December 3, 2016

Jell-O: A Processed Food Icon Struggles to Retain It's Relevance in the 21st Century

As recently as the mid-1980's, Jell-O was one of the twentieth-century's biggest, supermarket food brands and was still a very common staple in many American homes (the top-selling gelatin brand was Jell-O, although rival brands popped up including Royal which is now part of the Jel Sert Corporation's offerings after changing hands a few times, as well as various store brands and a few now-defunct brands, such as Boston Crystal Gelatine, circa 1910 also existed).  Gelatin sold in the U.S. is a coagulated protein/collagen substance (that usually comes from cow and pig hooves and bones, which otherwise would have been a discarded byproduct of meat production).  But as a processed food, the cooking element comes when people add fruit or other ingredients to powdered gelatin mixes along with boiling water.  In addition to fruits like pears, oranges, peaches, etc., and people soon discovered that various other types of foods like olives, peas, carrots, celery, tomatoes, radishes, onions, tunafish, shrimp ... pretty much any food you could imagine, could become encased in Jell-O!  Hence, the Jell-O "salad" was the embodiment of this.

Origins of Jell-O

Jell-O's origins actually began just before the twentieth century began.  In 1845, Peter Cooper dabbled with and patented a product which was "set" with gelatin. Suffice it to say, it never really "jelled" with the American public. Then, in 1897, Pearle Wait, a carpenter in the small town of LeRoy, New York was making a cough remedy and laxative tea in his home. He experimented with gelatin and came up with a fruit-flavored dessert which his wife, May, named Jell-O. He tried to market his product but he lacked the capital and the experience. In 1899 he sold his formula to a fellow townsman for the sum of $450.  The product, and the brand, changed hands a number of times more, before becoming a stand-alone company.  But around 1902 or so, ads for Jell-O began appearing in publications like Ladies Home Journal magazine.

Around that time, the product changed from being a hand-packaged business to a highly-mechanized factory, and at that time became one of LeRoy, New York's most important industries.  In 1964, Jell-O left its upstate New York hometown to make its way in the wider world.  Now, Jell-O brand gelatin is reportedly manufactured by Kraft in a plant in Dover, Delaware as of 2015.  A Jell-O Museum still exists in Jell-O's hometown of LeRoy, a few minutes off of the New York State Thruway but that's pretty much all that remains there aside from a few boxes of Jell-O sold in the local stores.  But the company's unique advertising and merchandising breakthroughs developed a phenomenal record for this product.  On December 31, 1925 the Jell-O Company, Inc. was sold to what was then known as the acquisition-crazy Postum Cereal Company, Inc. by exchange of stock, thereby becoming the first subsidiary of a merger that would eventually become General Foods Corporation, which would later be merged with Kraft by tobacco company owners at Philip Morris and then, later, spun off as Kraft Foods, only to be merged with Heinz foods in a merger orchestrated by private equity managers.

Utah's Peculiar Role

Strangely, gelatin desserts are especially popular in the state of Utah (see HERE for more, or listen to the NPR program State of the Re:Union's Season 4 Utah episode, and a short clip about Jell-O at http://bit.ly/2mQH1Lv for more).  Utah food culture, if one can call it that, can basically be dubbed Mormon cuisine.  One of the reasons for its popularity in there is because gelatin salads are relatively cheap to make, and homemakers are able to make them colorful and interesting as a way of brightening up the dinner table – it's a way to be creative on a budget.  It may well be that's a reason Jell-O remains so popular in Utah, since that state is more religiously homogeneous than most other states, and has a great deal of Latter Day Saints' (LDS) activities like church potluck suppers that drive the product's usage there.

According to a 2001 article in The Atlantic (see http://theatln.tc/2jdH0vS for the article), the love of Jell-O resonates so deeply there that in 2001, Utah narrowly beat out Iowa in annual Jell-O consumption, when state officials elected Jell-O as the official state snack and even named Bill Cosby, who was the brand's longstanding spokesman back in the 1980's, as an honorary Utah citizen (this was likely before Mr. Cosby's sex abuse scandals became common knowledge).

