fabled, military tale

But if you’ve ever or never wondered about how Cheetos came to be, the most interesting info is that it all happened with the involvement of the US military, who were simply doing research on dehydrating foods during World War II. This was supposed to be a way to make it easier for the foods to be packed into meal kits for soldiers. Because the last thing you want during times of war is for your food to expire, go rancid and make you sick, right?

The Invention of Cheetos: How the US Military Participated

Cheese is one of our favorites and it has been a favorite of the world for a long, long time. But it doesn’t last that long or keeps well during the summer or in hot climates. One of the first steps in creating a longer-lasting cheese was emulsifying salts, a process that creates a cheese-like product that can withstand heat. The U.S. Military first got into the cheese game during World War I, with buying a twenty‑five million quarter‑pound tins from Kraft.

But years later during World War II, the military wanted new ways to store and ship cheese. At the beginning of the war, they started to study dehydration and compression. They removed heavy water and reduced the volume of cheese. That way, they could ship more food with one shipment. The cheese was dehydrated by being run through drying chambers and squashed into bricks.

Research led to cheese powder

This research was conducted by the Quartermaster Corps’ Subsistence Research Laboratory, through the USDA laboratories, at various universities, and by the industry, especially Kraft. When you dry and press out cheese, what you get is fine dust. Which can be used for cooking. Basically, that’s how the cheese powder that’s the basis for Cheetos now was invented. The first powder was developed by a USDA dairy scientist, George Sanders, in 1943.

After the war, there was a lot of cheese powder left in the warehouses of the military. That’s where food manufacturers came in. A lot of corporations bought the powder to mix it into other goods, for adding extra flavor. In 1948, the Frito Company debuted the first ever American cheesy snack, made with dehydrated cheese. The founder of the company had been a military supplier. This snack was the Cheeto, made by the extruding of cornmeal and water, puffed, fried in oil, and coated with the orange dehydrated Wisconsin cheese. What a history!

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