While the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich had been a staple food during the Great Depression, the invigorated peanut market and inclusion of peanut butter, jelly, and shelf-stable bread in military rations turned the sandwich into an American classic.

The peanut industry was heavily subsidized after the war as well, and since imported sugar and chocolate were in short supply during the war, peanuts had by then been adopted domestically as a snack and candy ingredient. Their popularity has been growing ever since.

Dried milk

Dried milk was another product made indispensable by the necessities of war. Regular milk was heavy and spoiled easily, but the powdered version could last far longer, and fresh water was easier to come by than cows.

Before the war, powdered milk was a byproduct of making butter, says Kendra Smith-Howard, author of Pure and Modern Milk. It was mainly used as animal feed, though sometimes bakers would include it in recipes. When the Great Depression hit, powdered milk was cheap and shelf-stable, so it was rationed.

During World War II, the military needed a dairy product that wouldn’t spoil. Powdered milk became a vital part of the war effort, since it could be reconstituted into milk or made into ice cream.

After the war, the government still bought massive quantities of dried milk, and it still does for school lunches and humanitarian efforts.

Ice cream

In addition to dried milk, World War II caused the greatest demand for fresh milk in the United States’ history, according to a Milk Industry Foundation document from 1943.

“More than 26 million U.S. cows on three quarters of the nation’s six million-odd farms are involved in this effort to produce a 57 billion-quart record goal in 1943 — enough milk to fill a border of quart bottles 200 feet wide along all our nation’s coast lines,” the pamphlet read.

A pamphlet from the Milk Industry in 1943.
A pamphlet from the Milk Industry in 1943.
Image: International Dairy Foods Association

By the end of the war, ice cream was used as a morale booster for the troops. The US Navy spent $1 million converting a barge into a floating ice cream factory, which would make and deliver ice cream to ships that couldn’t make their own.

When Hitler was defeated in 1945, America celebrated the only way it knew how: ice cream. Regulations limiting the domestic consumption of dairy meant that ice cream producers had their supply diverted to milk and cheese for soldiers during the war. After the war ended, the regulations were lifted and ice-cream production skyrocketed from less than 300 million gallons in 1938 to over 700 million in 1946, starting a new era for ice cream in the US.

The Pentagon would later mandate that troops must be fed ice cream no fewer than three times per week.


On-farm slaughter

Efficiency on the mid-century farm no longer meant doing everything in-house. The scale afforded by delineating the raising of animals for food from their eventual slaughter meant that it made financial sense to specialize in one of the two fields.

“After World War II, two developments occurred,” Patrick Boyle, former CEO of the American Meat Institute, told PBS Frontline. “The local butcher shop began to expand into grocery stores and regional grocery chains. At the same time, we developed technology to ship refrigerated foods. And with the advent of grocery stores wanting to buy their meat from a single source, and with the ability to ship processed meat as opposed to live animals in rail cars, the packing houses moved out of the metropolitan areas and built new facilities in the heartland, close to where the animals were being raised.”

Those new facilities were a far cry from the family farms that had long dominated the Midwest. They were larger businesses that could afford to process the tens of thousands of animals being raised on feedlots.


Pizza, an American staple, came to the US with soldiers stationed in Italy after World War II. In the following decades, pizza joints grew to such massive numbers that by the mid-1980s, mozzarella was the most popular cheese in America. The industrialization of dairy production, as with butter, made it possible for America to break 1 billion lbs of mozzarella in 1985.

“Mozzarella has been this engine that has driven per capita consumption of cheese in the United States,” food historian Paul Kindstedt told Quartz. “It’s been increasing just relentlessly.”

Kindstedt says that after World War II the prosperity in the US allowed more frequent dining at restaurants, and the expanded palates of soldiers coming back from Europe led to the birth of American pizza shops. Pizza was the perfect mix of inexpensive, versatile, and delicious.

Pizza shops need lots of mozzarella, which means the amount of cheese the US needed to produce increased dramatically.

“It is a very low-margin business, and so it’s intensely competitive and that just fuels an emphasis on efficiency and higher technology to lower costs,” Kindstedt said. “This is a biological process, cheesemaking and fermentation, and there’s been a lot of science that has had to happen to make that possible.”

Mozzarella-makers in the US can process 5 million to 10 million lbs of milk a day, to produce 500,000 lbs of cheese, he said.

And Americans eat it up. The US consumed 39 pounds per person in 2017, which makes sense given the nearly 13 billion pounds the US produced last year.


American food doesn’t exist without butter: Mac and cheese, popcorn, literally fried butter balls—all need butter to attain their most beloved forms. Thus as the US population grew, so did its need for butter. And as higher-powered machinery was able to replace the butter-churning equipment of smaller farms, the industry began to consolidate from farms to factories. Full-fatted cream began to be shipped to plants, where it could be processed into butter and buttermilk, the liquid expelled as the cream’s solids form into butter. As a result, the number of plants making butter fell from nearly 4,700 in 1940 to just over 600 in 1970.

Modern food


The chickpea is one of the US’s most global foods. Until tariffs levied by India in the past year, the US exported more than half of its chickpeas to countries like India, where the legume is a dietary staple.

Domestically, chickpea consumption has seen a meteoric rise for one reason: hummus. The chickpea market is currently owned by Sabra, which holds 60% of the hummus market.

Though Sabra was founded right around when chickpea production started to climb in America, the legume-based dip didn’t hit a fever pitch until the late 2000s, when PepsiCo bought half the company and started distributing hummus throughout the US.

Now a new crop of hummus startups are starting to diversify what the legume can be used for, the US Dry Pea & Lentil Council told Quartz. Protein-packed chickpea juice is being billed as a vegan replacement for eggs in meringues, and there is even a chickpea-based ice cream.


There are more independent breweries now than there were at any point before in American history—even more than existed before Anheuser-Busch took over the world of beer. These independent breweries make a wider variety of beer, but especially tend to focus on hop-heavy India Pale Ales. This means more hop production.

This renaissance in beer has made the US the biggest producer of hops in the world. In 2017, the US produced over 48,000 metric tons of hops, beating out Germany, which produced almost 42,000 tons.


Perhaps no company has invented and dominated a food category as heavily as Cuties—the Band-Aid of citrus fruits. The founding of Cuties in 1990 and the rise of mandarin oranges and clementines—counted in the same category of “tangerines” by the FDA—showcases that rise to power. Other well-known brands include Halos and Darling clementines.

The easy-to-peel citrus first gained popularity after a freeze killed much of California’s citrus. Brands that would become Cuties and Halos were born (paywall) to fill the resulting citrus deficit.

Cuties’ popularity is credited to the fruit being sweet, seedless, and easy to peel: a trifecta of fruity convenience.

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