Creamy - but healthy?
In its quest to create ice cream as voluptuous as butter and as
virtuous as broccoli, the ice cream industry has probed the depths of
the Arctic Ocean, studied the intimate structures of algae and foisted
numerous failures on the American public. "I have tried them all as they
came down the pike: dairy-free, fat-free, sugar-free; with tofu, yogurt,
rice, whatever," said Linda Calhoun, a teacher who lives near Flagstaff,
Ariz., cataloguing the disappointments she has tasted over the years.
"They always make me sad."
For Americans who spend each summer wrestling with temptation, there
is fresh hope in the freezer case. New industrial processes, including
one that involves a protein cloned from the blood of an Arctic Ocean
fish, have allowed manufacturers to produce very creamy, dense,
reduced-fat ice creams with fewer additives. The new products appeal to
those who have acquired a taste for superpremium high-fat ice cream but
cannot stomach its fat content.
Edy's (branded as Dreyer's west of the Rockies) has tripled sales in
its reduced-fat line since replacing its Grand Light with Slow Churned
in 2004. Breyers introduced Double Churned flavors last year and has
nearly doubled its product line. More than just marketing-speak,
slow-churned and double-churned each refers to a process called
low-temperature extrusion, which significantly reduces the size of the
fat globules and ice crystals in ice cream.
Banking on the creamy mouth-feel of these new formulations, even
Hagen-Dazs launched a line of Light ice creams last year to complement
its butterfat-rich line. "We waited years and years for this
technology," said Gulbin Hoeberechts, a marketing manager for the
company. "Before, our only choices would have been adding air, water or
ingredients that don't belong in ice cream."
Almost all commercial ice creams contain industrial ingredients that
mimic the luxurious effects of butterfat and egg yolks: some are
natural, like carrageenin, extracted from algae plentiful in the Irish
Sea; others are synthetic, like mono- and diglycerides.
But using new technologies can be risky for manufacturers. The other
new method for making supercreamy ice cream was caught up last month in
the global debate over genetically modified foods.
In June, Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, applied to Britain's
Food Standards Agency for permission to use a new ingredient in its
frozen desserts - a protein cloned from the blood of an eel-like Arctic
Ocean fish, the ocean pout. Instead of extracting the protein from the
fish, which Unilever describes as "not sustainable or economically
feasible" in its application, the company developed a process for making
it, by altering the genetic structure of a strain of baker's yeast so
that it produces the protein during fermentation.
This ingredient, called an ice-structuring protein, has been approved
by the Food and Drug Administration and is used by Unilever to make some
products in the United States, like some Popsicles and a new line of
Breyers Light Double Churned ice cream bars.
"Ice-structuring proteins protect the fish, which would otherwise die
in freezing temperatures," said H. Douglas Goff, professor of dairy
sciences at the University of Guelph in Ontario. "They also make ice
cream creamier, by preventing ice crystals from growing."
In Britain, where Unilever's Cornetto cone is as iconic as the
Fudgsicle is in the United States, the news media have leapt in with
headlines about "vaneela" ice cream. Britain, like the rest of the
European Union, requires labelling for any food that has contact with
genetically altered material, even if that substance is not present in
the finished product.
In its application Unilever stressed that no DNA or other "material
from fish" is used in the process. But genetically modified foods have
yet to gain wide acceptance from the European public, and Unilever has
found itself the unwilling centre of attention.
The United States has no regulations requiring the labelling of
genetically modified food, which has become increasingly common at every
point in the food chain. Until recently, its practical applications were
mostly in developing strains of crops, like soybeans and corn, that are
more resistant to stresses like disease, weather and insects.
But research by people like Professor Goff is beginning to bear fruit
for the processed-food industry: proteins like the ones found in the
ocean pout are an example.
For consumers, the benefit is that ice-structuring proteins and
low-temperature extrusion have raised the "creaminess" bar for the ice
cream industry. "The ice creams produced with the new methods are simply
better than any ice creams have ever been," Professor Goff said. "Quite
definitely better in texture, and much better tasting."
A tasting by the staff of the Dining section found the Breyers Light
Double Churned chocolate ice cream bar with the ice-structuring protein
very creamy, even dense. It was the favourite of five ice cream bars
tasted. The H"agen-Dazs Light and the Breyers Light chocolate ice cream,
using low-temperature extrusion, were also very creamy and did not seem
to be low-fat. But tasters found that the new ice creams still lagged
behind full-fat versions in flavor.
"The quest has always been for the taste and texture of full-fat ice
cream," said Tyler Johnston of Edy's. "Since the 1980's it's been about
adding ingredients," he said, referring to the gels and gums that
commercial producers churn into reduced-fat ice cream to improve and
stabilize its texture. "Now we have a complicated process, but the
recipe can be simplified," he added, referring to the industrial
freezers that reduce the ice cream from minus 5 to minus 25 degrees
Celsius for low-temperature extrusion.
While full-fat ice cream still makes up more than 65 percent of the
total market, the International Dairy Foods Association says that sales
in the category have been flat for three years and that sales of low-fat
and nonfat ice cream have gone down in the same period.
Products produced with the new technologies are less affected by
partial thawing than traditional ice creams, which become dry, sticky
and hard in fluctuating temperatures. (This is why letting a container
of ice cream thaw on the counter before scooping it is a bad idea.) "Ice
crystals are everyone's enemy in ice cream," said Arnold Carbone, the
head of the Ben and Jerry's research lab in South Burlington, Vt. (Ben
and Jerry's, now also owned by Unilever, does not use either new
process.) "Ice cream is an emulsion of air, fat and water, and emulsions
are always fragile because the elements want to separate."
Every time ice cream thaws slightly, the emulsion is compromised and
the ice crystals combine into larger, jagged crystals that destroy the
ice cream's texture. "This is the drama of the cold chain," he said.
"Every minute that ice cream sits on a loading dock, it suffers
incredible abuse." Professor Goff, whose lab is working on a process of
extracting ice structuring proteins from winter wheat, has a low-tech
solution for those trying to avoid crystallization. "It's simple," he
said. "Never leave a container of ice cream unfinished."
(The New York Times)