Jell-O® put me through college. I wasn’t a door-to-door Jell-O® salesman, but I was the son of a General Foods (GF) employee – Dad programed IBM 370 mainframes for the warehouse inventory systems in assembly language – which made me eligible for a corporate-sponsored National Merit Scholarship. All I had to do in return was spend my summers working at the General Foods research center in Tarrytown, NY.
I’m writing about this because I experienced another Proustian flashback after reading some of the recent entries in my friend Terra Cholfin’s The Joy of Jello Project, a through-cooking blog in which she tackles all of the recipes from the cookbook of the same name. Her recent struggles with Cool Whip reminded me of some of the research conducted at the lab in which I worked.
But first, a minor but necessary digression: The gelatin-based dessert product that General Foods has made so ubiquitous is officially named Jell-O® Brand Gelatin Dessert. It is a rigorously protected name and trademark which is enforced in the most litigious manner possible, lest it become lost to common usage like so many other product names of the past (aspirin, flashlight, trampoline, etc.). The lesson is beat into every employee’s head every day: even the signs at the cafeteria counters say “Jell-O® Brand Gelatin Dessert.”
So, despite my visceral conditioned response to Ms. Cholfin’s misspelling of the product name as “Jello” – minus the hyphen, the capitalized “O”, and the registered trademark symbol – I have enjoyed reading her adventures in recreating dishes invented by GF company drones with the express purpose of selling more of their products. Some of her recent attempts have required the use of another GF stalwart, Cool Whip. And that’s where one of my food research stories begins.
Cool Whip, as you all probably know, is a non-dairy dessert topping that is meant to replace whipped cream. It’s sold frozen in plastic tubs which you thaw out to use. The ingredient list includes water, corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated coconut and palm kernel oil (CPKO), sodium caseinate, natural and artificial flavor, xanthan and guar gums, polysorbate 60 (glycosperse), and beta carotene. The sodium caseinate is the most important ingredient, even if it’s not the most predominant.
Casein is the primary protein found in milk, it’s what left behind after all of the water is boiled off. If you’ve ever heated up milk, the skin on the top is formed by coagulated casein. It should come as no surprise that Elmer’s Glue is made by Borden, a dairy company; their unused milk products are converted to casein-based white glue – no part of the milk is wasted. When casein is processed with an alkali solution, the end product, sodium caseinate, is water insoluble and cannot be denatured, which makes it an ideal ingredient: it can be stored indefinitely with no ill effect. The caseinate for Cool Whip came from New Zealand, where it was produced as a sheep’s milk by-product.
During my first summer at GF, working in the Proteins lab (part of a long hallway of labs named after nutrition textbook chapters: Fats, Oils, Carbohydrates, Flavors), I learned that there was a potential problem with the Cool Whip secret formula. The company wanted to change caseinate suppliers, so they had ordered a small shipment of the new material to whip up (heh) some Cool Whip, only to discover that it separated at the end of the process. My job, along with another intern, was to figure out how to vary the formula to make a stable Cool Whip with the new caseinate.
It was the most boring project imaginable, an experimental protocol that could have been laid out on a spreadsheet had one existed (I was at GF in 1979 and 1980). Every day, we would change the amount of one ingredient and make a new batch. We had a benchtop with a row of ten Waring industrial blenders (higher-speed motors and stainless steel mixing vessels), which we would fill up with five formula variations (always run in duplicate) and crank into a froth. Various measurements would be made: viscosity, micelle size (a micelle in this instance was a suspended oil droplet), color, and, most importantly, time to separation. Variations with longer separation times were promoted to the next round, in the hope that further tweaks would eliminate separation altogether.
We must have gone through thousands of formula permutations with only limited success. I finally asked the lab manager what the difference in cost was between the old and new caseinates. When he told me it was just a few pennies per fifty-pound bag, I was dumbstruck. The company was spending more on research salaries than they would lose if they stuck to their original supplier. Then I realized that we were engaged in a game of “What if?” What if GF could no longer obtain the original caseinate? What would have to be done to the formula to continue manufacturing Cool Whip?
It was all a mater of scale: GF made millions of dollars on a product that was mostly water and air, that cost twice as much as homemade whipped cream. They were intent on squeezing every penny of profit out of something people really didn’t need.
And that was my first revelation about industrial food production in America. GF was immensely profitable: almost all of its money came from coffee, the rest from processed convenience foods, and a fraction of a percent from the BirdsEye frozen vegetable group. The healthiest thing they sold made them the least amount of money.
I didn’t return to GF for work after that summer, I took a research job at a lab at MIT instead. It’s almost impossible to have a home completely free of GF (now Kraft) products – check out this list to see what I mean – but I can say with confidence that I haven’t had Cool Whip in the house for decades. As for Jell-O®, well, there’s always room for it.