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The scoop on ice cream innovations: Can the frozen treat be healthy?

Would you prefer to eat good ice cream, or ice cream that's good for you? Scientists and food manufacturers are exploring ways to make products that are both.

While there's nothing like indulging in a rich, creamy, full-fat scoop, the hitch with traditional ice cream is there's only so much of it you can eat before it negatively affects your health. To tackle this predicament, researchers around the world have been working to turn the old-fashioned dairy treat into a functional food. They're creating formulas that are lower in fat, fortified with fibre, rich in antioxidants, enhanced with probiotics and even boosted with fish protein.

In May, the Gourmet Ice Cream Company in Dunedin, New Zealand, introduced a new probiotic ice cream, developed with local bacteria producer BLIS Technologies to help protect against sore throats, cure bad breath and aid digestion. The ice cream is lower in fat to boot, containing around 10.4-per-cent milk fat, compared with the 28-per-cent milk fat of the company's traditional recipe.

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Company owner Mark Scorgie says the new product has been a hit at retirement homes, boarding schools and hospitals, and his company is now working on releasing it as a retail product. He swears it doesn't taste like cough syrup.

"It's very early days yet, but it's going down very, very well," he said by phone from New Zealand, noting that the taste and texture is no different from regular ice cream. "We've even got some top restaurants buying it."

There are plenty of other examples of ice-creaminnovations. Food scientists at the multinational giant Unilever, headquartered in London and Rotterdam, have in recent years come up with a new ice-cream ingredient called "ice structuring protein," prepared from a genetically modified baker's yeast. As the company claims on its website, the protein allows it to make ice cream that's lower in fat, sugar and calories, and includes more fruit and doesn't melt as easily.

Earlier this year, University of Missouri food chemist Ingolf Gruen told The Associated Press that his team of researchers is in the final phases of testing a "multifunctional" ice cream that includes antioxidants, dietary fibre, probiotics and prebiotics, or nutrients that encourage the growth of naturally occurring bacteria in the intestines.

And in May, Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture published a study from scientists in Iceland that concluded fish-protein powder "could be an effective way to enhance [the] nutritional and functional value of ice cream." The researchers, however, discovered the quality of the fortified ice cream deteriorated after two months of storage. The result seems hardly appealing. According to an abstract: "Colour faded, cohesiveness decreased, sandiness/coarseness increased, sweetness decreased and fish flavour and off-odour increased."

One of the greatest challenges of tinkering with ice cream is getting the texture right, says professor Doug Goff, an internationally renowned dairy scientist who teaches an acclaimed ice-cream technology course at the University of Guelph. Altering the contents and ratios of ingredients can result in an icy, watery or gummy product.

Dr. Goff's latest work involves examining ways to create a frozen dessert that's lower in saturated fats than conventional products. Although he favours traditional ice cream, he says much of what Canadians consume these days isn't actually classified as ice cream, but "frozen dessert" made with non-dairy fats. Manufacturers have increasingly turned to palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil because they are significantly cheaper than milk fat. (Frozen desserts still contain milk solids, which are the proteins and lactose, but in Canada, only products made with milk fat can be labelled as ice cream.)

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However, since these alternative, plant-based fats are saturated fats, of which health experts advise people should limit their intake, Dr. Goff has been experimenting with partially replacing them with unsaturated fats, like sunflower oil and canola oil. It's no simple feat, since saturated fats help give frozen desserts good structure and texture.

While it's unclear whether the end result would be healthier than real ice cream, Dr. Goff's research could, at least, lead to an improved frozen dessert.

"If we can find a way to modify that ratio of saturates to unsaturates – and reduce the saturates and increase the unsaturates – that should make them healthier," he says.

His research would also allow manufacturers to decrease their dependence on imported tropical oils in favour of domestically produced sunflower oil and canola oil.

Although Dr. Goff has worked on various projects over the years, including fortifying ice cream with dietary fibre, he questions whether, ultimately, there's a demand for functional ice cream.

"Honestly, I think at the end of the day, people eat ice cream for pleasure and enjoyment," he says. "With some exceptions, I don't think they think very much about the nutritional context of it."

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Cool facts

The best temperature for ice cream depends on how much sugar it contains. Professor Doug Goff of the University of Guelph says –12 to –14 degrees Celsius is typically a good serving temperature, but if the ice-cream mix contains more sugar, the optimal temperature range will be lower. That's because sugar depresses the freezing point, so the more sugar that you have, the softer it will be at any temperature, he says.

When storing ice cream, the industry standard is to freeze it down to at least –20 degrees Celsius in a blast freezer, within about four hours after it's made, then to move it to an even colder storage freezer.

Stabilizers, such as guar gum and locust bean gum, help slow the formation of ice crystals, which can lead to coarse and icy texture over time. However, the warmer the temperature the ice cream is kept, the more prone it is to developing that coarse texture, Dr. Goff explains. Ice cream is therefore typically stored at a minimum of –25 degrees Celsius. At such a low temperature, the rate of recrystalization is essentially stopped.

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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