The untold truth of Kool-Aid

We can still remember the way Kool-Aid was prepared when we were kids: You needed a gigantic translucent pitcher, its edges roughly chewed away by the dishwasher, a paper packet decorated with cartoon characters and containing just a few crystallized grams of brightly-colored Kool-Aid drink mix, and all of the granulated sugar your mom had in the house.

In those days, there were only a few different flavors of Kool-Aid available, but it wasn't an issue because "Red" was the only color that mattered. Our refined grammar school palates paired a big glass of Kool-Aid with a bologna and cheese sandwich (crusts cut off, please), or one of the other popular after school snacks of the day, such as Handi-Snacks or that newfangled chip called Cool Ranch Doritos. It hardly mattered what you ate because you knew that when you got to have Kool-Aid, it was basically your parents giving you license to drink 8 fluid ounces of unadulterated toddler rocket fuel, and you couldn't be held responsible for anything that happened afterward.

How did a humble businessman take a magical, fruit-flavored tonic that was originally sold through the mail for pennies, and turn it into a global brand that spawned two video games and a short-lived comic book series, while fueling the dreams of an entire generation of tiny champions? Join us as we dive through the pages of history to learn the untold truth of Kool-Aid.

It wasn't always called Kool-Aid

The Kool-Aid name is a friendly, harmless moniker that reflects the lighthearted deliciousness of the drink itself. But what if we told you that the sugary beverage was once marketed under a much different, more vaguely threatening name? 

Edwin Perkins, the inventor of Kool-Aid, grew a business selling smoking cessation products door-to-door into a massive company that eventually sold over 125 household products using direct sales. 

But it wasn't until Perkins' sales force added a summer soft drink concentrate called "Fruit Smack" to the product lineup that customers began to sit up and take notice. Coca-Cola was quickly catching on as the nation's sugary soda of choice, but Fruit Smack allowed families to make an entire pitcher of the drink for just pennies.

Perkins set to work on some of the product's marketing shortcomings, starting with the name. The company trademarked the name "Kool-Ade" in 1927, and it was changed to "Kool-Aid" a few years later. The reason for the change depends on who you ask; while many different stories circulate among the members of the Perkins family, the likeliest explanation is that government regulations prevented the company from using "Ade" (as in, "lemonade" or "limeade") in a product that didn't contain any fruit juice. Whatever the reason, "Kool-Aid" seemed to stick, and the product name hasn't changed again since.

It was first sold as a liquid drink mix

As successful as Fruit Smack was shaping up to be for Perkins Products, it had one major shortcoming that would need to be addressed before sales could take off and the product could be sold nationwide. 

The fruit-flavored drink that would eventually become Kool-Aid was initially sold as a liquid concentrate in 4-ounce, corked glass bottles. While the concentrate was convenient, shipping it presented a real problem; the bottles were expensive to produce, costly to ship, and had an unfortunate tendency to break or leak brightly-colored syrup all over everything. Inventor Edwin Perkins knew that it would have to be converted into a powdered form, which could be sold in an inexpensive paper envelope, in order to make distribution easier.

Though he would later protest that he was "not a chemist," Perkins and his assistants set to work figuring out how to dehydrate the recipe for the fruit concentrate, by noodling with the ratios of dextrose, citric acid, tartaric acid, flavoring, and food coloring. By 1927, the formula was perfected, and the light, easy-to-package and ship product we know as "Kool-Aid" was born.

With this powdered concentrate, he could distribute small, nearly indestructible packets of his new drink mix to wholesale grocery and candy stores, and was eventually able to sell nationwide through food brokers. The packets sold for 10 cents apiece, and provided enough mix for a family to make a whole pitcher of Kool-Aid. 

Its invention was inspired in part by Jell-O

If there was one family of products that Edwin Perkins was positively starry-eyed over, it was Jell-O

Perkins was first introduced to the wonderfully wiggly stuff as a child at the age of 11, way back in the year 1900. A powder that transformed first into a liquid, and then into a mysterious solid, available in six fruity flavors, would turn into a lifelong obsession that would impact everything from the way Perkins hyphenated all of his product names (including Nix-O-Tine, Motor-Vigor, Glos-Comb, Jel-Aid, and E-Z-Wash) to the way Kool-Aid would eventually be packaged, sold, and marketed.

When trying to figure out how to ship his flavor concentrates nationwide without the cost of breaking bottles, Perkins probably turned to his childhood memories of Jell-O for inspiration. He knew that reducing bold, fruity flavors to powdered form was possible, and he had already mastered the use of powdered fruit pectins for his "Jel-Aid" jelly-making product. Tweaking the Fruit Smack formula to eventually become Kool-Aid was just a matter of time and experimentation… but thanks to Jell-O, he knew from the start that it was possible.

