The History of the Hydrox, the Cookie the Oreo Once Aspired to Be
Like it or not, Oreos are everywhere. It feels impossible to imagine a world without those blue packages of vanilla creme between two chocolate cookies.
If you've been scanning the cookie aisle for any of the endless variations of Oreo that now exist, you've probably come across imitator brands. Alongside the store-brand knockoffs, you may have also spotted an incredibly similar-looking cookie called Hydrox, which, at first glance, seems to be an Oreo in all but its name.
As it turns out, though, it's the Oreo that's the actual imitator in this case. And that's only one facet of a story that involves corporate intrigue, reversals of fortune, and an $800 million lawsuit. Oh — and it dates back to a time when Americans seem to have still referred to cookies as biscuits.
Nabisco Came Rirst, but Hydrox Beat the Oreo to Market
Ever wonder how Nabisco got its name? As it turns out, Nabisco is a phonetic abbreviation of sorts for "National Biscuit Company," a company formed in 1898 by merging three of the biggest bakers of the day: American Biscuit and Manufacturing Company, New York Biscuit Company, and United States Baking Company.
That merger didn't sit well with Jacob Loose, who had stepped down as president of American Biscuit the year before the merger due to poor health. So in 1902, he (along with brother Joseph, who abandoned the Nabisco board despite pushing for the merger while at American Biscuit) and a fellow named John Wiles founded Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company in an effort to change the game. The company would eventually rechristen itself Sunshine Biscuits in 1946, though they never bothered to actually trademark that name.
Loose-Wiles would eventually introduce Hydrox "biscuits" in 1908 in an effort to offer something Nabisco hadn't. Combining chocolate shortbread with vanilla fondant, the Hydrox was an instant hit. In addition to tasting great, the intricate floral design on top of each shortbread "biscuit" made the treat look as good as it tasted.
That florally-focused cookie imprint was just one of the ideas Nabisco borrowed when it first introduced the Oreo four years later, drawing quick and obvious accusations of imitation from Loose-Wiles. Even still, Hydrox held the crown and it was the Oreo that languished on shelves. As Stella Parks mentions in Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts, at least one store in 1914 mentioned having a glut of 700 Oreo tins that wouldn't sell at all. Suffice to say, the Oreo was hardly a priority for Nabisco in the years— and even decades— after its debut.
How Did Hydrox Get Its Name?
As it turns out, Hydrox's name may have eventually contributed to the erosion of its market share over time. Intended as a portmanteau of hydrogen and oxygen, the two elements that combine to form water. Supposedly, the name was intended to inspire sentiments of purity and goodness. At the time, Loose-Wiles wasn't alone in using "hydros" to lend a bit of scientific credence to what they were selling, as evidenced by Hydrox Ginger Ale.
As you might imagine, the world kind of turned on that sort of a name, especially once chemical companies started to use the naming convention for their products. Who would want to eat something that sounds like it refers to a chemical compound? Even all these years later, that association remains hard to shake, especially in an age of Hydroxycut infomercials and news articles about the now-controversial anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine.
A "New Oreo" Turns the Tables
As you might've gathered, the Oreo's second-rate status didn't last forever. Ad men rescued its reputation in the 1950s, deploying colorful ads touting these "new Oreos" as a crispier, chocolatier, and more-filled sandwich cookie than the competition. This psychological reframing of the Oreo paid off, as the ads immediately rendered Hydrox's "accept no imitators" marketing strategy all but irrelevant.
Almost overnight, Oreo gobbled up a lot of its chief competitor's market share, and the Hydrox was considered an also-ran by the mid-'60s. In a move that sounds like a Mad Men plot point, Sunshine Biscuits was eventually acquired by the American Tobacco Company in 1966. The brand was later sold again to a privately-held company, and eventually merged with Keebler in 1996, who swapped out Hydrox cookies for "Droxies," a reconfigured alternative, in 1999.
A Chocolate Phoenix Rises From the Ashes
15 years after Keebler sidelined Hydrox in favor of similar alternatives, a company called Leaf Brands registered a trademark for Hydrox, which was made possible once eventual Keebler parent company Kellogg's let said trademark lapse. A year later, production on the new run of Hydrox began, appearing on shelves in Q4 of 2015. In 2017, Leaf Brands got rid of Hydrox's artificial colors and flavors, which helped the cookie achieve non-GMO certification.
In an attempt to try and chip away at Oreo's massive market share (with the cookie earning $3.1 billion of worldwide revenue in 2019), Leaf Brands has been taking it to Oreo in the years since the relaunch. In 2015, marketing materials warned cookie fans not to eat the knockoff Oreo, which, while technically true, may not have purchase with anyone under the age of 70. A year later, Leaf Brands took shots at Nabisco parent company Mondelez International for laying off US workers, affixing a "proudly made in the USA" label.
It wasn't just a one-sided war of words either. In 2018, Hydrox went so far as to initiate a lawsuit against Oreo, accusing the brand of essentially "hiding" their cookies at major retailers. The suit, which Mondelez said was without merit, sought $800 million in damages — a little over 1,600 times the amount of sales Hydrox did from 2016 to 2017.
What's the Difference Between a Hydrox and an Oreo?
As Leaf Brands tells it, at least, there are some subtle but real differences between a Hydrox and an Oreo cookie. They claim that the cookie part of a Hydrox uses darker chocolate and offers more of a crunch than what you'd get from an Oreo (though it'd be interesting to see how it holds up to a milk bath). The creme filling is also a little bit thinner and not as sweet — to say nothing of Double and Mega Stuf Oreos. As mentioned, the modern-day Hydrox also tries to differentiate itself by eschewing high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors, and GMOs.
So next time you see that sandwich cookie in the package with the medieval-looking font, just know that there was once a point in time where Nabisco wished the Oreo could be as successful as the Hydrox. Will it ever reclaim its former glory? Unlikely as of now. But if there's anything the history of these two cookies can teach us, it's that you can't rule out the possibility of the Hydrox overtaking the Oreo someday. Now grab 'em both and go do a taste test.