A Packaged Food Giant Emerges

Jell-O's development mirrors the beginning of one of American packaged foods' giants.  Along with that business came some very effective marketing of the product itself.  As noted, by the 1950's, American homemakers were eagerly buying processed foods to save themselves hours of prep time in the kitchen.  It was viewed at that time as modern convenience and a way of improving one's life by making the laborious task of cooking a bit easier.

Processed foods now constitute, plus or minus, about 70% of what most Americans eat.  In recent years, the term "processed food" has become a synonym for unhealthy foods, often junk foods.  To some degree, that's true.  However, virtually ALL of of the food and drink we consume is processed to some extent.  Any alteration to foods, including cooking, is a process; hence, in the modern diet, it's nearly impossible to find someone who consumes a wholly unprocessed diet.  In addition, many foods when unprocessed are simply unpalatable and/or indigestible.

But there are various degrees of food processing, ranging from minimally-processed foods (such as dried beans, fresh baby carrots, a carton of milk or a head of lettuce one buys in the produce aisle at the supermarket) to ultra-processed (such as cookies, dried pasta, chicken nuggets, for example).  Typically, the more processed a food, the less nutritious it becomes.  Most highly-processed foods are characterized as having very high energy density (packing lots of calories in small volumes of food), low in vitamins and other nutrition and their consumption is usually aided by extensive ad campaigns. Ultra-processed foods are also usually confectioned out of refined, nutrient-depleted ingredients.  Their over-consumption has been associated with obesity and various other ailments worldwide.  Some processed foods have even been described as 'edible, food-like substances' since they actually contain ingredients which are edible, but aren't really food!  For example, the Twinkie dessert cake (see http://goo.gl/RUlww7 for my post on that), contains ingredients which are actually MINED, not grown or farmed as one might expect just to provide one example (see http://www.twinkiedeconstructed.com/ for more information)!

Processing food in itself is not really the problem that is faced by public health experts; rather it is the degree of processing and the displacement of otherwise nutritious ingredients with less-than-nutritious or even harmful ingredients instead, sometimes to an extensive or even exclusive degree (usually by adding a lot of salt, sugar and fat), that concerns public health professionals.

Regardless, as noted, food processing was not always seen as the pariah it is today.  Following World War II, food processing was rightly viewed by housewives of the day as a big time-saving miracle, and it did make many housewives' lives vastly easier.

I've written about various food products, such as Pillsbury Space Food Sticks (see my post at http://goo.gl/mq56s4), and cereal (see http://goo.gl/m8wpb0) in the past.  However, as I've written in some of my other posts on food (catch my post on the "Dead Celebrity Cookbook" at http://goo.gl/50BQEh), once upon a time, a majority of Americans ate meals they (or someone in their household) actually cooked for themselves, rather than simply reheated already-prepared food in a microwave oven, in a skillet, ordered for delivery, or took prepared food home from their local supermarket, or any variation of this theme.

Today, cooking is something that many people watch celebrity chefs do on TV (and occasionally amateurs who have considerably less skills in the kitchen, just ask anyone who's ever watched Worst Cooks in America on Food Network if you need proof), but don't do much of themselves.  It's not that Americans can't cook, it's that our busy lifestyles make it far less practical today, combined with the convenience of buying something that's ready to simply heat up.  While celebrities cooking was probably more of a publicity ploy back in the 1950's through the 1970's, historically, that responsibility often fell on the stay-at-home housewives who cared for the home, children and made sure meals were on the table for their husbands when they came home from work.

But that whole idea of gender-specific roles went out the window in the 1970's, when a combination of factors including stagflation resulted in a mass of women entering the workforce not necessarily by choice, but by economic necessity, plus widespread divorce that impacted Generation X, and the women's lib(eration) movement, all of which pretty much made stay-at-home housewives an anachronism of days long passed (check out my post about a woman who gave modern feminism one of its anthems at http://goo.gl/cYgDPF).  Some tried to follow it as closely as they could, but the American family of that era more resembled One Day at a Time's Ann Romano's family (see my post on her at http://goo.gl/DSznq) more than it did Leave It To Beaver's June Cleaver's 1950's idealized version.