In a fitting twist of fate, Perkins Products was taken over by General Foods in May 1953, which was also the parent company of his beloved Jell-O. It was, apparently, meant to be from the beginning.

There were originally just six flavors

When America's favorite sugary powdered drink mix got its start, there wasn't the vast array of mouth-tickling flavors available that we've grown accustomed to. In fact, Kool-Aid was initially produced in just six original flavors: grape, lemon-lime, cherry, orange, raspberry, and strawberry.

Fast forward to the year 2019, and Kool-Aid powder is sold in a dizzying rainbow of over 20 flavors, including Lemonade, Pineapple, Mango, Green Apple, Strawberry Kiwi, Blue Raspberry, and something called "Sharkleberry Fin," a sort of orange-strawberry flavor that also happens to be one of the only varieties of Kool-Aid that contains banana flavoring. And that doesn't even include the forgotten varieties from Kool-Aid's storied history of palate-pounding flavor hysterics, including Rock-a-Dile Red (a generic fruit punch enhanced by a saxophone-playing crocodile on the package), Purplesaurus Rex (a grape-lemonade hybrid), Great Bluedini (a punch that changed color), Incrediberry (a strawberry-raspberry combo), Pink Swimmingo (a "SUPER FRUITY!" combination of watermelon and cherry), and Berry Blue (a blue raspberry lemonade that mimicked the shade of windshield wiper fluid exactly).

The Great Depression may have helped make it a household name

You don't often hear about the success stories that came out of the Great Depression; mostly, we tend to think of our great-great-grandparents selling pencils on street corners, eating boiled potatoes from a battered tin bowl at the local soup kitchen, or falling tragically to their deaths while constructing gigantic gravity-defying government engineering projects. 

But it's precisely this catastrophic economic downturn and grim national mood that may have helped transform Kool-Aid into a household name. While banks all over the country were closing their doors and layoffs were rampant, Perkins Products saw a marketing opportunity; they slashed the price of a packet of Kool-Aid from 10 cents to 5 cents, and aggressively marketed the product with the message that you could produce a whole pitcher of their sweet, refreshing drink for the same price as a single bottle of Coca-Cola. Even with the majority of Americans facing the dim economic prospects of the Great Depression, most families still had a nickel to spend, particularly on such a bargain-priced beverage, and sales figures exploded. In a 1956 article in Advertising Age (via Adams County Historical Society), the price cut was described as "a daring gamble that made the company," and increased sales from $383,286 in 1931, to $1,564,292 just five years later.

It's the official soft drink of this state

Kool-Aid inventor Edwin Perkins may have been born in Iowa, but it was his family's move to rural Nebraska that firmly rooted the drink's invention to the city of Hastings. Each year, the town celebrates with a three day festival honoring the Perkins family and the invention that helped put Hastings on the map with a parade, special events including a bicycle race, Frisbee golf tournament, live music, fireworks, Kool-Aid chugging contests, and cardboard boat races, all culminating in the coronation of "Miss Kool-Aid Days." 

Enthusiasm for the beverage extends well beyond Kool-Aid's birthplace in Hastings; the small town of Hendley, Nebraska lays claim to making a major contribution to the birth of Kool-Aid, since that's where a young Edwin Perkins first began his entrepreneurial journey while at work in a store there as a child. The drink is even celebrated on a statewide level; Nebraska designated Kool-Aid as "the official state soft drink" in 1998, which is a thing that apparently states have. (Lest you think that Nebraska is only promoting the consumption of neon-colored, high-sugar drinks, you can rest easy knowing that its other official state beverage is milk, a nod to the importance of its dairy industry.)

Kool-Aid Man didn't appear until the 1970s

The most popular anthropomorphized drink pitcher of all time didn't appear until 1975, and was an extension of a concept invented about 20 years earlier called Pitcher Man: a bulbous container of Kool-Aid with an animated mouth and eyes. According to company legend, inventor Edwin Perkins drew the inspiration for Pitcher Man from the smiley face his child drew on the condensation of a window. 

Pitcher Man was back-burnered throughout most of the 1960s, with the company marketing their project with celebrity spokespeople like The Monkees and Bugs Bunny, until the idea was revisited in 1975. According to Mental Floss, the evolution from Pitcher Man to Kool-Aid Man meant that though the face would no longer be animated, but "the addition of arms and legs gave the character a more bombastic personality. It also allowed him to commit sensational acts of property destruction."

But Kool-Aid Man's signature wall-smashing entrance happened almost entirely by accident. According to Robert Skollar, who was hired to oversee marketing in the 1980s, the sequence wasn't exactly planned. "Someone on set said that Kool-Aid Man really had to make an entrance, and someone else suggested he come through the wall," he said. Breakaway bricks were set up, turning the character's fiberglass shell into a wrecking ball, and cementing Kool-Aid Man's permanent place in pop culture history.

