It’s the classic routine: you go to the store, your kid begs you to get ice cream. You turn the package around and read these ingredients:
You are completely confused. How do you decipher if ice cream is good or not? You see names like Polyoxyethylene 20! Carboxymethyl Cellulose!! But on the bottom, it reads “No eggs, no preservatives, no artificial flavors” – so is it a good ice cream or not? The short answer is “Well, kind of yes, but you can find also find ice creams with cleaner ingredients.” The long answer is – read on to make better ice cream buying decisions….
Expectations from a store bought Ice Cream
If you expect a store bought ice cream to be:
- Scoop-able right out of the freezer
- Retain its smooth texture even if the ice cream truck got stuck in a highway, or the store had power cuts
- Develop very little ice crystals even if you forgot to put it back in the freezer after shopping until it was fully melted
- bright and colorful
- low priced
- Etc etc…
then you will have to get used to all these ingredients.
Here’s a quick demo:
I bought 2 kulfi sticks from the same store. Hot day, drive back from the store – The kulfi with a long list of ingredients (Vadilal) retained its shape, but the kulfi with clean ingredients (zeefoods) melted and lost its shape.
The kulfi from zeefoods had only 4 ingredients: milk, sugar, guar gum and cardamom. I froze it and ate it later. While it looked like a misshapen continent, it still tasted great!!
The Vadilal Kulfi held its shape better on a hot summer day. But, it had to use some clever food science to do it.
Let’s try and understand the food scientist’s point of view to see how they achieved that, shall we?
A little bit on the basics of ice cream science
Store bought ice creams are made of:
- Dairy (Cream, milk)
- Sweeteners (Sugar, corn syrup, etc.)
- Flavors (chocolate chip, saffron, elaichi, etc.)
Ok, ingredients 1, 2 and 3 make sense. But what about 4 and 5? Why are they necessary?
Ice cream is a mix of fats (creams) and water (from milk). You know from science classes in school that fats and water don’t like each other that much. Even if you mix them vigorously, they want to separate after some time.
Fats and water: it is basically like throwing Asterix & Obelix with the Romans in one container – all just waiting to fight each other. Emulsifier is like Cleopatra, the only person they will all listen to and for whom they will grudgingly work together :).
But you may wonder, “When I make ice cream at home, I am not using any emulsifier.” Here’s the thing, you eat your homemade ice cream most likely within 2 days. Stick your homemade ice cream to the back of your freezer and pull it out after 3 months. Is the consistency still the same? Most likely the cream parts would settle on the top/edges and the icy parts will congregate in the center.
The commercial ice cream, in fact, typically have a shelf life of 12-18 months. Thus, we need our Cleopatra (emulsifier) to keep them together for so long.
Here are some commonly used emulsifiers
- Egg Yolk (All-Natural)
- Soy Lecithin
- Mono- and Di- Glycerides
- Propylene Glycol (I avoid this)
By the way, this is not just an Indian ice cream ingredient. Many commercial Ice creams sold in the US and Chinese based stores all use emulsifiers. That does not justify it, but it is the way it is…
Ice cream stabilizers are ingredients that add viscosity.
We use stabilizers at home all the time, we just don’t think about them like that – The besan in kadhi is a stabilizer, the gondh in methi ladoo is a stabilizer. The “rice flour slurry” we add at the end to thicken a sambar is also a stabilizer. The same goes for the corn starch that we add to our custards.
In ice creams, commercial stabilizers are used to reduce ice crystal growth, distribute flavor cleanly, increase smoothness, body, and creaminess, and slow down melting. They also help hold the air bubble structure together and give the ice cream a better texture.
Common stabilizers include:
- Locust bean gum
- Guar gum
- Carboxymethyl Cellulose
(Ice cream sandwiches especially will have heavy stabilizers, since we are holding it in our hands. Ice cream makers want to reduce the impact from the constant heat from our hands.)
However, artisanal ice cream makers look down on stabilizers, they think it is basically a cheap gimmick. They feel if you use ice cream with a high enough butterfat content, you wouldn’t need them (examples provided below).
