Can ice cream be tasty and healthy?

Let’s face it; everyone is partial to an ice cream – chocolate, strawberry or mint choc chip, whatever takes your fancy. But did you know that scientists have introduced an ingredient to make ice cream not only last longer but also lower in fat, sugar and calories? Sound too good to be true? Read on to find out how a simple Antarctic Ocean fish has helped you to enjoy a tastier and healthier scoop of ice cream. 

Unilever is one of the world’s leading Fast Moving Consumer Goods companies and owns much loved ice-cream brands such as Cornetto, Solero and Ben & Jerry’s. In an attempt to get ahead of competition in an ever-increasing health conscious industry, scientists at Unilever have manufactured an ingredient called ice-structuring protein (ISP).

The protein can be used to make ice cream that is not only lower in calories and fat compared to its competitors, but also increases the fruit content.

The lighter versions of household favourite products appeal to those, who like me, have a sweet tooth but want a healthier alternative.

What are ISPs?

Ice structuring proteins (ISPs) are found widely found throughout nature in plants and animals in cold climates. The ISPs give the animals and plants protection against cold conditions by binding to ice crystals and controlling their growth – thus protecting tissue damage. Unilever’s scientists specifically investigated how an ISP found in cold-water fish called the ocean pout could improve ice-cream stability whilst lowering calorie content. However, scientists decided against using this particular protein.

It is not environmentally or economically sustainable to extract the protein from the ocean pout.

Searching for another alternative, the scientists discovered that genetically modified yeast could produce large amounts of the same ISP found in ocean pout. This is a similar to process used to produce flavourings, vitamins and enzymes within the industry. In order to produce the ISP in a sustainable manner, scientists inserted the DNA that codes for the production of the ISP found in ocean pout into yeast. The yeast cells were engineered to allow the protein to break through cell walls, therefore as the yeast ferments it produces the protein that can be later extracted by micro-filtration and purified.

So how does the ISP work?

ISP works in two ways; firstly the ISP can replace specific starches and other ingredients thus reducing calorie, fat and salt content by up to 30 – 50 percent. This is part of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, which launched in 2010 is promoted as their “blueprint for sustainable growth”.  Their targets to improve health and nutrition include doubling the number of products that meet the highest nutritional standards, in a bid to “help hundreds of millions of people achieve a healthier diet”. Secondly ISPs help slow the melting of ice creams – great for hot countries or those who like to savour their ice cream. Ice cream consists of an emulsion of air cells, ice crystals, fat droplets and a combination of milk, sugars, water and fat glues the ice cream together. The trouble is that ice cream is very thermodynamically unstable. So as soon as it’s taken out of the freezer it begins to lose it’s shape as the air cells collapse and the ice crystals grow.

This is where ISPs come into action; they provide a ‘protein scaffold’.

They help prevent the collapse of air cells and the growth of ice crystals whilst locking all of the ingredients within the scaffold allowing a tasty and even distribution of flavour throughout the ice cream. The increased stability also allows for an increased amount of fruit to be used in the ice cream. This previously has prosed formulation challenges, as high levels of fruit can affect the shape and texture of the ice cream.

So there you have it; a guilt-free scoop of ice cream is definitely a favourite with consumers, but what is the future for ice creams now that healthier frozen yoghurt alternatives are being marketed? Leading companies are continually investing in cutting edge research to improve even more on taste and quality. Who knows where the next innovation may come from? However there is a much more common and low-tech solution for those wanting to avoid ice cream crystallisation – “Never leave a tub of ice cream unfinished”.

Rebecca Thorington

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Image courtesy of The Red Spoon via Flickr

One Comment
  • Adam VanWert
    6 January 2015 at 04:39
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    This ISP is really exciting, but why can’t I find a product with it in the US? I’d love to have a reduced sugar ice cream that is creamy without artificial sweeteners.

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