Kool-Aid Man was so popular he got his own video game

If you weren't around in the 1980s, it may be difficult to understand just how firmly rooted Kool-Aid Man was in the national consciousness, with his frenetic, flamboyant personality and his near total disregard for private property laws. 

Kool-Aid Man was everywhere, and for a time, was arguably more recognizable and ubiquitous than fellow contemporaries Tony the Tiger or Ronald McDonald. The character became so popular, Marvel even produced a limited run of comic books, titled The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man, which ran for three issues back in 1983.  

The irreverent character also starred in not one, but two video games, for the Intellivision and Atari 2600, the latter of which "could be redeemed with 125 points earned from purchasing Kool-Aid, which amounts to about 62.5 gallons of sugar water," according to Mental Floss.

Though the games were by no means "innovative" or "fun," even when measured by early-1980s gaming standards (and if you don't believe us, try playing the online version of the Atari 2600 title), the obvious marketing tie-in does speak to the overwhelming popularity of the mascot at the time.

Kool-Aid Man hasn't changed much through the years

It's not unusual for popular food mascots to evolve and change over the years. Even the most popular characters, from Ronald McDonald to whatever that leprechaun's name is who shills for Lucky Charms, need a little freshening up from time to time. But not Kool-Aid Man; he's stayed remarkably similar since 1975.

Early incarnations of Kool-Aid Man featured simpler renderings of a pantsless, smiling, anthropomorphized pitcher with three ice cubes for brains crashing through walls to rescue children from boredom. The first major change to the Kool-Aid Man persona came in the early 1980s, when his age, which previous marketing campaigns had implied to be about 7 years old, abruptly got bumped up to age 14. Suddenly, Kool-Aid Man was old enough to play guitar and surf, all while wearing jeans, sunglasses, sneakers, and cool shirts.

The next major update to Kool-Aid Man didn't come until 2013, well after the completely bonkers television commercial heyday of the 1980s. That's when Kool-Aid Man made the leap from a live-action fiberglass costume to a fully computerized 3-D rendering. According to Milwaukee Magazine, the change meant that Kool-Aid Man would "be less about breaking through brick walls and shouting 'Oh yeah!' and more about making friends. Using the latest 3-D technology, Kraft has simulated a dewy coating of condensation on the Man's exterior, making him appear more fragile — and lifelike — than he has in past decades."

You can deep fry it

After you've guzzled a few quarts of the iconic sugar water, used it to dye your hair, or scoured your toilet bowl with it, what's left to do with Kool-Aid? Why, you throw it in a deep fryer, cross your fingers, and hope for the best, of course. 

According to the NY Daily News, deep-fried Kool-Aid is the invention of fair food chef Charlie "Chicken" Boghosian, who is also responsible for deep-fried Klondike Bars, Girl Scout Thin Mints cookies, and Pop Tarts.

"Deep-fried Kool-Aid in its finished form is like a pastry, first sweet and then tangy, according to delighted tasters," the Daily News explained. "The recipe is top secret but it involves a whole lot of Kool-Aid powder, flour, powdered sugar, and hot oil."

If you think that sounds more like a Kool-Aid flavored donut, you're not alone. One taster described the crispy Kool-Aid as "more like a doughnut than Kool-Aid," with another taster saying that the fair frankenfood was more reminiscent of a "New Orleans Hushpuppy with Kool-Aid flavor."

You don't have to walk around with a spazzy Kool-Aid mustache anymore

We all remember that one kid from elementary school. Heck, some of us probably WERE that one kid from elementary school: The one that laughed a little too hard and too often, with the grubby fingernails, the uncombed hair, the too-short tan corduroys, and that semi-permanent, bright red Kool-Aid stained ring that went all of the way around the mouth. Even as a little kid, when you met another child with that telltale oral Kool-Aid stain, you knew that spending too much time with them would somehow ultimately result in disappointing your parents and being grounded for something. 

To the relief of third graders everywhere, however, Kool-Aid has finally taken steps to cure this condition, presumed by some adults to be caused by "taking too big a sip of Kool-Aid," but which in-the-know children recognize is likelier due to "generalized spazziness."

Thanks to Kool-Aid's line of "Invisible" flavors, kids can finally get their fruity blast of sugar-spiked artificial grape flavoring in a clear-colored drink that leaves no telltale traces on the upper lip. While the difference between something being "clear" and something being "invisible" may be a matter of some debate, one thing is certain: You won't have that telltale Kool-Aid mustache to worry about anymore.