Angel Delight: Too good to be true?
“Hey, do you remember XYZ?” is a very cheap way to start an internet dialogue. However, this instance has value-added chemistry in it. Come with me to tea-time treats out of a packet.
North Americans call it “pudding”. Not much of a ring to it. British-types conjure up celestial virtue and the promise of rapture in a milky instant: Angel Delight.
The delightfully dated 20th century TV commercials featured photogenic strawberry flavour being eaten from a long stemmed glass by a bikini wearing lady by a swimming pool in the sunshine – the embodiment of exotic sophistication in Britain in the 1970s . Let me repeat, the sun was shining in Angel Delight world.
These days it is possible to find chocolate, strawberry and butterscotch flavours and if you search hard enough you may find raspberry and banana. But do you recall the other ten flavours that launched between 1974 and 2006? (Yes you can Google, or you can use the comment box below and enter in to the spirit of things)
Of course, the most vivid in your memory is the butterscotch variety, isn’t it? When else did anything come in butterscotch that would not break your teeth? A colour somewhere between pink, orange and brown with a flavour somewhere between toffee, buttered -toast and unidentifiable chemicals. Butterscotch flavour Angel Delight was the Boss.
When striking up a cheap internet conversation with British types recently, I opened the floodgates to memories of a golden age;
“Birthdays and Special Meals like when Granny stayed, the adults had posho pud like trifle.”
” I very occasionally buy it – only ever butterscotch flavour – it brings back happy memories!”
“I have worked at two British boarding schools and it features on the menu regularly at both”
“My mum used to whip up semi-set jelly with evaporated milk and call it “mousse”. My friend Joanne once referred to “fluffy jelly” and it turned out that was the same thing.”
Kate from South London explained the popularity of Angel Delight in a social and historical context: ” I was telling my children about all the things mum used to make for us in the 1970s, and they were horrified. I explained that mum had gone through her teenage years with rationing still very much in place and was an accomplished plain cook who learned her skills pre Elizabeth David et al. She was utterly seduced by the sudden availability of seemingly exotic convenience foods, especially as they were heavily advertised. I suspect she found them an affordable way to ring the changes – you couldn’t get olive oil, avocadoes, garlic, mangoes etc. etc. all that easily in the suburbs in the 70s – but Dream Topping and Angel Delight were everywhere as they had a shelf-life of 20,000 years or something.”
Angel Delight was a treat for everyone involved. Ordinary housewives could mimic the restaurant dessert trolley’s cream-rich sabayon or gelatine-set Bavarian Crèmes in five minutes using only milk and a whisk. And embellishment was easy:
“Yes! My mum used to do the chocolate one, and add peppermint essence, and chopped up mint chocolate. Very sophisticated, dontcha know”
However, there was an undercurrent of mistrust and idea existed that Angel Delight was ever so slightly vulgar.
- How could a packet bought for pence recreate the skill and art of the Dessert Chef?
- How come it did not need chilling?
- Why did it taste so good? Surely it must be a trick, a vehicle for evil food scientist to fill our children with harmful chemicals and gum up their insides?
- Am I cheating?
Is Angel Delight bad for you or a triumph of food science?
According the official website the chocolate variety contains:
Sugar, Modified Starch, Vegetable Oil, Fat-reduced Cocoa Powder, Emulsifiers: Propane 1,2 diol esters of fatty acids, Sunflower lecithin; Gelling Agents: Tetrasodium diphosphate, Disodium phosphate; Milk Lactose, Milk Proteins, Flavourings, Colours: Plain Caramel, Mixed Carotenes; Whey Powder from Milk, Anti-caking Agent: Silicon dioxide.
Sure, 51.8% is sugar but there are no trans-fats nor artificial colours or flavours.
And what those ingredients do together is turn milk, regardless of fat content, in to a foamy gel that needs no refrigeration.
So what do ingredients do?
- Modified Starch – once starch granules swell and burst they help to form gels in liquid, as you know. If a manufacturer wants reliable and reproducible gel action in a product then natural starch must be modified. If you a require a gel then a starch with a high amount of amylopectin, a bushy starch granule which traps water in its many branches and doesn’t let it out resulting in a firm gel structure that won’t seep or weep. However, Angel Delight contains separately listed gelling agents so I’m guessing the modified starch on the ingredient list comes from maize and is the high amylose type. The long water-soluble glucose chains of amylose increase the viscosity of an emulsion – the packet mix and the milk must emulsify before they can gel – and that viscosity doesn’t change much with temperature.
Are modified starches a bad thing? No, they are not. That is because the way they are modified before they are permitted in foods is carefully regulated. The same with all food ingredient including additives that are permitted in most coutnries. This is as good a time as any to talk of the Codex Alimentarius1 which is not a character from an Asterix Book but THE book of food. It is a collection all knowledge to do with food: standards of food production, codes, guidelines and directives that covers everything from trading agreements to risk analysis of food additives, nutrition guidelines and public health concerns. Backed by the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation it exists to improve the safety of the global food supply. In fact it is the benchmark for national food standards. So, if the Codex says modified starch is all right, then it is all right. The image of malicious food scientists tipping harmful chemicals in to production lines to dupe and pollute the consumer must be dispelled.
However, starches can be modified in three ways: Chemical, Physical or enzymatically. But fear not, even if the method of modification was chemical the Codex is there to make sure that any residues are controlled by strict standards, and that can be down to no more than 5 parts per million (of chlorohydrin in a combination chemical treatment)1
If modified starch is the bulker slash emulsifier, the chief emulsifier is the very fancy-sounding
- Propane-1, 2-Diol Esters of Fatty Acids. This substance used to go by the name of methylethyl glycol (try saying that with a mouthful of Angel Delight) and is a member of the propylene glycol family2. It is hygroscopic which means it attracts water molecules and is contributing to the grainy, bubbly effect shown in the picture below when you first tip the Angel delight packet on to the milk. The whisking action disperses it through the milk and the magic happens. Because it can lower the freezing point of water it is an ingredient in antifreeze, BUT, it is recognised as being non-toxic to humans.
Angel Delight’s gelling agents are salts of phosphates, for example
- Tretrasodium diphosphate: also used in toothpastes, and aka tertasodium pyrophosphate is also known as additive 450 and encourages proteins to bind to water, like the proteins in the milk and the whey powder in the Angel Delight. Will it kill you? Well if you weigh 70kg and you ingest between 50g a kilo then, yes, so go easy.3 It is also useful in textile dyeing and oil well cleaning applications.
So there you have it. Everyone liked seeing Angel Delight on the menu: it was
- fool proof
- fit to eat after hiding at pack of the pantry for months
- filled the dessert/treat monotony of daily life gap.
and most of all it was a Big Treat. However, in the course of researching this article and trying to ingratiate myself with the Crackling children, I did notice that I could not eat more than 50g of the stuff, but I spent a very long time in the misty meadows of childhood nostalgia and that is the added value to milk and packet mix.
3 http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/r?dbs+hsdb:@term+@rn+@rel+7722-88-5 from [Gosselin, R.E., R.P. Smith, H.C. Hodge. Clinical Toxicology of Commercial Products. 5th ed. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1984., p. II-121] **PEER REVIEWED**