There are two things I look forward to in the summer is freeze pops and watermelon.
How the icy treats that dominated your childhood are faring in the modern world.
Mindy Freedman was a kid growing up in Atlanta, her school organized color wars every summer. Kids were placed into different teams — red, blue, orange — and competed against each other in various sports: dodgeball, soccer, squash. After a long day of games, as a reward, coaches passed out Fla-vor-ice — in Georgia they call them “icees” — that corresponded to their team color. “Even if I wasn’t on the red team, I would always sneak a red pop because I loved the cherry flavor so much,” Freedman says.
Freedman is in her early 20s now and on a hot day, she’s more likely to reach for an iced coffee or a scoop of creamy gelato. But she sometimes reminisces about simpler times when a freeze pop was enough to take on the heat.
For many Americans, memories of childhood and summer are tied, at least in part, to the flavor and ice-cold ease of of a candy-colored freeze pop. That’s partially why, for the company that manufactures some of the most popular freeze pop brands, Jel Sert, millennials are the new target audience: But it’s equally about escapism than it is about nostalgia. “Let’s say you’re a 24-year-old, you go on social media, you see what’s going on in the world — we are a product that allows you to escape all of that,” says Gavin Wegner, marketing manager at Jel Sert, “whether that brings you back to childhood memories or allows you to create new memories with your friends and family.”
Regardless of the feeling they evoke, freeze pops are still a common refreshment of choice, from California beaches to New England backyards. Here’s a look at the past, present, and future of freeze pops.
What are freeze pops?
A freeze pop is a frozen treat very similar to a popsicle, but instead of being consumed off a stick, it comes in a clear plastic tube. The thin plastic pouch is about an inch thick and varies in length, though most are around 10 inches long. It’s sealed on all ends, and requires the consumer to rip open the top to access the sweet ice inside. It’s consumed simply by squeezing and pushing the ice, which melts quickly, out of the tube. Perhaps the biggest difference between popsicles and freeze pops are that they are sold unfrozen, ready to be… popped into the freezer. This means they’re easier and cheaper to manufacture and ship, and therefore cost less than other iced treats.
What are they made of?
Freeze pops are made from sweetened, colored, and flavored water. Ingredients include high fructose corn syrup, juice from concentrate, citric acid, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate — two preservatives used to prevent bacterial growth. The nutritional value is scant; each pop contains a couple of grams of sugars and carbohydrates. Artificial flavors and colorings are used to give the pops their distinct fruitiness and bright hue. Flavors vary depending on the brand but some classics are Fla-vor-ice’s strawberry and Otter Pops’ grape.
Who makes them?
The best selling brands — Fla-vor-ice, Otter Pops, and Pop-Ice — are all made by Jel Sert, a snack foods company based in Illinois that has a tight grip on the freeze pop market.
Jel Sert got big in the 1930s after developing line of popular powdered drink mixes. In the 1960s, the company bought Pop-Ice, the brand that first introduced the freeze-at-home product, and in 1969, it launched a similar, but revamped product called Fla-vor-ice. It blew up, and soon became Jel Sert’s best selling brand. In 1996, Jel Sert bought Otter Pops, a brand from Southern California that dominated the West Coast freeze pop market. After acquiring its competitor, Jel Sert became the biggest supplier of freeze pops in America.
Other brands are available on the market such as Pop-Ice, the original freeze-at-home brand, and Kool Pops. Some newer brands, such as Goodpop, started selling freeze pops made with organic ingredients and sans preservatives. Pedialyte also sells freeze pops with added electrolytes aimed at young children recovering from the flu or severe cases of dehydration.
Grocery stores are Jel Sert’s primary distribution channel, “but you can’t ignore e-commerce,” Wegner says. Freeze pops have become so popular on Amazon that the company is having a hard time keeping up with the demand. Fla-vor-ice and Otter Pops are the best- and second-best-selling ice cream products on the platform, although this might be because they are two of the few ice cream products that are sold unfrozen.
What’s in a name?