Jell-O: A Miracle of Processed Foods

All of this brings me back to my topic du jour: the food product many of us know by the brand name Jell-O.  As already noted, there are/were competitors, including Royal gelatin and My*T*Fine puddings, both of which are now made by The Jel Sert Company, as well as many generic store brands, and as I'll note later in this post, even Kosher (and also halal) and vegan/vegetarian versions of the product) aren't very easy to find.  But Jell-O pretty much set all the standards by which all competitors followed, at least in the last century.

As noted, Jell-O has a long history in the U.S., having been introduced back in 1845, and it was one of the most successful processed, packaged foods sold from the 1950's through the 1970's.  My own great grandfather once ran (his part ended in 1926) one of the many companies General Foods had acquired over the years.  General Foods as it was known for a number of years and would later become part of what is now known as Kraft (a spinoff called Modelez International separated the massive baked goods and cracker/cookie business including Nabisco), although General Foods itself was considered one of the best U.S. consumer goods marketers in the post-WW II era.

General Foods Corporation's logos
In many important respects, General Foods' marketing was superior to even Kraft's.  General Foods (as noted above, was known at one point as the Postum Cereal Company before taking the General Foods' name, which would later be sold off; today the cereal business persists and is known as a stand-alone company called Post Cereals) used creative recipes to market its products, and quite successfully I might add, catch my cereal post at http://goo.gl/m8wpb0 for some more examples).

Michigan State University Library has an interesting, scanned document called "Jell-O Gelatin's Hostess Guide" which was published in 1967. They describe it as follows:  "There are 38 cards in this collection. The first card has the title on the front panel and the table of contents on the back. The remaining cards have a description of the party or event for which one is preparing a meal, and the back panels have recipes."

Visit https://www.lib.msu.edu/exhibits/sliker/detail.jsp?id=1802 to have a look.

They also have an Adobe Acrobat version which can be downloaded at:

https://archive.lib.msu.edu/DMC/sliker/msuspcsbs_jell_geneseepur96/msuspcsbs_jell_geneseepur96.pdf

All of this demonstrates some of the General Foods' innovation in reaching consumers in the late 1960's.  Note that this was a recipe-card sized booklet that could be distributed in supermarkets, but enabled homemakers to retain the cards in their recipe files, as many did (and still do), as the 3x5 cards are easy for a cook to refer to as they assemble the ingredients in a recipe.

Ladies magazines of the day (think of titles like "Ladies Home Journal" and "Good Housekeeping" just to name a few, for more see https://goo.gl/xqqBNn for details) featured various recipes for using the processed food products -- initially in articles, then later in advertising inserts, while supermarkets often featured free recipe cards near the products themselves in racks found in the aisles of the stores and maybe even product demonstrations in stores (today, retailers like Costco still deploy this).

The company's many recipes were featured in newspapers, magazines and sent via direct mail.  I won't bore you with a long company history, although you can catch a few relevant pieces of its lengthy history HERE and HERE and HERE or https://www.scribd.com/doc/248082864/General-Foods-Corporate-Timeline in case you're curious.

As already noted, General Foods was previously considered, along with several other companies like Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills, Kellogg, and Unilever, as a master marketer and a king of the supermarket aisles.  Even today, a number of the company's drink mixes remain on the market and are still being sold by Kraft including Kool-Aid and Crystal Light, and Maxwell House Coffee remains a marquee brand for the company.

Other big General Foods' brands include Minute Rice (and Minute Tapioca, where the brand name originated), and Jell-O gelatins and puddings endure under Kraft ownership, although other products have morphed over the years.  For example, Dream Whip instant whipped topping mixes, Kool-Aid and Crystal Light drink mixes are still sold by Kraft largely in their original formats, as are Cool Whip frozen dessert toppings, Stove Top instant stuffing and others.  But the company discontinued brands such as D-Zerta sugar-free dessert mixes (re-branding them as sugar-free Jell-O, which was probably a good idea).  Other brands that company created still exist today, even though they're not necessarily under the same corporate umbrella anymore.  These include Grape Nuts, Alpha Bits, Honeycomb, Cocoa Pebbles and Fruity Pebbles breakfast cereals, and Birdseye frozen vegetables to name a few.

