The bone-white, fluffy spread known as Cool Whip is to some a topping for baked goods and to others simply a snack to spoon up straight from the the tub. Used mostly as a whipped cream alternative, Cool Whip was originally marketed as a dairy-free yet creamy topping, even though it technically contained milk products (the current recipe contains even more). Like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Cool Whip isn't whipped cream at all, but an emulsified mixture of fats suspended in water, held together by some choice additives and preservatives. So, what’s really inside that infamous plastic tub? 

Cool Whip has a long list of ingredients, but that’s generally unsurprising for a highly processed food. Now owned by Kraft Heinz, the topping was introduced by the Birds Eye division of General Foods in 1966 as a whipped cream-like substance that could be frozen, defrosted, and refrigerated by distributors and grocery stores without altering its consistency, as well as keep fresh for long periods of time in consumer’s refrigerators.

Cool Whip Original’s ingredient list reads as many of its processed food contemporaries: with certain stuff we know as food, and others that are, well, other stuff. Let’s first examine the items that need no explanation: Cool Whip Original contains water, skim milk, and light cream. Easy enough. Next up, there’s hydrogenated vegetable oil, clarified on the package via parenthetical to be coconut and palm kernel oils. While some treat coconut oil like sweat wiped from the brow of their personal higher power, others criticize it for its high saturated fat content. Palm kernel oil is extracted from the seed of the fruit in oil palms. Also high in saturated fat, palm kernel oil has a long shelf life, making it an optimal choice for processed foods. 

Cool Whip also contains both corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup; the former a syrup made from corn starch, and the latter a liquid sweetener and preservative also made from corn starch, but processed to convert some of its glucose to fructose. You can read more specifics on these ingredients while also learning what’s in fake maple syrup.

Flavored with “natural and artificial flavor,” Cool Whip’s oil and water base stays emulsified thanks to sodium caseinate, a protein derived from milk, sodium polyphosphate (which also acts as a preservative), and sorbitan monostearate, sometimes known as synthetic wax. It’s thickened with xanthan and guar gums, and Polysorbate 60 (fun fact: this is an integral ingredient in some sexual lubricants.) Finally, Cool Whip is colored with beta-Carotene, red-orange pigment.

Like most processed foods, Cool Whip isn’t great for you. If you’re looking for whipped cream, just go in for the real deal (cut it with Greek yogurt if you want a topping that’s lower in fat or physically sturdier) or try super-thick coconut whipped cream if you’re dairy-free.