Today’s episode is all about what Pop Rocks, Cool Whip and Tang all have in common? For the next several episodes I’m going to do things a little differently. There are so many innovators when it comes to food. On one end of the spectrum, you have chefs tucked away in small kitchens coming up with innovative spins on classic dishes. On the other end of the spectrum, you have brilliant scientists in sterile labs coming up with Pop Rocks, Cool Whip and Tang.
A Fascination With Food Science
Food science is an incredibly interesting field. There is a lot of research and money that goes into product development for a food company. At one point in college I explored becoming a food scientist. You might be wondering why I didn’t move forward with that degree? I absolutely love messing around in the kitchen, but there is more to food science than that.
A degree in food science is rigorous. A lot of people at my university would use food science as a pre-med degree. It is so intensely focused in math and science, that it checks all of the prerequisites needed for medical school. Food scientists are super smart. There is a lot of brainpower behind a lot of stuff we eat.
William A. Mitchell, Food Scientist
William A. Mitchell fit that mold perfectly. To answer my question at the start of the show, he was the brilliant inventor behind Pop Rocks, Cool Whip and Tang. In the course of his career, he had over 70 patents. That is an incredible number of patents for any one scientist to achieve.
So who was William Mitchell? He was born in Raymond, Minnesota, in 1911 and grew up on a farm. As a teenager he had a job running sugar crystallization tanks for the American Sugar Beet company. He’d catch a few hours of sleep and then head to high school. Think about that for a minute, he worked a full-time night shift while simultaneously going to high school. He worked as a carpenter to earn his college tuition at Cotner College in Lincoln, Nebraska. He then got a masters degree in chemistry from the University of Nebraska.
William’s Tremendous Professional Life
After college, he was able to get a research position at an Agricultural Experiment Station. He was involved in a lab accident that left most of his body covered in second and third degree burns.
In 1941, William joined General Foods. During World War II there were many food items that experienced shortages. Tapioca was one of the items that was in short supply because of the conflict in the pacific. This was when William had his first major success, a tapioca substitute. This invention thickened a lot of the food that soldiers ate. They lovingly nicknamed it, “Mitchell mud.”
From there, he went on to have many major breakthroughs. Pop Rocks, Cool Whip, and Tang were his most well known inventions. He also developed quick set Jell-O and powdered egg whites. William had a long and successful career. He had 7 kids. One of his daughters also became a food scientist.
William died July 26, 2004 in Stockton, California at the age of 92.
A Deeper Dive Into Williams Greatest Hits
William Mitchel and Leon Kremzner patented Pop Rocks in 1961. However, they didn’t offer them to the public until 1975. In 1983 it was pulled from shelves. The excuse being slow sales. Kraft foods owned the product and licensed it to Zeta Especial who manufactured the candy under the Kraft license. It is distributed now in the U.S. by Pop Rocks Inc. and by Zeta Especial in the rest of the world.
This is a candy that is notorious for it’s short shelf life. When they first launched, the distribution was tightly controlled to make sure the candy would always be fresh. The candy is made by trapping CO2 under high pressure within the candy while it cools. That CO2 doesn’t have the same zing and pop as the candy ages.
There is a fantastic urban legend surrounding Pop Rocks that I’m sure you have all heard. This is the famous legend where your stomach would explode if you ate Pop Rocks and then drank a carbonated beverage. The public took this legend seriously in the 70s and 80s. General Foods got so serious about battling this urban legend that they sent William Mitchell on the road to dispel the myth. He would frequently explain that a Pop Rocks package contains less gas than half a can of soda.
This legend pops up from time to time and has its place in pop culture. One of the very first episodes of MythBusters tackled this myth. They used a pig stomach and couldn’t get it to rupture with a pack of Pop Rocks and a can of soda. So you don’t need to worry about blowing up should you desire to eat Pop Rocks while drinking a coke.
Cool whip is an artificial whipped cream topping. This seemed to be a theme of William’s inventions. He found substitutes for common products people loved. Cool Whip was originally marketed as being dairy free. Today it does contain skim milk. Cool Whip is currently owned by Kraft Foods and is the most consumed brand of whipped topping in the U.S.
William invented Cool Whip in 1966. The major advantage of this product at the time, was that it could be distributed frozen. There are nearly 200 million tubs of the stuff sold every year. Incredible!
William invented Tang in 1957. It was first marketed in powdered form in 1959. For those of you who don’t know what Tang is, it is an orange drink made by mixing a powder with water. The sales were less than stellar.
Tang had its breakthrough moment when NASA used it on John Glenn’s Mercury flight in 1962. Because of the use on that and subsequent missions, Tang became almost synonymous with the space program.
On later space missions, soda companies sent special cans of soda into orbit with astronauts. However, many preferred Tang because you could mix it in existing water containers.
Tang today is owned by Kraft Foods. In 2011 they announced that Tang has become its twelfth billion-dollar brand.
I hope you learned something interesting today. I still can’t get over how many brilliant ideas William Mitchell had. I’ve personally enjoyed each of these major products that he invented.
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