To understand the reason for their marketing success, just imagine all the time-savings all of those modern, processed foods provided for a housewife of the day.  Instead of cooking for hours, they could cook a meal in considerably less time (remember, this was at least 25 years before the microwave oven would be introduced).  It's little wonder why General Foods was so incredibly popular (and successful) back in the day.  Alas, all of that kind of ended when women had more to do than just prepare meals for the family; they actually had to bring home the bacon, too.  Their priorities shifted.  To be sure, Kraft has been pretty good at identifying trends and adapting to them for the times.  For example, back in the 1990's, the company recognized hardly anyone was still at home cooking anymore, so they repackaged prepared Jell-O gelatin and puddings into refrigerated items people could buy for consumption at home already-made; today the company sells products like prepared Jell-O gelatin and pudding cups which can typically be found in the dairy aisle of supermarkets in the U.S..  The Jell-O brand endures largely because of those innovations or migrations from the company.

The Wonders of Processed Foods in Your Kitchen, With Help from General Foods' Chefs

1959 General Foods Kitchens Cookbook
As noted, from their marketing machine of the 1950's through the 1970's, the company employed a large team of chefs who were tasked with developing recipes that people could make using General Foods' large portfolio of processed foods.  That era was really known for "better living through chemistry", with new and inventive processed foods that were convenient to use.  In 1959, the company even published a hardcover cookbook entitled "General Foods Kitchens Cookbook".  General Foods took full advantage of this, and the company developed hundreds of (or more) recipes for suburban housewives to show off their culinary skills while stretching their family's food budget. While some of these recipes were actually quite good; others deservedly belong in the culinary trash heap of history.

Today, I'm going to talk about some of the less memorable aspects of Jell-O.  Most obvious, perhaps, is the Jell-O mold, one of the biggest creations of the brand that endures, albeit not at the same level it once enjoyed.  To be sure, some people still regularly make Jell-O molds (Does your local Tupperware dealer sell them anymore?  What, no Tupperware dealer?!  Welcome to 2016!), and these tend to be desserts or sweetened side-dishes rather than the meals themselves.  But some did try to change that paradigm, by creating "meal" recipes out of gelatin.  There are some, let's just call them, questionable (gross?) variations of this theme, including a 1938 recipe for Sauerkraut Jell-O, which can be found in print in the cookbook "Mama's in the Kitchen: Weird and Wonderful Home Cooking 1900-1950" if you're really interested, but if you visit http://goo.gl/Bbj5XS someone has saved you the trouble of getting the actual cookbook from where this recipe was found, plus the recipe was reduced in size (its better to sample this recipe first before making enough to feed an army!).  This points to a broader vision of using processed foods like Jell-O to make the household chore of cooking for one's family easier.

At its extreme, just imagine that back in the 1950's and 1960's, when supermarket shoppers could actually buy vegetable-flavored gelatin mixes!!  Jell-O flavors like celery, seasoned tomato and mixed vegetable were on sold on store shelves across America.  These weren't just desserts, they were meant to be part of the meals themselves!  They were molded Jell-O salads that featured fish or meats, vegetables, etc., although the recipes sometimes contained the term aspic rather than Jell-O or gelatin.  Modern variations use the term too, and often rely on Knox unflavored gelatin rather than sweetened, fruit-flavored varieties commonly sold today.

Today, while a few original Jell-O flavors remain (lime, for example), many other flavors have largely come and gone, although they may remain in certain geographic areas.  As noted, remember that plain Knox gelatin mix remains on the market and the cook can add whatever flavors they might imagine, including celery if that floats their boat.  A few, like pistachio Jell-O pudding mixes are still around, although even those are harder to find on supermarket shelves nowadays (many only carry vanilla and chocolate and those may even be the retailers' own store-brands), although creative chefs can find the products available for sale online and mailed to them, that takes time and you usually pay for shipping, too.  Not all of the original products remain; for example, D-Zerta sugar-free whipped topping mix, which was a non-dairy dessert topping (at least before assembly by the cook) that someone could make at home (it was also made with gelatin as a main ingredient) are no longer sold, although the sugar-laden variety known as Dream Whip remains on the market.  Enterprising cooks have created their own versions of these products (see http://goo.gl/Z5CyG5 for example) and some are quite good, but the idea of using processed foods to save time does kind of go out the window when one has to recreate the processed food products used in various recipes at home.

