When I was little, I adored Cool Whip. My mom was a hippie, and didn’t use it very often—just when she made one of her canned-mandarin-orange-and-grape-half-filled Jell-O molds for someone’s Yom Kippur break-fast party. “I liked it because it was easier to use than whipped cream,” she told me. “If you don’t pay attention when you whip cream, it turns into butter. Cool Whip was always the exact same consistency.”
Yes! A child-delighting, airy-yet-gooey, perfect, unfound-in-nature divine consistency! But Cool Whip was a treat we rarely got to have when not folded into lime-green Jell-O. We kept kosher, and Cool Whip has always been certified kosher, but my mom knew that though the container said “Non-Dairy” the product actually contained caseinate—milk protein. Back then, even though the FDA considered it non-dairy according to its own arcane rules (it was lactose-free), kashrut-observant Jews considered it dairy because of the caseinate.
Cool Whip was only permissible by Jewish and motherly law after dairy meals, but my mom rarely had it in the house. We had oatmeal-raisin cookies and frozen yogurt. After Shabbat (meat) meals, we got fruit cocktail, a special treat, and fought over the cherry pieces, which were disgusting but rare and therefore worth drawing sibling blood over. The adults, meanwhile, had coffee lightened with Coffee Rich, which left a gleaming, swirling, viscous rainbow on the liquid’s surface.
Other Jewish families had Cool Whip in their fridges all the time! After school, if you went to a friend’s house, you’d hope they were a Cool Whip family. You’d dip strawberries or Hydrox cookies into the Cool Whip and watch General Hospital and all was right with the world.
In 2010, Kraft, the makers of Cool Whip, changed the recipe to include a bit of light cream and skim milk. The words “non-dairy” were removed from the packaging, along with the mystery of how a product could be both non-dairy and non-non-dairy.
Skip to today, when a delightful new book sheds light on what actually is in Cool Whip. This Is What You Just Put In Your Mouth?, by my friend Patrick Di Justo, dissects the ingredients of various common products. (Patrick used to do a column for Wired called “What’s Inside”; nowadays he writes for The New Yorker’s science blog.) So here’s what’s inside Cool Whip. If you want to stop reading right now, Kraft would be totally, totally cool with that.
Water: The main ingredient. Patrick points out that for 41 cents an ounce, a tub consisting mainly of water and air retails for about twice what it would cost for you to buy actual cream and whip it yourself. (I suppose if you have no whisk or beaters, you’ll have to do more math.)
Natural and Artificial Flavorings: Kraft does not have to tell you! So yay, there are still secrets!
Corn Syrup and High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Sugar, wearing fancy duds.
Hydrogenated Coconut and Palm Kernel Oil: How do you make a thing taste creamy without cream? Use semi-solidified plant oils. In this case, you bubble high-pressure hydrogen through them.
Polysorbate 60: If you want a polysorbate, you take your ethylene oxide—a precursor to anti-freeze, yum—and polymerize it with your sugar alcohol derivative. Easy peasy! Polysorbate 60 is cooler than other polysorbates because it is a major ingredient in some sexual lubricants. (Patrick tells a story in his book about comic/nerd Chris Hardwick doing a What’s Inside segment on PBS and PBS insisting they cut the reference to lube. Politicians will take any excuse to cut public televisions’ funding, so no one talk about lube, OK? You can see the video, with a weird jump cut at 1:30 where the lube landed on the cutting room floor, here.)
Sodium Caseinate: Cow-milk-derived protein that helps oil and water mix. Patrick says, “The whole thing seems like a bizarre attempt to manufacture cream by extraterrestrials who have never actually tasted cream but know its chemical makeup.”
Sorbitan Monostearate: Synthetic wax that is sometimes used as hemorrhoid cream and keeps Cool Whip from liquefying over time.
Xanthan and Guar Gums: Natural thickeners. Guar also helps prevent ice crystals from forming, which is why you can freeze Cool Whip and still get that divine airy fluffitude.
Today, I am the mom who tries to feed her children real food. My daughter Josie is utterly obsessed with Cool Whip and thinks it is the most heavenly thing she has ever tasted. Plus ça change.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.