Dollars to doughnuts? US eats half a billion worth

Box of donuts
Paul Johnson | E+ | Getty Images

Cops love them. They make just about any cup of coffee taste better. And Americans can't get enough of them, scarfing down more than half a billion dollars worth last year bought from convenience stores alone.

That's a lot of dollars to doughnuts.

Friday is National Doughnut Day, a celebration of one of America's favorite reasons to take a break. But estimates are hard to come by for just how much lost productivity can be blamed on doughnut consumption.

Doughnut data isn't easy to find, in part, because millions of them are churned out by private bakeries that produce a wide range of other goodies that aren't broken out by industry trade groups.

But convenience stores are one of the most popular places to pick up a quick bite—and offer a useful apples-to-apples comparison for American's snack-food preferences.

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While doughnut sales may not have the heft of salty competitors like snack-food heavyweights potato chips or dried meat snacks, they hold their own against sweet pastries like cookies, Danish and other baked treats, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.

Last year, convenience stores sold some 391 million doughnuts (on an annualized basis) for sales of about $580 million, according to the latest IRI data.

While they may not be the top seller, Americans can't seem to get enough of them—unit sales rose 6 percent in the year ended June 2.

The exact origin of the doughnut is somewhat murky, with "a convoluted past that involves Dutch immigrants, Russian exiles, French bakers, Irving Berlin, Clark Gable and a certain number of Native Americans," according to Smithsonian magazine.

The magazine credits Elizabeth Gregory, a mid-19th century New England ship captain's mother, "who made a wicked deep-fried dough that cleverly used her son's spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind." The addition of hazelnuts and walnuts in the center—where the dough didn't fully cook—gave the modern dunker its name.

Smithsonian also reports that Gregory generally gets credit for the confection's groundbreaking innovation—the hole in the center.