The untold truth of Cool Whip

Even those who prefer 5-star to fast food, and tout the benefits of all-natural, farm-to-table sustainability, probably have a secret soft spot for Cool Whip. It's been a staple in grocery stores and in freezers for decades, and who hasn't snuck a spoonful of the stuff in the middle of the night?

Cool Whip is one of those iconic brands that's become a part of our cultural landscape. Just like Kraft Mac n' Cheese, it's a reminder of childhood, of days gone by, of desserts at Grandma and Grandpa's house, and of special treats made just because. It's a bit of nostalgia in a plastic dish, and who didn't keep those containers around forever? (But, more on that in a bit.)

You're never too old for Cool Whip, and it turns out that it does have a place in today's kitchen… unpronounceable ingredients and all. After all, we grew up on it, and we turned out fine — but still, there are a few things you should probably know about it…

What's in it, anyway?

For starters, the first ingredient is water. Technically. But also high on the list is air. Just like any other whipped cream, there's a ton of air in it — so much that when you divide out the price point, Wired says you're paying about double what you'd be paying if you made whipped cream from real cream. So, there's that. Here's what else is in there:

  • High-fructose corn syrup and corn syrup
  • Hydrogenated coconut and palm kernel oil — mimics the texture of a product made with milk
  • Polysorbate 60 — an emulsifier also used in various types of lubricants
  • Xanthan and guar gums — for thickening
  • Sorbitan monostearate — keeps Cool Whip from turning to liquid… and also helps hemorrhoids
  • Sodium caseinate — helps the water and oils mix

That's the stuff you grew up on, and if you've bought Cool Whip since 2010, there's a major difference. Now, it also contains skim milk and less than two percent actual cream (via Eat This, Not That!).

It's super-complicated if you're Jewish

Pre-2010, Cool Whip was actually labeled as being a non-dairy product, but according to Tablet, it wasn't that simple for practicing Jewish families.

Cool Whip is certified kosher, but it's more complicated than that. The FDA allowed for a product to be labeled non-dairy as long as it was lactose-free, which makes a decent amount of sense alone. But Cool Whip contains caseinate, which Erie Foods says is a common ingredient in things like ice cream, soup, gravy, baby foods, and yogurt. It's usually used as a stabilizer, but here's the thing: it's a milk protein.

The FDA overlooks caseinate when they're determining whether or not something is dairy-free, because it's technically lactose-free. Just technically, though, as it's actually got about .2 percent lactose. That's well below the threshold the FDA is concerned about, hence the dairy-free labels. However, some Jewish families still consider anything with ingredients derived from milk to be dairy (no matter how small the amounts)… which also makes sense. We did say it was complicated.

It has some surprising siblings

With that list of scientific-sounding ingredients, it's not entirely surprising to find that Cool Whip was invented by a food scientist and chemist. You might not know the name William Mitchell, but you should — he invented a lot of things.

Mitchell passed away in 2004, and according to his obituary in the LA Times, he had a long and pretty incredible career that didn't just involve food. For a bit, he worked for Eastman Kodak Co., and he helped figure out a way to develop the color green. Pretty cool, right?

When it comes to food inventions, he has a huge list of credits to his name. In addition creating Cool Whip, he also developed a tapioca substitute during World War II, and later developed quick-set Jell-O gelatin, Tang drink mix, and Pop Rocks. The latter was an accident he stumbled across when he was trying to develop an instant soft drink, and he actually patented it way back in 1956. He retired in 1976 — a year after Pop Rocks hit the market — and saw his inventions become cultural touchstones for multiple generations.

It was made to be a time-saver

Cool Whip was invented in 1966, and at the time, making whipped cream was a huge time investment. Most people were whipping it by hand, after all, and anyone who's ever tried that knows it takes a while — and it's exhausting. According to Chowhound, that's the problem Cool Whip was invented to solve. Given how much easier it is just to take a container out of the fridge, it's easy to see why Cool Whip was so popular.

