Photo by Illustration Goldsuit
For many American children of the ’80s and ’90s, rice cakes — stacked in a column and kept in long plastic bags — were an omnipresent feature of home kitchens, preschools, and afterschool programs. I can’t remember the first time I held one, but I also can’t remember a time before I did. Palm-sized disks, they’re the same weight as styrofoam with a scant sprinkle of flavor crystals, salt or maybe cinnamon, dusting the top and coating the crevices between each grain of puffy rice. No matter the flavor, they lack marshmallow stickiness and cloying sweetness of Rice Krispies treats, as well as the bake-sale appeal. There was no right way to bite into a rice cake and definitely no good way to contain the stream of crumbs that rained down from the corners of my mouth.
There was, however, that pleasant, satisfying crunch, like taking a chunk out of a perfectly crisp apple, and that miniscule bit of toasted, sometimes sweet, sometimes salty, flavor mixed in with a slurry of desiccated rice matter. It was interesting enough to take down the whole cake, and maybe even dip into the tube bag for another, and another. After all, I was a hungry kid, and one of those suckers wasn’t going to satisfy my bottomless pit of an adolescent stomach.
It’s that feeling of being just on the border of satisfaction that made rice cakes such a staple in American households like mine during the late ’80s and ’90s. During that period of time, many kids like me became well acquainted with diet fads and foods, to the extent that we sometimes didn’t even realize we were snacking on them. All the adults around me seemed to be perpetually trying to lose a few pounds by going on the Atkins Diet or re-enrolling in Weight Watchers. George Foreman Grills whisked away fat and flavor from meat and chocolate cake-flavored Snackwell’s cookies and Slim Fast shake filled pantries. Rice cakes, for a while, were common in my household and something I turned to on the regular for an easy afterschool snack while waiting for my parents to get off work. I could polish off half a package in one sitting, completely defying any alleged dietary benefit.
Plenty of cultures have their own version of rice cakes, but we can partially thank a botanist named Alexander Pierce Anderson for laying the groundwork for the American rice cake as we know it. Anderson was working at the New York Botanical Garden in 1901 studying the water content of nuclei in starch crystals when, as the story goes, he “discovered” steam-puffed rice. Anderson marketed the product to Midwestern investors who bought into the idea, but eventually sold their shares to Quaker, a Midwestern company better known for its oats. He’d caught the company’s eye by demonstrating his rice “cannon” during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Anderson filled a cylinder with uncooked rice grains and sealed it off, heating the container while rotating it and increasing the interior pressure. When the time was right, he used a sledgehammer to remove the end of the cylinder, sending puffed rice shooting out like a cannon. Anderson and his team offered bags of the puffed rice to the crowd for a nickel a bag; they sold 20,000 pounds of puffed rice, according to the Minnesota Historical Society archive. Quaker used Anderson’s methods to make a variety of cereals and advertised it as “Food Shot From Guns.”
The rice cakes in my childhood pantry came from Quaker, but at the time there were several different companies competing in what the Chicago Tribune referred to as a “rice cake revolution” in 1986. They included brands like Lundberg Family Farms, Hain, and Chico-San. The latter was a macrobiotics company established in 1961 that got its start importing products like soy sauce from Japan and that eventually developed brown rice cakes in the 1970s — the prototype for the larger snack trend. Chico-San’s ads proposed trading bread for rice cakes and using the low-calorie rice saucers as a surface to support jelly, cottage cheese, fruit, and other toppings. By 1984, Heinz swooped in to scoop up Chico-San’s market share. One rice cake lover suggested to the Chicago Tribune that rice cakes topped with beans were better than tacos, a statement that suggests that person had never had a decent taco.
Similarly, representatives from Quaker tell Eater that rice cakes were first launched as “a low-carb alternative to bread” in the mid-’80s. The advertisements also seemed to target women and working mothers with fat-free snacks to be eaten at work, on the go, and while “kickin’ back.” Print advertisements for Quaker Rice Cakes from that period show thin, grinning models lying on their flat leotard-covered stomachs to emphasize the lightness of rice cakes. The message was clear: Eat this and look like these women. In 1992, the rice cake and popcorn cake market was valued at $174 million and growing. The following year, Quaker had bought out Chico-San from Heinz, solidifying the brand’s dominance as major purveyor of rice cakes with 63 percent of the U.S. rice and popcorn market, according to the Associated Press.
As for the actual health benefits of rice cakes, like so many other foods marketed as “better for you,” they’re really just that — marketing. Rice cakes, while low in fat, are also low in most other nutrients and may have less fiber than similar snacking options like crackers. The refined sugars in rice cakes are also digested quickly in your body, potentially leaving you hungry sooner. But none of that really matters if enough people buy into the fad.
But its popularity did wane. As the low-carb trends declined in the mid-aughts, so too did consumer appetites for blandly seasoned grain cakes. Even so, brands trafficking in rice cakes didn’t entirely die out. Quaker reports that it still produces 500 million rice cakes annually, and a representative from Lundberg tells Eater that the company produced 15 million bags of rice cakes (13 cakes per bag) last year. Speaking generally, the most popular flavors from both brands are lightly salted, followed by options like caramel at Quaker and Lundberg’s cinnamon toast.
Rice cakes have even seen a resurgence in their fortunes in recent years due partly to a surging interest in gluten-free foods. Whole Foods, for example, has a section of its cracker aisle devoted to organic puffed rice and popcorn snacks for the gluten-averse or -intolerant. While slightly spiffier, the advertising angle doesn’t seem to have changed much either. Companies like Rice Up still promote rice cakes as a whole-grain option for weight control. Lundberg reports that in the past year the company’s rice cake sales have increased by 14 percent. And, true to its diet snack roots, Lundberg rice cakes tend to sell best in January — right around the time people are working on their New Year’s resolutions by renewing their gym memberships and cutting back on the sauce.
Rice cakes aren’t going away. They’re merely changing with the times. Following the Everything but the Bagel seasoning trend sparked by Trader Joe’s, Quaker introduced “everything”-flavored rice cakes in 2020. Lundberg also touted recent innovations like the chocolate-covered Chocolate Thin Snackers and Organic Rice Cake Minis, a bite-sized version of the original product geared toward adults and kids crunching on the go.
Recently, I located some rice cakes in the aisles of my own grocery store to indulge the strange nostalgia that I had for a food that’s sometimes compared to dry cardboard. It was exactly as I remembered: a circle of airy rice grains smashed together into a remarkably firm plate. It felt like building material, but the kind that would disintegrate after a heavy rain. With each bite, my ears rang with that satisfying crunch and my mouth grew drier. All the downsides of popcorn but none of the good butter grease. And yet I keep eating them — and that’s the beauty of a successful snack, right? Eating it doesn’t necessarily bring contentment. It’s about the experience of the texture and the chase after just a little more of that wisp of flavor.