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As our world goes through a food revolution toward natural, whole foods, so much of the Standard American Diet comes from synthetic foods. They arrived from a time where both kitchens and the workplace were evolving. In the 1950s, there were considerably fewer stay-at-home parents to prepare three meals a day, and major innovations in chemistry were making processes that were painstakingly long considerably shorter.
Along came chemist William A. Mitchell, primarily recognized as the inventor of Pop Rocks, to revolutionize our kitchens. Working for General Foods from 1941 to 1976, Mitchell received over 70 food patents. We often criticize food companies for delivering “fake food,” but much of our success in economy and science comes from people like Mitchell. Here are his six biggest contributions to kitchens.
Yes, some tapioca is real, but most of the tapioca you eat isn’t. Tapioca in any form isn’t a favorite food of many (anyone?), but if I’m going to eat a bunch of tapioca I want it to be real tapioca. Real tapioca is the starch extracted from the cassava root. The cassava root is native to Indonesia, but when Japan invaded the country, supplies of the root was cut off. A replacement was needed to satisfy the massive demand for tapioca. So, William A. Mitchell went to the laboratory to make some. Mitchell combined various starches with gelatin to make the fake tapioca.
Pop Rocks are actually a big mistake. William A. Mitchell went to his lab to make pellets that, when mixed with water, would turn into a fizzy, soda-like drink. The ingredients to Pop Rocks are melted into a syrup, hardened, and mixed with carbon dioxide to give them that famous popping effect. The kid in this ad is really enjoying being “electrocuted” with the carbon dioxide reaction, and for some reason he’s enjoying it in front of some mountains.
NASA did not invent Tang, sorry folks. It was, in fact, Mr. Mitchell. General Mill commissioned him to make a powdered drink mix in 1957 to mix vitamins into water. It failed. It wasn’t until NASA needed some way to improve the flavor of space capsule water that they introduced it. The drink was then marketed as “the breakfast of astronauts.” John Glenn’s famous quote about drinking so much Tang in space, “Tang sucks.”
Mitchell’s original 1967 Cool Whip contained no milk or cream whatsoever. Cool Whip was basically hydrogenated oils, corn syrups, sugar, and artificial flavors. Since it didn’t need to be refrigerated, Cool Whip became a popular topping at picnics. To make Cool Whip taste more like whipped cream, a slight bit of real cream is added to the mixture. The addition of real cream makes the removes benefit of no-refrigeration.
Powdered, flavored gelatin is much older than Mitchell, going back to the 1400s, but in the 1950s there was a need for a faster-setting gelatin. Baby boomers loved the stuff, but the time and effort needed to prepare a gelatin dessert was apparently a problem. Mitchell invented quickset Jell-O to alleviate the needs of an impatient America.