There's another bonus to it, too. Since it has weird properties that allow it to be frozen, thawed, and refrozen without losing any kind of quality, that makes it much easier to ship. To make sure it could hold up to some serious long-distance travel, Cool Whip was first tested in two cities on opposite sides of the country: Buffalo and Seattle. The fact that it shipped easily meant less pressure for distributors trying to get into stores all over the US.

Specially-tailored desserts made it popular

Today, Cool Whip is owned by Kraft Heinz, but originally, it was sold under the General Foods umbrella of products. According to Kraft's head of communications Lynne Galia (via Chowhound), General Foods helped make Cool Whip popular in a pretty brilliant way. Instead of just putting it on the shelf and letting people figure out how to use it, they created recipes for desserts that used Cool Whip as the main ingredient. There wasn't anything out there you might be able to substitute, after all, so it was genius marketing.

There's one particular dish that was so popular it helped cement Cool Whip's importance for an entire decade. Kraft originally created their Pistachio Pineapple Delight to help market another product — instant pistachio pudding mix — and included Cool Whip, pineapple pieces, marshmallow, and pecans. Sounds forgettable, but Serious Eats says that when an unnamed newspaper editor decided to change the name to Watergate Salad, it skyrocketed in popularity. When it comes to desserts that defined a decade, that's one of them — and it might be why your family fell in love with the strange dessert topping that is Cool Whip.

The 12-day Cool Whip experiment

Jonathan Fields is a lawyer-turned-wellness guru and author, and he doesn't like Cool Whip. To prove a point to his daughter about artificial ingredients, he took some Cool Whip and left a scoop out in a dish on the counter for 12 days. At the end of the 12 days, he reported that it looked pretty much the same, only hardened. Whipped cream, on the other hand, rather quickly degraded. Clearly, something was up.

The "experiment" made the rounds, and while some people were outraged, other commenters and Cool Whip lovers on his blog and on Reddit took to Cool Whip's defense. They point out that it's likely just dehydrated, and there's another important point that UC Santa Barbara makes: it's not whipped cream. That leads to another point — how can anyone really, actually compare the two? If you're looking for whipped cream, don't grab the Cool Whip. If you're looking for a creamy whipped topping that's super easy to use, go for the Cool Whip. They're two entirely different products, after all, even though they might have some of the same uses.

There are some amazing vintage desserts you can make with it

Click Americana says that thanks to decades of marketing, there are a ton of incredible desserts you can make that aren't just tasty, they're easy.

Heading back to the '70s? Try a Sour Cream Bavarian, and the bonus to this one is you can use the Cool Whip container as the mold. Start by mixing a pack of unflavored gelatin, two-thirds cup of sugar, and three-quarters cup boiling water. Add a cup of sour cream and vanilla to taste, then chill. Once it's cold, add 2 cups of Cool Whip, stir, and put the whole thing back in the Cool Whip container and the container back in the fridge. Once it's firm, it'll pop right out. Add a fruit syrup, and you have a bit of the '70s right on your plate.

Looking for something a little more '80s? How about a Jell-O poke cake? Just bake up a white, boxed cake mix, then poke holes in the top. Grab your Jell-O mix, dissolve in a cup of water, and spoon over the top of the cake mix. Use thawed Cool Whip instead of frosting, and you'll have a funky, tie-dyed cake that's completely 1980s.

The containers were as important as the actual Cool Whip

It's not just Cool Whip itself that can create a little bit of nostalgic happiness, it's the containers, too. There's just something about Cool Whip containers that makes them perfect for storing everything from leftovers to buttons. Everyone had a relative who saved Cool Whip containers almost religiously, and strangely, you can even buy them on eBay if you feel you need a few more.

And that fond nostalgia is part of what makes one particular news story from 2016 so weird. According to the Pensacola News Journal, police were originally investigating reports of parents using meth while their kids were home. When they went into the house, they did, indeed, find both meth and marijuana, along with all the appropriate paraphernalia. They were storing it in a Cool Whip container, and it's safe to say that's one of the rare, completely unsanctioned uses for these vintage treasures.