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Dear Matthew Alice:

When I had my tonsils taken out (a rite of passage in the 1930s), I was served a helping of Jell-O. With the birth of each of five children, the hospital tray had a glob of the jittery stuff. Last week I visited a sick friend, and there on the lunch tray was-- yep! A dish of Jell-O. Does Jell-O have some hidden nutritive value (other than the listed lots of sugar, minimal one gram of protein) that hospital nutritionists see fit to serve it so constantly?

-- Dolores Smith, San Diego

Jell-O. Grandma's favorite subject. Grandma is to Jell-O as Michelangelo is to marble. There's no shape she hasn't tried, nothing she can't suspend in molded lime. Grapes? Banana disks? Child's play. For Father's Day, she gave Pa Alice a Sunset Salad with orange Jell-O, carrot curls, pineapple chunks, argyle socks, and a tie. So we were sure she'd have the answer to your question, Dolores.

"Hospital Jell-O? And just why do you think I'd know anything about hospital Jell-O? After all my years of blending and crafting and perfecting my skills�the year I covered the Christmas tree in cherry Jell-O and tinsel? All the Jell-O jack-o-lanterns and birthday cakes? Why, I--"

"Okay, okay, Grandma�."

Jeez. Artists. Let's try somebody who just cuts 'em into cubes and throws 'em in a bowl.

Kraft Foods. That's Jell-O's parent company. We dialed them up. The corporate Jell-O word is, the stuff has been around since 1897, and they've never, ever called it a health food. It's been a fun food, especially for kids, for all it's jiggly life. Fancy molded Jell-O salad was the official side dish of the 1950s, and today they still sell nearly half a billion boxes a year. They've tried some questionable flavors like cola and chocolate, but don't look for spinach or ginseng any time soon.

So let's try the medical side. UCSD has lots of medical people. We dialed them up. Why, why is Jell-O a hospital staple, right up there with penicillin and gauze pads? Well, Dolores, turns out it has nothing to do with protein, as most people think. Jell-O is actually the anti-protein. It's a popular post-surgery food precisely because it helps keep blood sugar up and has almost none of that hard-to-digest protein. And you don�t even have to chew it if you don't want to. If a patient can tolerate Jell-O, the chef can move on to something more adventurous. Creamed beans. Bread in white sauce.

But when you consider the situation, Jell-O is also rampant in cafeterias, prisons, salad bars, all-you-can-eat buffets� It's everywhere. Know what the feds served immigrants who came through Ellis Island? Jell-O. It's always been a cheap, colorful, easy to make, easy to serve, easy to store, everybody likes it kind of eatable. This is most likely why it appeared on hospital menus in the first place; any health benefits were recognized later and just guarantee it will be around forever. One day someone will wake up from head transplant surgery and be staring at Jell-O.

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