I began my long-term employment with Atlas Chemical in Wilmington, DE, back in 1960. They manufactured “specialty chemicals,” that includes food emulsifiers, those products among other mysterious ingredients listed in fine print on processed food labels. You can think of them as edible soaps that even taste like soap when tasted alone, as I often did as part of the company’s volunteer taste panel. In foods, they are used in such small amounts, no one could notice them. Like any soap, they hold oils and water together. Without them, some food products would be impossible. In others, they provide smoothness and uniformity. In bread and cakes, they provide a uniform grain (some specialty breads, such as the French baguettes I prefer, do not use emulsifiers and have huge holes scattered among the tiny ones).
Our main food emulsifier product was Span 60 that was a proven staple in the food industry, and we routinely shipped out gallons of it every day with no problems or questions.
Then one day, a British research group reported a skin irritation study where they smeared Span 60 on the shaved skin of a rabbit. (Rabbit skin is especially sensitive.) Span 60 was only one of a wide variety of commercial products they tested. It did not irritate, but the research group noted, as an aside, that the rabbit hair re-grew more rapidly on patches treated with the Span 60.
We were generally unaware of the report but were suddenly inundated with requests for samples, often by employees in companies that had nothing to do with foods. Some people even included $5 bills with their request and asked us to send however much that would buy. (It normally sold in 25-pound pails.) You could sense their desperation, and we were puzzled about how to handle the situation.
We found the most practical solution was to just send out our standard 1-pound samples to any requester. None of us tried it ourselves, but we laughed at the thought of so many people smearing greasy food emulsifier on their heads. Eventually, the requests died down.
Years later, George Costanza tried a similar product on a Seinfeld episode. I wondered if Larry David, a writer and co-creator of the series, had been one of those requesting a sample.