These days. Jell-O has some major problems of its own.  In 2012, an article entitled "Jell-O can't stop slippery sales slide" pretty much summarized the situation (see it on CNBC at http://ow.ly/B67y306MyWM for more).  It simply isn't as popular as it once was, and the assembly part of the product required of the cook is a big reason.  True, ready-made varieties of Jell-O gelatin and puddings (such as Jell-O Temptations) sold in the dairy aisle are out there and seem to be doing reasonably well, but the classic boxes of powdered Jell-O gelatin and pudding mixes on the supermarket shelves tend to be more slow-moving in today's era.  Also, the ingredients are full of many of the things modern shoppers try to avoid, including a cheap alternative to sugar called high-fructose corn syrup which surveys show shoppers would rather avoid, as well as bright, artificial colors which are another thing shoppers would prefer not to be in their food.

As the article noted: "Part of the problem is that people have become more finicky about what they eat. They're increasingly seeking out foods they think are natural or wholesome, and Jell-O's bright reds, greens and blues may inadvertently serve as warning signals to moms about the artificial dyes they contain." The second ingredient listed for the prepared Jell-O gelatin cups is also high-fructose corn syrup, a cheaper sugar substitute that more and more people are shunning, so their marketing machine may still be asleep at the wheel!

Nutrition more broadly is another issue. Jell-O has long positioned itself as a "lighter" alternative to cakes and pies (as one slogan went, "There's always room for Jell-O"). But the trend now is toward foods that claim some sort of benefit, such as protein and fiber.

The article notes: "Even for those who have fond memories of eating Jell-O, the problem is just that — it's a treat associated with the past."

Whether Kraft (which merged with Heinz), now divested of many products including the big portfolio of Nabisco cookies and crackers (spun off to a new company called Mondelez, noted above) that dominated so much of its marketing budget for years can turn things around remains to be seen.  To be sure, bloggers using unflavored Knox gelatin have emerged online and I would think Kraft should be encouraging more of such activity (though Knox is not in Kraft's list of brands anymore), but turning Jell-O into a trendy product when so many people still associate it with Bill Cosby who hasn't endorsed the product in years is yet another challenge for the brand.

Today, some enterprising 21st century people went through their grandmother's old recipes (many came directly from the companies, including inserts found in magazines or even microwave ovens of the day) and made cookbooks from stuff housewives once got for free.  I'll bet they never dreamed their great granddaughters would be able to sell this stuff, but they are doing it now.

Some of the most humorous food inventions from those days are actually kind of vile.  Check out some photos of ads from Jell-O in the post below, or at https://flic.kr/s/aHskPPayoG:

Odd Jell-O Salads

It's logical to ask why would someone would want to put vegetables and canned foods (Shrimp? Spam?  Yep ... they were all in Jell-O recipes back in the day) in gelatin nowadays?  It seems a bit of a stretch.  Although a number of bloggers have gone on record having tried some if not all of the recipes they uncovered from a generation ago.  My personal favorites are the cookbook entitled "Hello, Jell-O!" and "Jell-O: A Biography - The History and Mystery of America's Most Famous Dessert", with the latter one being more of a history book than a recipe book, and almost all are sweetened recipes for Jell-O rather than using the product in other ways.  Each has their merits, but for those simply not into eating gelatin, the history book might be the better choice.  Check them out at your public library.

With all of this in mind, if you adhere to a Kosher (similar to halal) diet which requires that the gelatin be made from an animal collagen other than pork (so beef gelatin can be Kosher, even if its not vegetarian), or you're a vegetarian or vegan (by the way, there ARE variations of gelatin made from plants, usually referred to as agar powder, which is actually made from seaweed, but getting those things may cost you, and the consistency [and preparation]), gelatin options may not be exactly the same and aren't sold by Kraft.  Some natural food purveyors do sell these alternatives.  But if Kraft is really serious about taking the brand into the 21st century, they might look at selling, Kosher, halal, vegan and vegetarian versions of the product, knowing that the old, 19th century versions are now having more trouble finding consumers, even if they are still popular in Utah.  But for a brand that once sold salad-flavored gelatins (including tomato, mixed vegetable and celery flavors), I would think such innovations really shouldn't be especially problematic, but what do I know?

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