Are there any health effects of these emulsifiers and stabilizers?
The science on health effect of emulsifiers is nuanced. Check out the in-depth research here. Here’s a good summary from healthyfood.com:
“it is possible to hypothesize that, at a certain level in the diet, emulsifiers could detrimentally affect us and be especially bad for people genetically predisposed to IBDs. ”
Are stabilizers bad for you? Excessive use can create gut discomfort. So folks with digestive issues best avoid these.
So, if you are stocking up on ice creams frequently or if you have a weak stomach; you want to look for clean label ice creams. But for the occasional ice cream at a celebration once in a while, I think it is fine.
Which ice creams should be avoided?
- Definitely avoid ice creams with Artificial Colors. They are quite unnecessary and not good for health, as I have explained in my biscuit post.
2. Avoid ice creams that use inferior oils like cotton seed oil, or trans fats like vegetable shortening in their cones or topping add-ons.
3. Avoid ingredients with multiple sugar sources, cheap oils, and long ingredient lists
4. Avoid Propylene Glycol (my personal no-no)
The fact that propylene glycol is used as an antifreeze and could be potentially derived from refining petroleum is enough for me to avoid this. If you are comfortable eating this based on lab studies that declare it as safe, then please go ahead. But this is a personal no-no ingredient for me and my family.
How to buy Clean Ingredient Label Ice Creams
- Give that small company with the clean ingredient label a chance.
I don’t mind a few ice crystals. I am willing to refreeze my melted ice cream. Are you?
2. Buy Yogurt based Ice Creams
Because of the magical, creamy properties of yogurt compared to milk, usually yogurt based ice creams do not need emulsifiers or stabiliziers. How awesome is that??
Look at all the heavy lifting the lactobacillus culture is doing for us – no emulsifiers, no stabilizers, plus it is good for our gut!! If they developed consciousness, these colony cultures would be unionized by now 🙂
3. Buy ice creams that are high in Butterfat content
A super premium ice cream like Haagen-Dazs can actually make a delicious ice cream without any emulsifiers or stabilizers because they use a very high butterfat content. Correspondingly, their prices are also higher.
But, given that ice cream is a treat, maybe shelling out top dollars for a great ice cream without any unnecessary ingredients isn’t such a bad idea, right?
Just look at that ingredient list!! – perfect!!
By no means am I a health guru, rather, I’m far from that. But, here are the ways that I have consciously improved my shopping choices in the ice cream aisle over the past 2 decades.
- In my 20’s I would buy big boxes of cheap ice creams. The more, the better right?? Wrong!! I buy smaller jars now with high quality ingredients.
- I don’t buy ice creams with artificial colors or hydrogenated ingredients or a long list.
- I give chance to both large and small manufacturers with clean ingredient labels.
- I am not a fan of low sugar, sugar free, low calorie or high protein ice creams. They have too complicated of an ingredient list. And what is a fad sweetener now will usually be revealed to be terrible a decade later. I don’t want to overcomplicate it. I stick to just regular, basic ingredients.
- However, I am switching more and more to vegan ice cream brands as I get older. That’s just a personal change. I don’t feel as good consuming heavy dairy products as much. So, I am excited for companies to develop clean lines of vegan ice cream in the future.
These are my preferences. What are yours?
Homework for all of you: Go to your freezer and review the ingredients in your favorite icecream. Were you surprised? List them below in the comments.
P.S.: I may not have access to the Indian ice creams that you have in your residential area. So, if you would like me to review a certain ice cream brand/product; please provide the list of ingredients.
(Sometimes, I am in awe of the free, in-depth information available nowadays – esp, The Harvard Edx link by Dr. Warren is amazing!!).
An excellent, excellent video on the Science of ice cream by Dr. Maya Warren
This video by the always educational Jacob Burton talks in depth about Emulsions and Stabilizers
Want to hear a real ice cream expert talk about what makes a good ice cream vs bad? Check out Jeni Britton Bauer’s analysis
For those of you interested in an ingredient by ingredient review, check out Bobby Parrish’s Ice Cream Reviews