From Spam to Sliced Bread: Revolutionary Food Inventions |

food history

By Nina Gan

Food has evolved drastically since the dawn of humanity. Many of the food items we consume today were created by accident or on purpose. Among the shelves of food out there, some inventions are worthy of mention for the roles they’ve played in our society and culture – and we’ve all eaten them at one point or another.

Sustenance for war and beyond


Often called ‘luncheon meat’, SPAM’s brick-shaped canned pork was introduced in 1937 when people were accustomed to unrefrigerated meat in the US. SPAM’s popularity exploded during WWII when it became a ubiquitous part of the US soldier’s diet (it also fueled British and Russian soldiers). Introduced to Asia Pacific via American troops, SPAM became the ideal convenience food and incorporated into local diet: Okinawa’s goya champuru is fried with SPAM and some of us top our morning beehoon with it. Interestingly, South Korea produces and consumes more SPAM than any other country except the US (it’s very popular as gifts).

Instant Noodles

Fans of the humble instant noodle have Momofuku Ando to thank – he created instant Chicken Ramen back in 1958, and spurred plenty of copycat products in the market today. When Ando invented this cheap, instant food source – made by dehydrating noodles in hot oil and then mass produced – to address the food shortages in Japan right after WWII, it was epoch-making. By 1971 he came up with Cup Noodles, ready to eat in just 2 minutes in its own container. The styrofoam cup revolutionised the food industry by combining 3 functions: a packaging material, a cooking container, and an eating vessel. 

For ‘health’, by doctors


Officially launched in 1886, what we know as Coke today was invented by Dr John Pemberton. His first concoction included coca (aka cocaine), alcohol, and damiana (an aphrodisiac), which was touted to cure headaches, indigestion, and ‘invigorate sexual organs’. Cocaine was removed in 1903 (it was only illegal in 1914), and alcohol was removed during prohibition; both were replaced by sugar and caffeine. Known for their smart marketing that made them a commercial success – they created the image of Santa Claus we know today – the company also invented the 6-pack, now common in the beverage industry, in 1923. 


A popular breakfast cereal today, corn flakes were originally invented in 1894 by a fanatic doctor, John Kellogg, who was against sex of all kinds because he thought it was ‘impure’. He believed that eating meats and flavoured foods increased the desire for sex, so he prescribed a bland, tasteless diet at the sanitarium he worked at. Together with his brother, Will, they invented corn flakes as a sex-curbing food for the mass market but without much success in terms of profits or libido-stopping. Will then bought the rights to the flakes and added sugar to them, to the chagrin of John, and made himself a commercial success. 

Convenience rules


The history of drinking tea dates back centuries, and tea was brewed loose leaf until the invention of the tea infuser (perforated metal containers) in the UK. When American tea merchant Thomas Sullivan sent his customers samples of tea in small silken bags in 1908, they mistakenly put the entire bag into hot water instead of emptying out the contents. Thus, the ‘tea bag’ was accidentally invented – leading Thomas to develop gauze (and later paper) sachets that became the first purpose-made tea bags in the 1920s. This revolutionised tea-making, making it a convenient and easy way to enjoy a cuppa.

Sandwich bread

The sandwich bread we know today combines 2 inventions: the Pullman bread and the bread slicer. While most traditional bread loaves have a rounded top, the Pullman is characterised by clean, square sides – baked in a special pan to create its uniform shape. It’s so named because these pans suited the tight space of dining car kitchens of Pullman trains used at the turn of the 20th century. These breads became commercially sliced in 1928 with the invention of the bread slicer by Otto Rohwedder, who with baker Frank Bench sold the very first loaf of pre-sliced bread called ‘Sliced Kleen Maid Bread’. 


Do hamburgers come from America, or Hamburg, Germany? It’s actually a bit of both: the original meat came from Hamburg, but it was German immigrants who brought the meat to the US in the 19th century that led to the creation of the hamburger. The meat was commonly chopped, seasoned and molded into patties and sold as the very popular Hamburg steak. But, it was not very practical for factory workers who needed finger foods – so the patty was placed between 2 buns as a ‘hamburg sandwich’. It wasn’t until 1921 that these became known as ‘hamburgers’, coined by the founders of White Castle (America’s first fast food chain).