Now reading The History of Push-Button Cuisine

The History of Push-Button Cuisine

What happened to aerosolized foods?

Imagine a multi-course dinner materializing from a series of aerosol canisters. Elegant canapés crowned with gobbets of liverwurst and cheese-spread, sprayed from a can. A pair of self-heating cans deliver the main course: a cloud of fluffy mashed potatoes alongside a slurry of barbecued meat, finished off with a misting of hickory flavor “for a gourmet touch.” For dessert, how about a spray-on sundae? Ice cream, banana whip, chocolate sauce, maraschino topping—just push and go! All of these products, and many more, were produced, promised, or prognosticated in postwar America, relics of a future that never came to pass.

Push-button cuisine is one of the great, unrealized dreams of postwar food technology. In the 1950s and 1960s, food manufacturers, along with their allies in the container and chemical industries, imagined a world of effortless convenience, where, in the words of one 1964 newspaper article, “entire meals… can be oozed forth by a gentle push on a few cans.” The aerosol container seemed to be the apotheosis of ease and modernity, “a sort of Aladdin’s genie, ready at the touch of a fingertip to perform all sorts of bothersome kitchen chores.” Dozens of different aerosolized food and beverage products were introduced, from spray-on-coffee-concentrate to spray-on-pancake-batter. But despite the hype and high hopes of manufacturers, consumers didn’t buy it. By the late 1970s, only a few of the spray-foods survived.

The story of modern aerosols really begins with the “bug bomb.” Developed during the Second World War by researchers at the USDA, the “bomb” was a heavy-duty metal canister topped with a metal valve that, when pushed, sprayed out a fine insecticidal mist. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes dropped dead immediately, to the considerable relief of service members, especially those stationed in the Pacific theater of war.

After the war, a public patent made the technology behind the bug bomb freely available to manufacturers. Innovations in container design and chemical propellants soon led to lighter, cheaper, easier-to-use aerosol canisters that, by the middle of the 1950s, were used to pack an increasingly diverse array of goods, including room deodorizers, shaving creams, disinfectants, athlete’s foot remedies, and spray-on “Christmas snow,” perfect for adding a rime of yuletide “frost” to Sunbelt pink flamingoes.

Just ten years after their debut, aerosols seemed to be everywhere. According to a 1955 survey commissioned by DuPont, one of the largest manufacturers of chemical propellants, 91 percent of American families bought and used aerosol products, totaling nearly $200 million in sales. By 1961, boosted in part by the skyrocketing popularity of hairspray, retail sales of non-food aerosols exceeded one billion dollars. “If you can put a push button on it, you’ll make a fortune,” one Madison Avenue ad man purportedly told a client in the late 1950s. “Nobody can resist a push button.”

In this era of galloping sales, pressure-packing food in disposable aerosol containers seemed like a huge potential moneymaker. If any postwar economic sector was growing as fiercely as aerosols, it was processed foods. In 1941, Americans spent about $20 billion on things to eat. In 1953, “to the stupefaction of just about everyone who thought he understood the food market,” wrote Fortune magazine, “they are spending $60 billion,” a number which continued to climb through the next decade. Most of this growth came from increased spending on processed and “convenience” foods: packaged, fully prepared, heat-and-serve or ready-to-eat. And what could be more convenient than a push-button meal? If food aerosols took off, many industries stood to profit: food processors, chemical companies, container manufacturers, and the contract “fillers” who put the products together.

There was some reason for optimism. One of the first widely successful aerosol products was whipped cream, introduced in 1948. Propelled by compressed gas (usually nitrous oxide), which “whipped” and aerated the cream (mixed with sugar, flavor, and stabilizers, such as sodium alginate and sodium caseinate) as it exited the nozzle, the aerosol container, in the poetic words of one aerosol technologist, efficiently produced “a dispersion of air or gas cells and clumped fat masses as contiguous phases in cream serum to form a more or less rigid foam.” Tens of millions of canisters of whipped cream were sold in the late forties, making it one of the earliest widely successful aerosol products.

Despite this early hit, few other new aerosol food products came onto the market until the end of the 1950s. Aerosols posed multiple problems for food manufacturers, who had to overcome design and safety challenges that makers of non-food aerosols did not. The container, the nozzle, and the propellant all affected the sensory qualities of the food, which had to be specially formulated to suit these packaging conditions—requiring stabilizers, emulsifiers, flavor additives, and other modifications to achieve the right stability, viscosity, color, and taste. “You just can’t put an existing [food] product in a can,” explained one aerosol industry expert in the 1960s. “The product must be born in the can.”

The can also had to be born for the product. Dispensing valves had to allow for the fuss-free and complete dispersal, a challenge when it came to thicker, nozzle-clogging slurries. Barrier packs, such as the MiraFlo “free piston” container and the Sepro “bag-on-valve” system, developed in the late 1960s by the American Can Company and the Continental Can Company, respectively, completely separated the propellant from the product by means of plastic polyethylene barrier, minimizing chemical contact between food and propellant, and making it possible to pressure-pack viscous foods such as frosting and cheese spread.

Then there was the matter of the propellant. While makers of spray paints, deodorants, and other non-food aerosols could choose from number of liquid CFCs to expel their products from the can, for health and safety reasons, food manufacturers were initially limited to using compressed gases, such as nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. But compressed gases took up more space than CFCs, thus requiring bigger, costlier containers. They also lost pressure over time, which meant that food was often left in the package, unsprayed and unusable. In 1961, Du Pont’s Freon C-318 became the first CFC propellant to receive FDA approval for use in foods. It was odorless, tasteless, colorless, and stable; it was lighter and took up less space than compressed gases; and it maintained constant pressure, so that the container could be fully emptied of its contents. The conditions seemed ripe for a push-button cuisine revolution.

