(NEXSTAR) – It’s probably fair to say that the average American has eaten an Oreo cookie or two in their lifetime.
It’s also probably fair to say that the average American has no idea where the name “Oreo” actually came from.
The company that owns the Oreo brand — Mondelez International — does not appear keen on confirming the origins of the “Oreo” name, despite numerous opportunities for its media team and public relations department to do so. Fans, therefore, have only been able to speculate on the etymology.
The most popular theories, as reported by such outlets as Tasting Table and Thought Co., include the idea that Oreo takes its name from the French word for gold (“or”), and was chosen because Oreo Biscuits originally came in a gold-colored tin. Others hypothesize that the word “Oreo” is somewhat of a visual representation of the sandwich cookie itself, with both O letters representing the top and bottom biscuits, and the “re” being an abbreviation of “cream” (as in OcREamO). A claim has also been made that “Oreo” is a play on the Greek word for mountain (“oros”), “since the cookie as originally conceived was to have a peaked, mountain-like top,” according to professor and researcher Charles Panati.
Mondelez International, however, has never verified any of these possible explanations. Why?
According to another theory put forth by Stella Parks, a Culinary Institute of America-trained pastry chef and the award-winning author of “BraveTart,” it might be because the origin of the name “Oreo” could be considered controversial.
In a 2019 article for Serious Eats, Parks asserts that the National Biscuit Company (more commonly known as Nabisco) chose the name “Oreo” in reference to a similar cookie that debuted several years before the Oreo: The Hydrox.
Hydrox, a brand name of a sandwich cookie made by the then Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company (later Sunshine Baking Company), was nearly identical to the Oreo cookie introduced by Nabisco in 1912, in that both cookies were made by sandwiching a crème filling between two round, chocolate biscuits. But one of the main differences, at least to the naked eye, was that Hydrox cookies were embossed with images of a flower — specifically mountain laurel, as Parks believes.
As Parks wrote in her Serious Eats piece, the National Biscuit Company had previously marketed several biscuits named after different types of flowers. And she believes the Oreo — which, again, came four years after the debut of the Hydrox — takes its name from the flowers embossed on Sunshine’s competing Hydrox biscuits.
“Someone at Nabisco clearly had a thing for botany, and to understand Oreo, you don’t have to look any further than the mountain laurel on every Hydrox — Oreodaphne,” wrote Parks, with oreodaphne being the name of a flowering plant belonging to the laurel family. (Parks herself was not available to comment on her findings; those who contact her via her official website currently get Rickrolled.)
A representative for Leaf Brands, the company that currently owns Hydrox, was unable to confirm Parks’ claim — nor which flower variety was depicted on each biscuit. But Parks isn’t the only one who identified those flowers as laurels.
Alexa Lim, a producer on NPR’s “Science Diction” podcast, referred to the Hydrox design as a “pattern of laurel leaves and flowers” in a 2020 episode focusing on the origin of the Hydrox cookie. The podcast’s host, Johanna Mayer, also noted that the Oreo’s original design included a “laurel wreath” — a design that can be seen in Nabisco’s early ads for the Oreo.
Parks, also a guest on that episode of the “Science Diction” podcast, further explained that Nabisco was eventually able to overtake sales of Hydrox by first dropping the prices of Oreo Biscuits to allow the cookie to catch on. Nabisco then spiked the price, Mayer noted, to make it seem like Oreo cookies were the premium of the two brands.
A representative for Mondelez International, nor any representatives for the Oreo public relations team at the Weber Shandwick media company, have responded to repeated requests for clarity on the Oreo name.
The meaning of the name Hydrox, on the other hand, is more openly acknowledged. It’s a combination of “hydrogen” and “oxygen” — two words chosen to evoke a sense of purity.
Ellia Kassoff, the current owner of the Hydrox brand and a fan of the cookie since childhood, told NPR’s “Science Diction” that he probably would have considered “Munchie” or “Sandwichos” instead, had he been consulted back in 1908.
“Who knows what was in their mind,” Kassoff said of the Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company executives who named Hydrox. “But hey, the name sticks.”