Making Ice Cream ‘Functional’

Eating ice cream makes millions of people happy, so why not sprinkle in more healthful ingredients? That’s exactly what scientists at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources are doing in early experiments to add fiber, antioxidants, and probiotics to ice cream.

It’s part of a broader trend toward “functional foods” with added nutrients thought to help digestion, bowel regularity, and other aspects of health.

“Food provides calories and comfort—people want to indulge. We’re working on making ice cream satisfying and healthy,” said Ingolf Gruen, PhD, associate professor of food chemistry at the university.

Many diseases may be based on inflammation that starts in the intestines, though the supporting science is still weak, Dr. Gruen said. He believes functional foods might reduce inflammation. And he does not think the additives will be harmful; they are generally recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

As Natural As Possible

“The idea is to stay as natural as possible,” he said. “Our major challenges are texture, flavor, and psychological acceptance.”

Even though cereals and other products boasting health benefits have become common in supermarkets, claims of food functionality remain controversial. “It’s a big problem now,” said Ted Labuza, PhD, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. One case Dr. Labuza cited is the FDA’s recent challenge to Kellogg’s claims that some of its cereals support immunity. Such functional claims of nutrients do not require the same scrutiny as drugs approved by the FDA.

Dr. Gruen realizes there are issues with commercial claims but said he is still in the early stages of his research with doctoral student Ting-Ning Lin. The research, which is funded by the university, aims for a prototype ice cream that is ready for tasting in the next six months.

The additives are put into premium ice cream, which has 12% fat. Dr. Gruen said he used full-fat ice cream because people are shifting back toward eating the “real stuff.” He also did not want the additives to compound the existing challenges of low-fat ice cream, which releases flavors differently, can form crystals, and tends to be grainier, he said.

But any change is a major concern with such a popular treat. “People can detect dietary fiber added in significant amounts,” Dr. Gruen said. If the fiber content reached the level of 20% of the ice cream’s ingredients, his dozen student taste testers didn’t like it.

Dietary Fiber Contribution

“We want to make a significant contribution in dietary fiber,” he said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s daily recommended requirement for fiber for adults is 25 to 35 grams, so one serving of ice cream—about a 50-gram scoop—should have about five grams of fiber, or 10% of the ingredients, he said.

The antioxidant additive, the acai berry, is proving a challenge, too, because of its bitter taste. The researchers may have to mix in other berries to make it palatable. “The nutrients we add often have bitter tastes and affect the texture of ice cream that we have to mask,” Dr. Gruen said. “Another challenge is determining whether people would be upset that we’re tampering with a comfort food. We need to know if they would be willing to pay for ice cream with added nutritional benefits.” ■

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