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Is Cool Whip Food?: Looking Back on 50 Years

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Despite being so innocuous in appearance, Cool Whip is controversial, even rancor-raising.

When editor Lindsay-Jean asked what she should do with a tub leftover from an experiment in dying Easter eggs on the Hotline, answers ranged from "Throw it out immediately!" to "Make ice cream lasagna" (this consists of layers of ice cream sandwiches, Cool Whip, hot fudge, and caramel sauce) or—even more retro—Cherry Coke Jell-O Salad.

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For every answer warning of its chemical taste and indiscernible ingredient list, there was a counter response: Cool Whip was confessed to be "guilty pleasure"; many remembered eating it frozen as a child; it was called a "godsend" for kosher cooks (though it should be noted that Cool Whip is no longer dairy-free). Some Food52ers even wondered if Cool Whip qualifies as food at all (is it "food waste" to throw out Cool Whip if Cool Whip is not food?)—but just as many people responded to these remarks with cries of elitism.

Here, on our very Hotline, was a debate about the place of processed foods (or "foods") in our culinary culture (and how this position has changed over time), writ small.

Lighter, tangier whipped cream is made with COOL WHIP! Just kidding. It's made with Greek yogurt.
Lighter, tangier whipped cream is made with COOL WHIP! Just kidding. It's made with Greek yogurt. Photo by James Ransom

2016 marks Cool Whip's 50th anniversary (and that's true even for those of you who wouldn't touch a tub with a 10-foot pole). It was invented during this week in 1966 by food scientist Dr. William A. Mitchell—who worked for General Foods Corporation between 1941 and 1976 and was the key deviser behind Pop Rocks, Tang, quick-set Jell-O, and powdered egg whites for cake mix, and who received over 70 patents during his career (smart guy!).

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And what is Cool Whip made of? The nutrition label on the original package lists the following ingredients: "water, hydrogenated vegetable oil (coconut & palm kernel oils), high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, skim milk, contains less than 2% of light cream, sodium caseinate, natural and artificial flavor, xanthan and guar gums, polysorbate 60, sorbitan monostearate, sodium polyphosphate, beta carotene (color)." The company's answer to this exact question is: "it's "a frozen whipped topping made from a non-dairy base." Choose your own truth.]

Not Cool Whip (thank the lord).
Not Cool Whip (thank the lord). Photo by Mark Weinberg

To commemorate 50 years, Cool Whip's parent company (Kraft Heinz) distributed vintage advertisements (and shared a recipe from each decade, which including Watergate Salad and Gelatin Poke Cake). Here's a look at a few of the ads we found most noteworthy (1971 through 2005)—and why:

1971

Photo by Kraft Heinz

Five years after Cool Whip's invention, this ad claims it "has a great natural taste that never lets you down." Which begs the question: Do products that are actually and obviously natural ever need to brand themselves as such? (When's the last time you saw a natural apple?) Were marketers anticipating—and preempting—consumers' concerns about what exactly this product was? (Also, back in 1971, Cool Whip was dairy-free—as is not the case now.)

The advertisement positions Cool Whip as an ingredient; it's what makes the pie "rich and delicious and surprisingly light." Culinary historian Laura Shapiro has noticed the prominence of instant products as component ingredients—not as ends in themselves, but as means to ends. Advertising booklets have consistently angled products as having potential for second lives (think of instant soup making its way into casserole), giving consumers more ways to use—and thus, more reasons to buy—the product.

And here, though the pie is "surprisingly light," there's no mention of Cool Whip's nutritional content (or lack thereof).

1968 & 1969

Photos by Kraft Heinz

Cool Whip's appeal to calorie counters (which, as you'll see, becomes extremely apparent in later years) is here—"Always has less calories than the whipped cream you make" and "it has less calories than whipped cream you have to make"—but it's buried under an emphasis on the product's ease and assurance: You don't have to make it!!! It's "always ready to serve" and it always "has a rich creamy taste." Plus, it keeps for two weeks in the refrigerator. (I'd also like to note that "rich" and creamy" aren't exactly great descriptors of taste or flavor—texture, sure, but taste, no.)

1988

Photo by Kraft Heinz

Today, we have Genius one-step, no-churn ice cream made, primarily, with heavy cream and sweetened condensed milk. 1988's version of no-fuss ice cream, on the other hand, was made with half and half, light cream, or even milk, Cool Whip, and Instant Jell-O.

Again, it's ease that's promoted here—ice cream without going to the ice cream shop!—though there is a teeny-tiny indication of Cool Whip's low-calorie state (you can make out "12 Calories" on the little red label on the photo of the tub, bottom left).

1994, 1996, and 2002

That small hint at Cool Whip's low-calorie claims from 1977? It's the loud-and-clear, blaringly inescapable message once you hit 1990 and beyond.

Compare the ads from 1994 and 1996 (left and right), which use strawberries in two ways. The earlier ad is strangely suggestive (strawberries, cream, ripples, mood lighting)—you'll be sexier if you're skinnier and you'll be skinnier if you choose Cool Whip, obviously.

Two years later, strawberries are taken out of the boudoir and into the backyard, for a more whimsical perspective: Whereas fat-laden whipped cream will weigh you down, lightened-up Cool Whip—look, it's made of clouds!—will have you feeling airy and bright. You could almost float away!

Photo by Kraft Heinz

And this recipe for "COOL 'N' EASY Pie" calls for Sugar Free Low Calorie Gelatin, COOL WHIP LITE, and reduced fat graham crackers—and the language plays, explicitly, into the feelings of guilt that surround food choices. It's a debate that Shapiro says "still tears at people: When am I allowed to do this? When is it okay? People know good food [real whipped cream as opposed to "whipped topping"] but don’t want to eat too much of it at any one time."

So here, a solution—a workaround that allows a consumer to neither limit herself (this plush, pink ad seems geared towards women, the primary grocery shoppers) or sit with feelings of wrongdoing.

2005

Photo by Kraft Heinz

Hey, where's the mention of how few calories are in each tablespoon of Cool Whip? Perhaps, nearly 40 years after its invention, Cool Whip no longer needed to market itself in the same way—to push its rich and creaminess, its ease or shelf-stability, its superiority to whipped cream. People now know Cool Whip (and it has its fans and its opponents). The brand is built.

Cool Whip, instead, is presented as a staple of life, its presence is as expected as the coming and going of the seasons: "Strawberry Cool Whip is back in season."

And it's put forward as a product that's not only as constant as the seasons, but also as tied to nature's ebb and flow. Strawberry Cool Whip's only "in season" in the summer—which might appeal to the increasing number of people who frequent farmers markets and refuse to even touch tomatoes in December.

Today's Cool Whip Whipped Topping

Photo by Kraft Heinz

Cool Whip comes in six varieties: original, extra creamy, lite, free (meaning fat free), "Season's Delight French Vanilla," and sugar free. And it's not an accident that the extra creamy tub (shown above) makes it known that it's "made with real cream." That's to silence (or at least assuage?) all of the group of grocery shoppers who came to the forefront on the Hotline thread—those who might be skeptical of Cool Whip's lengthy ingredient list.

That's not Cool Whip... but should it be?
That's not Cool Whip... but should it be? Photo by James Ransom

So is "whipped topping" food? Does it have a place in our kitchens—or should it be saved for the history books? Tell us what you think!

How does Cool Whip make you feel? Please share your memories (and recipes!) of Cool Whip in the comments below.