It’s Discontinued Snacks Week! On Monday, for paid subscribers, we looked at Kudos bars and the generational and cultural shifts along the way from health foods to candy bars to modern energy bars. On Friday, for paid subscribers, we’ll take some sips of a certain sweet beverage from the 1990s. And today, I have a nice cold treat for you. [Just as this post was about to publish, there was some news about this product’s most famous spokesman. You can read about that and what it actually means, but we’re not going to talk about him here.]
Jell-O Pudding Pops
Manufacturer photo / Snack Stack illustration
Popsicles made with pudding (rather than, say, juice or Kool-Aid or other sugar-waters). Specifically, we’re looking at the ones made with Jell-O pudding, which came in chocolate, vanilla, chocolate-vanilla swirl, and banana flavors. Made with 60% skim milk!
Find it in
The USA, from 1981 or so until 2011 or so.
When you’re an adult, looking at the ice cream freezer at the grocery store can easily turn into a Proust/“Ratatouille”-style wormhole back to childhood. For me, an ice cream sandwich conjures memories of a particular park, an orange Popsicle takes me back to a bout of strep throat, and a Bomb Pop reminds me of a specific twinge of guilt I felt whenever I got one, because my pacifist mother didn’t like that brand name. But when I look through those freezer doors, there’s one nostalgia-trigger that’s missing: Jell-O Pudding Pops, which have been out of production for about ten years, but were a fixture of American kid snacking in the 1980s and 1990s.
Jell-O Pudding Pops officially launched in 1981, at a price point of $1.99 for a box of twelve. They were the result of more than a decade of trial and error in search of the product’s signature soft texture, which I can feel in my mouth right now (it came from the same emulsifying agent used in Cool Whip), and three years of test runs, in Cincinnati, Denver, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City. Pudding Pops were also very much a product of their time and culture, born of a decline in prepared foods and a rise in snacking, a General Foods spokesman told The New York Times in 1981:
While mothers still wanted [pudding’s] “wholesome goodness” for their children, Mr. Rosow said, afternoon snacks such as ice cream and packaged cakes were usurping the place of conventional desserts that were not readily portable and required preparation time. “The question was, ‘How can we put pudding in the path of the afternoon snack opportunity’?” said Mr. Rosow. “What we did was to freeze it and put it on a stick.”*
That is to say: Pudding Pops came about specifically because of a shift in consumer trends due to more women in the workforce (marketers and society in general apparently had no expectation that fathers could or would feed their children). To assuage parental guilt over excess snacking, General Foods billed them as healthful. It was a wholesome snack, mostly milk, no big deal, with fewer calories in a serving than the standard vanilla ice cream bar of the era (100 versus 170). General Foods even pitched Pudding Pops to schools in 1985 as not just USDA-approved but an effective bribe to get kids to try (or at least take) other foods:
Jell-O Pudding Pops are already sold in more schools than other brand of frozen novelties—because kids want them. All three Jell-O Pudding Pops flavors can help you increase participation in your USDA meal pattern, because they lead kids to buy meals they might otherwise reject.
Even before the national launch, Jell-O Pudding Pops were enough of a hit that competitors were lining up, including Popsicle brand’s Good ‘n’ Puddin’, Swiss Miss Pudding Bars, and Borman’s Puddin’ Pops (the last one resulted in a successful trademark-infringement lawsuit by General Foods, on the grounds that merely dropping the “g” wasn’t fooling anyone).
But Jell-O had the name recognition and General Foods had the funding to beat the competitors, including a research and development budget of $96 million in 1981, and a major ad campaign starring a certain high-profile sitcom star (again, not going to mention him). The payoff: Jell-O Pudding Pops made almost $100 million in sales the first year alone.
According to Culinary Lore, though, Pudding Pops were never actually that profitable, especially for a company (first General Foods and then the brand’s later owner, Kraft) that was otherwise not doing anything in the frozen-foods arena. In 2004, Kraft sold Jell-O Pudding Pops to Popsicle, which changed the recipe (never a good idea, just ask New Coke) and customers moved on to other icy treats. Eventually, the whole brand just kinda died quietly, ending not with a bang but with a product-appropriate slow melting away.
If you look around, you can still find Jell-O branded DIY Pudding Pop kits, with pudding mix and plastic molds—you do all the prep and freezing yourself. But that’s not the same, is it? I mean: Was the appeal of a Pudding Pop the flavor, per se? Or was it, as General Foods understood from the outset, a certain kid-oriented convenience—a snacking experience? For me, that’s the nostalgia trigger: the feeling of unwrapping it on a summer afternoon in the late ’80s and the sensation of biting into it (so soft and creamy!), paired with the knowledge that this snack was provided with love but made by a corporation—which, like it or not, is part of the appeal of a whole lot of snacks.
On that note, here’s a message about the importance of Pudding Pops at a slumber party:
Get it here
No longer available, unless you can time-travel with the assistance of Bill and Ted. As noted, you can still purchase a kit to make your own or find all kinds of videos showing you how to replicate them.
Pair it with
A rattling window air conditioner and reruns of “Transformers.”
Will you like it?
The New York Times (1981): “Big Hopes for Pudding Pops”
*I love the idea of “Freeze it and put it on a stick” as a self-help solution to all of life’s problems. I’m writing this late at night, so maybe just tired and loopy, but it seems like something that should be made into wall art for sale on Etsy—and if that’s your thing, here, I made that quote into an inspirational graphic.
If you liked this, please share it! And don’t forget to check out the check out the pantry (er, archives) here, including Monday’s post on the rise and fall of Kudos bars. Sign up for a paid subscription and get three snacks every week (if you’re already a paid subscriber, thank you). Happy snacking!