MU researchers strive to perfect healthy ice cream
By Alessandra Tarantino
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- University of Missouri food scientists are working to build a healthier ice cream -- not by reducing fat and sugar, but by adding antioxidants and other beneficial ingredients.
Researchers at the university's Columbia campus are in the final stages of taste-testing what they call "multi-functional ice cream," The Kansas City Star reports.
Food chemist Ingolf Gruen and his research team are tinkering with four healthy ingredients: antioxidants, dietary fiber, probiotics and prebiotics.
Gruen's group hope to offer their fruit-flavored desserts at Buck's Ice Cream Place, a campus shop connected to the food science labs, as soon as this summer. The commercial prospects are less certain, but Gruen realizes that perfecting the healthy concoction's flavors is vital.
"Food is all about taste," he said. "If something doesn't taste good, people don't come back. We do a lot of sensory studies in our department."
Doctoral student Ting-ning Lin is leading the taste tests. She cautioned that even with a healthy ice cream, moderation remains key.
"Ice cream is high-fat compared with other products, so moderate eating is still very important," Lin said.
One of the biggest challenge Gruen and his charges face is balancing ice cream's delicate texture.
"You want a clean melting profile," Gruen said. "It can't be sticky or gummy or gooey. On the flip side, you don't want it to be too watery, to melt too fast."
Adding dietary fiber wasn't too difficult, he said. The proper amount seemed to be equivalent to 15 percent of the recommended daily intake. Many Americans consume about half the recommended fiber in a day.
Adding antioxidants proved more difficult. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said that only vitamins A, C and E could be called antioxidants, so the ice cream needed a fruit addition that would also contain healthy antioxidants. Researchers settled on the Brazilian acai fruit.
"It's a little bit exotic and has given us some flavor challenges," Gruen said. "It's not a flavor people recognize -- chocolatey and woody. It's different."
Adding probiotics was the greatest challenge. The term refers to "good" bacteria, live microorganisms that have been tested for health benefits, such as countering gastrointestinal problems, diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome.
The bacteria they selected needed to survive the hard freeze of ice cream storage. Once that was resolved, another issue arose. The bacteria like to clump together, creating a crunchy texture that resembled biting into ice crystals.
Ice cream add-ins such as candy bar bits and cookie crumbs can have texture, but the ice cream itself must be smooth, Gruen said.
"We had to get those clumps into smaller pieces without destroying the cells," he said.
Gruen and Lin chose inulin as their preferred prebiotic, a food additive that improves colon health. Inulin can function as a laxative -- not exactly something most people want in their ice cream. So determining the right amount was crucial.
Research suggests that some probiotics can decrease gastrointestinal side effects from antibiotics, while others can decrease the duration of infectious diarrhea. Some can help with irritable bowel syndrome and intestinal regularity. Some can improve the reaction of your immune system.
But what remains unclear are the effects of individual strains, said Mary Ellen Sanders, a food industry consultant.
"Without knowing what strain is in a product, and at what level or dose, it is impossible to say what specific benefits that product is likely to have," she said.
Gruen and Lin said they aren't aware of another ice cream product that offers all four of their components. While such additions would likely mean higher costs, they believe that grocery shoppers would embrace such a product.
"I think consumers are willing to pay more for healthier stuff," Lin said.
Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)