Freeze pop, icee, Otter Pop — no one seems to agree on what to call the frozen treat. Some name preferences fall along regional lines, with people referring to them by whatever brand name is popular where they live. Consumers on the West Coast mostly call them Otter Pops. People from the East Coast usually call them Fla-vor-ice. Officially, according to their makers, “Fla-vor-ice is East of the Rockies and Otter Pops is West of the Rockies,” Wegner says. “We were the first in the market with Fla-vor-ice, with this concept. So similar to Kleenex or Xerox, it was nice to be able to have that identity early on, where the brand name pretty much becomes the product itself.”
Despite Otter Pops and Fla-vor-ice’s brand dominance, some generic terms exist. The most popular are ice pops, freeze pops, and icees. A few years ago, Buzzfeed conducted a poll to try and reach a definitive answer. Freeze pops was the most popular answer.
Are there any differences between Fla-vor-ice and Otter Pops?
A quick look at their ingredient list shows that Fla-vor-ice and Otter Pops are the exact same product, a colorful mix of water and corn syrup. Even the flavors, though they have different names, are suspiciously similar.
Fla-vor-ice’s Berry Punch, for example, tastes exactly like Otter Pops’ Louie Bloo Raspberry. The major difference between the two products is how they are marketed and branded. Fla-vor-ice uses straightforward branding, calling its product the “right mix of flavor, sweetness and smiles.” Most of its original flavors are named after real fruits, with tropical punch and berry punch being exceptions.
Otter Pops, on the other hand, seems to aim its branding at a younger audience. Its flavors are named after proprietary cartoon characters, including Alexander the Grape and Sir Isaac Lime. These cartoon otters each have their own individual style and personality. Strawberry Short Kook, for example, is an accomplished movie producer and “Otter-winning actor.” Sir Isaac Lime — a made-up character based on the physicist Sir Isaac Newton — is a “brilliant otter-space scientist.” All 10 characters, each a different flavor, have their own backstories.
In 1996, before Jel Sert bought the iced treat, Otter Pop’s original owner, National Pax Corp., tried to replace Sir Isaac Lime with a new flavor called Scarlett O’ Cherry. They backed down after a group of children, led by a 9-year-old, picketed outside their headquarters. Later that year, Jel Sert acquired Otter Pops, and all of the cartoon otters got to keep their jobs.
Wait, I could swear that some of the flavors are different, though — right?
Fla-vor-ice sells an assorted pack with its original flavors (lemon-lime, berry punch, grape, strawberry, orange, and tropical punch), and a tropical pack that includes banana, pineapple, and tropical punch pops.
Otter Pops makes a wider array of flavors. “[This] is the brand we are putting some of our innovative products behind,” Wegner says. The company sells a set of original flavors (orange, lime, strawberry, blue raspberry, grape, and punch), but also produces a tropical set, and a smaller pack of flavors made with coconut water. Its Beach Breakers edition is comprised of similar flavors to the original line, but with more of a sorbet consistency. Otter Pops also offers a pack made from only fruit juice, with no added corn syrup or artificial flavorings.
Are freeze pops available outside America?
Jel Sert is interested in expanding their brands internationally, but “it is not a top priority,” says Wegner. So for now, Fla-vor-ice and Otter Pops won’t be found outside of the U.S. But other countries have their own versions of freeze pops.
In Canada they are called freezies, and they look very much like their American counterpart. A company called Kisko sells the most popular freeze pop in Canada; it also markets Welch’s freeze pops under license. Australia has Zooper Doopers, which are basically Otter Pops with sci-fi themed flavors. In the Philippines, there’s ice candy: The treat is generally made with fresh ingredients, such as mango and durian, mixed with milk to achieve a creamier consistency; they’re similarly packaged in plastic bags. In Malaysia, some ice pops look very much like a freeze pop, but instead of coming in a plastic bag, they come in a harder, squeezable tube casing. Similar to the Malaysian ice pop, jju-jju-bars are available in Korea; in Italy, there’s a Fla-vor-ice look-alike called Polaretti. The names and flavors change from country to country, but the concept of a stick-less popsicle remains the same.