It’s a truly American marriage of science and marketing.
How, when, and why was Cool Whip first invented (and who was responsible)? We explore its origins, ingredients, and how the (formerly non-dairy) whipped topping became an American dessert icon.
In 2016, America nearly ran out of whipped cream. It was winter and the holidays were fast approaching. A fatal explosion at a chemical plant in Florida had caused a shortage of nitrous oxide, the key ingredient in propelling whipped cream out of cans. In our truest national form, we took to the internet to dissect the problem—first, whether it was a valid shortage, then whether we could make light of a tragic explosion, how it happened, why it happened, who to blame, how to cope, if to cope, and, most importantly, what to bake next.
One aisle over, however, was a patriot, celebrating a 50th anniversary yet more ready than ever to aid the American people. Sitting patiently was a tub of sorta sugary goodness that’s always been there for us in times of confusion, celebration, and invention. Sitting on shelves were tubs of Cool Whip.
For many, Cool Whip is a compromise. (During the 2016 shortage, the Washington Post even described it as such.) It’s the oddball alternative of whipped cream used by the old-fashioned, ultra-traditional family next door.
Raised in a Cool Whip family myself, I’ve many times faced skepticism for preferring the tubby step-sibling. A few years back for a Fourth of July barbecue, I introduced friends to an old family recipe called Raspberry Pretzel Salad—a textured jungle of frozen raspberries, sugared pretzels, mounds of cream cheese, and the grace of Cool Whip. I’ll never forget what my friend asked after his first taste.
“But…why not whipped cream?”
I’ve since sobered to the realities of living in a two-minded nation, so rather than argue, I will simply celebrate what makes the Cool Whip story so distinctly American.
In 1966, Cool Whip was invented to save time for homemakers. Whipping up your own whipped cream required whipping up a few extra hours, and for some, more toned triceps. But it was the ‘60s. We didn’t have time. We had moons to visit and status quos to undermine.
Cool Whip solved two problems: It saved time for the cook at home and it saved time for the deliverers. Unlike cans of whipped cream, Cool Whip could be frozen and, therefore, more easily stored and shipped. The tub made for easy cross-country infiltration. In fact, the test markets—Buffalo and Seattle—couldn’t have been farther from each other.
Cool Whip originally contained no milk or cream. This also helped to make the product immediately national, not beholden to local dairies.
The topping was invented by William H. Mitchell, a chemist at General Mills. He’s also credited for some of our other bizarre (and majorly successful) brands like Jell-O, Tang, and Pop Rocks. Mitchell was born in Minnesota and made his way to Nebraska as a young adult to work at an Agriculture Experiment Station. (There, he also endured a lab explosion, which left him with second and third degree burns).
One of Mitchell’s first inventions was a tapioca substitute. It came out of necessity during World War II. Tapioca was limited because the grains used to make it came from the Far East. To counter the disrupted supply line, Mitchell invented something that could be made at home. Soldiers called the artificial tapioca “Mitchell’s Mud.”
From the get-go, Cool Whip was a product inseparable from its brand—a true Kleenex story.
Now owned by Kraft Heinz, Cool Whip is a notable thread in the grand quilt of American food products. Many popular Cool Whip recipes often require other Kraft Heinz brands like Jell-O, Planters Peanuts, or Jet-Puffed Miniature Marshmallows.
Scholars tend to attribute Cool Whip’s success to brilliant marketing at General Foods. The combining of brands, like Jell-O pudding and Cool Whip in Mississippi Mud Pie helped to establish the necessity of these brands in American kitchens.
I reached out to Lynne Galia, head of communications at Kraft Heinz, to learn more about why Cool Whip whips up so much Americana nostalgia for people. She pointed to popular Cool Whip recipes of the past six decades, each marking a unique cultural moment of the time.
In the 1970s, for example, the Watergate Salad first took hold and was originally marketed by Kraft as the Pistachio Pineapple Delight. You can find the Watergate Salad on the Kraft website, described without irony or commentary, in a manner that feels especially post-modern, and especially American.
The source of the name is unclear. Some think the name merely refers to a chunky mess, like the ‘70s themselves.
In the ‘90s, Cool Whip Lite and Cool Whip Free entered the picture, each capitalizing on new diet-conscious trends. Galia points to Cool Whip’s place in the “cupcake craze” of the 2000s, and “cake pops and artisanal milkshakes” in the 2010s. This is around the time that milk and cream were added to Cool Whip, perhaps in response to a cultural shift away from the fun of artificiality.
In 2018, a time of extreme efficiency and instant reward, Cool Whip has invented yet another category for itself. Galia points to new products like Cool Whip Mix-Ins, which she says, “can be eaten straight out the tub.”
Here, on the internet, Cool Whip continues to market new recipes, and make sure it’s a foundational ingredient. The majority of the brand’s efforts are put toward social media. “We exclusively focus on Facebook and Pinterest to communicate our new recipes,” says Galia. “That’s where our consumers are.”
Since you asked, Cool Whip is made of 12 or so ingredients, some of which end in words like “monostearate” and “polyphosphate.” If you’re a naturalist, Cool Whip will probably never be (in) your cup of tea. High-fructose corn syrup is a primary ingredient and is something you’ll find in a handful of other All-American tastes, like Coca-Cola.
It’s worth acknowledging you’ll also find corn syrups in most traditional whipped creams too, so Cool Whip isn’t alone in this.
(Pro tip: You can, if so inclined, make homemade Cool Whip from whipping cream, vanilla, powdered sugar, water, and gelatin, which stabilizes the mixture. Our Make-Ahead Whipped Cream recipe uses cornstarch as the stabilizer and will hold for three days in the fridge. Just saying.)
“July 4th is a highly seasonal time for Cool Whip,” explains Galia. “(It’s) a great complement to the warm weather and a top ingredient used in dessert recipes—like the famous flag cake.”
Yes, likely the main reason Cool Whip comes to mind around the Fourth of July is the flag cake. This year, I recommend continuing the Cool Whip tradition and inventing your own style of cake. One that caught my eye in research was The Fourth of July Fruit Pizza—a recipe that manages to get yet another one of America’s favorite words involved. Two delights in one!