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Ice cream:

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.

No regulations

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)



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