“The application of aerosols to food is almost limitless,” one flavor-industry chemist wrote in the heady post-Freon, post-free piston container moment of the early 1960s, when all the major obstacles to aerosol foods seemed to be resolved, and the frontiers of product development seemed constrained only by the imagination of food technologists. Anything that could be spread, poured, or whipped could be aerosol packed, and food and chemical engineers got to work designing the “spray-on meals” of tomorrow. “The housewife will be able to serve a full-course dinner from aerosol cans,” one valve manufacturing company optimistically predicted, “some of which will keep the food hot or cold, depending on how it is to be served.” One engineer proposed an elaborate aerosol space feeding program, where cosmonauts would sup on shrimp cocktails, avocado purees, and prune juice directly from pressurized containers, which would be anchored by magnets to the walls of the rocket-ship. “Push button accentuation propels the food out of the container and directly into the mouth,” he explained. “This offers great conveniences.”

“We may… find that new foods will be created for this packaging medium as was the hair fixative [ie, hairspray] among the non-food aerosols,” the flavor chemist prognosticated. “We can only guess what aerosol food research will bring.”

Starting in the late 1950s, an avalanche of new push-button food products made their way to grocery stores. There was Whisp, a Freon-propelled vermouth spray, for that extra-dry martini. Sizzl-Spray, an aerosol barbecue sauce designed for seasoning burgers and steaks on the backyard grill, itself a 1950s innovation. Tasti-Cup, an aerosol coffee concentrate, for the office worker too busy for instant. Betty Lou, “a new cheese idea!” in a can, which expelled soft ribbons of cheese in four flavors, including Tillamook and Swiss-’N-Bleu. There was the Pillsbury Push Button Cake Decorator: choose your nozzle, “go push push!” and draw an icing-face on your layer cake. Spreet, which delivered a discrete “metered” spray of non-caloric sweetener for dieters. Spray-and-bake angel food cake and pancake batter. Mayonnaise. Salad dressings.

What followed is best described as a commercial mass extinction. Some aerosol food products failed because of faulty design. Sizzl-Spray corroded the seams of its canister. Tasti-Cup tasted pretty lousy. Others were victims of poor business decisions. Betty Lou spray cheese, the first of its kind, spent heavily on advertising, but then folded when sales failed to materialize in its first year; meanwhile Nabisco’s Snack Mate, introduced a year later in 1964, persists to this day as Easy Cheese. Some apparent successes were fads, and faded fast. Aerosol milk flavorings, which inflated industry sales in 1964 and 1965, turned out to be a passing fancy. While kids loved spraying jets of chocolate and “berri” flavor in their milk—and all over the kitchen—parents did not love cleaning up afterwards; sales slumped and the once-popular products vanished. And then some ideas never made it past the pilot stage, such as aerosol ketchup, which emerged from the spray-can disturbingly pink and foamy.

For many other products, such as Whisp vermouth spray, it was simple economics: the cost added by the aerosol packaging was too much for the arguable “convenience” it offered. There was also the lingering, and unappetizing, association with bug sprays, antiseptics, and all the other inedible things that came in spray cans.

In the end, “convenience,” or at least the kind that came in a can, was not the driving thing that consumers wanted from their food. As food preferences shifted toward the “natural” and away from the “space age,” and as aerosol foods racked more misses than hits, food and container manufacturers quietly wound down most major research and development projects associated with these products.

By the 1970s, the aerosol industry as a whole was on the wane, shaken by a series of cultural and political shifts. Hairspray sales plummeted as flowing hippie locks replaced teased-up beehives. Post-Silent Spring, Americans were more sparing with the bug spray, and far more suspicious of the link between CFC propellants and cancer, especially in personal care products, like “feminine hygiene” sprays and deodorants. The highly publicized deaths of teenagers after huffing Freon fumes from spray cans cast further discredit on the aerosols, making them incidental players in Nixon’s new “War on Drugs.” The coup de grace came from scientists, who linked Freon and other CFCs to the newly discovered (and growing) hole in the planet’s ozone layer—leading to strict federal restrictions on the use of these chemicals. But it was also a failure of imagination. “The best aerosol minds,” one industry commentator lamented in 1974, “have not been able to come up with much that is really new since the mid-1960s.”

A few survivors from the first food aerosol era still haunt our supermarket aisles. “Whipped toppings” such as Reddi-Wip continue to offer a quick dairy (or non-dairy) fix. Spray cheese retains its indelible allure, anointing indiscriminate late-night snack indulgences with a glorious splooge of unctuous orange saltiness. Non-stick cooking sprays, such as Pam, are stodgily functional.

Aerosol packaging does offer some real advantages, including extending shelf life and eliminating the need for refrigeration. More recently, there has been a minor renaissance of new food products using aerosol technology, with manufacturers emphasizing the containers’ capacity to reduce food waste, deliver low-calorie portions, and protect contents from contamination.

Consider, for instance, No More Tea Bags, which launched in the UK in July. “No soggy tea bags, to messy leaves, and no waiting for your cuppa to brew!” A canister of No More Tea Bags emits a nitrogen-propelled stream of concentrated tea into hot water, allowing tea-sippers to adjust the strength of their beverage to their precise specifications. In an email, Guy Woodall, the company’s president, explained that aerosol packaging allowed him to produce a stable, flavorful tea concentrate without the need for preservatives. (It does, however, contain xantham gum, a stabilizer, to prevent “tea cream,” the clouding that occurs when strong tea cools.)

Are tea drinkers ready to abandon the traditional bag for the aerosol spray? “Our experience so far,” says Woodall, “is that particularly with younger consumers, the response is that it is cool and modern and not at all off-putting.”