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Fake Food

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids.


The decades during and after World War II were an exciting time to be a food chemist. The field was wide open for big, scientific improvements: new artificial colors and flavors to invent, longer shelf lives, and, in some cases, if a natural disaster wiped out an entire crop, a scientist could just invent a substitute. It was an exuberantly naive time, when the slogan might well have been “If life hands you chemicals, make lemonade anyway.” Up and down the food chain, the old way of doing things— growing food on farms with manure and crop rotation— gave way to a brave new world of synthetic fertilizers and miracle pesticides like DDT. Pigs, cows, and chickens that once ran wild were now safely contained inside a food factory where they could be managed efficiently, with no wasted feed or space. Today it all sounds a little like a dystopian nightmare, but back then, food chemists thought they were using science to solve big problems like world hunger, malnutrition, and too much waste.

Into that environment strode a superman of creativity: William A. Mitchell, who received 70 patents for fake foods between 1941 and 1976. Here are four of his biggest contributions to American cuisine:


Shortly after Mitchell was hired at General Foods in 1941, he received his first assignment: save tapioca pudding. During the Great Depression, tapioca became a popular dessert, a lumpy, sweet comfort food that was cheap and easy to make. The problem was that cassava, the starchy root that was its main ingredient, came from Java, Indonesia. When the Japanese invaded the island, the supply was cut off. Mitchell saved the day by figuring out that a combination of food starches mixed with gelatin made a pretty convincing substitute.


Not all of Mitchell’s inventions were soft and squishy; some were granular and full of carbon dioxide. Pop Rocks were a wonderful mistake— they were originally designed to be mixed with water to make a carbonated soft drink.


Contrary to popular opinion (which was helped along by a misleading ad campaign), the powdered artificial orange drink Tang wasn’t developed for the space program. Mitchell created it, General Foods introduced it in 1959, and… it flopped. Tang limped along for a few years, until NASA, looking for something to mask the unpleasant flavor of space capsule water, selected it for John Glenn’s 1962 space mission. That did it. With a “breakfast of astronauts” advertising campaign, Tang zoomed to success.


Although it now contains (a little) milk and cream, Mitchell’s original 1967 Cool Whip recipe was made up of water, hydrogenated vegetable oil, sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and colors, and a bunch of other chemical stuff. It didn’t taste like whipped cream, but it also didn’t require as much refrigeration as the real stuff, making it ideal for picnics and church potlucks.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids. Weighing in at over 400 pages, it's a fact-a-palooza of obscure information.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

We dish up more neat food posts at the Neatolicious blog

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My ex-mother-in-law thought Cool Whip was the greatest invention of modern times. I can't even stand real whipped cream as a result.
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ohhhhh..... How I remember family get-togethers where the dessert had cool whip heaped on top. The extra special metallic taste was a sure turnoff for me. Even now, after all these years, I still cannot abide cool whip. If I can't have the real deal then I'll do without.
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