William A. Mitchell, an American food chemist, died July 26, 2004. Mitchell was one of the most inventive food concoctors of the 20th century. He worked for General Foods for many years, and in 1957 he came up with a powdered fruit-flavored drink that was marketed in 1959 as Tang. It sold slowly at first, but when NASA adopted Tang as the official drink of the Mercury and Gemini missions, sales took off and have remained solid ever since. Mitchell also invented Cool Whip, the first non-dairy whipped topping, which came onto the market in 1967, sold by the Birds Eye division of General Foods. Cool Whip has stood the marketing test of time as well as Tang.
But Mitchell’s strangest concoction was a candy that snapped, crackled, and popped in your mouth. In 1956, he learned how to embed carbon dioxide gas in hard candy. He received a patent for the process in 1961, but his bubbly bonbons were not marketed until 1975, when they were introduced under the name: Pop Rocks. The candy was initially quite popular, as was a spin-off product, Space Dust, consisting of ground-up Pop Rocks. But after a few years of brisk sales, stories began to circulate about children whose stomachs had exploded after ingesting Pop Rocks or Cosmic Candy (the new name of Space Dust). The strangest of these stories claimed that Mikey, an adorable child who was the spokes-kid for Life Cereal in the 1970s, had exploded after eating Cosmic Candy. General Foods tried to quell the rumors, pointing out there is less CO2 in the candy than in half-a-can of soda, and Mitchell even went on tour to proclaim the safety of Pop Rocks and Cosmic Candy, but the stories would not die–that’s how it is with urban legends–and the product was withdrawn from the market, and then sold to another company, who distributed it under a different moniker. We are happy to report that Pop Rocks is now back on the market under its original name. Mitchell lived to be 92, so apparently Tang, Cool Whip, and Pop Rocks were no great impediments to his health.
In his 1961 patent, Mitchell called his popping candy “Gasified Confection.” That is why food corporations have separate divisions for development and marketing.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.