Who doesn’t love the sweet indulgence of ice cream? Is there anything more comforting, more infinitely satisfying? For centuries ice cream has functioned as a panacea for what ails us–both physically and emotionally.
Whether it be the prescribed food following a childhood tonsillectomy, the perfect treat to nurse a bruised heart, or the only appropriate edible for cooling us on a scorching summer day, ice cream enjoys a permanent place on the list of things we can’t live without.
But along with its positive memory associations, ice cream, as a high source of saturated fat, has a negative side to its reputation. In the days before refrigeration was widely available, ice cream was a luxury item that could only be enjoyed occasionally. The advent of cheap refrigeration followed by the production of ice cream on a mass scale brought diet difficulties relating to this constantly available sweet treat. Commercial ice cream manufacturers have long been aware of this conflict between the consumer’s abiding love for ice cream and the guilt that comes with consuming indulgent foods. This knowledge, combined with developing technology in the early 20th century that allowed manufacturers to increase the amount of air in ice cream (thereby reducing their costs), resulted in a commercial trend to substitute synthetic ice cream ingredients for real ones.
Fortunate for us, ice cream is experiencing a return to the old appreciation for high quality. A more natural and exciting range of ice cream exists today than ever before . . . . These days it is as easy to find a pint of organic frozen yogurt or sorbet in your favorite flavor as it is to eat it.
An Innocent Dish of Ice Cream?
The most basic ingredients in ice cream are eggs, cream, and sugar. These three ingredients–added to whatever flavorings are desired–combined by a specific process, result in what we know as ice cream. The ice cream process involves slowly stirring a custard of eggs, cream, and sugar as it cools, thereby preventing any ice crystals from forming. The stirring or "churning" process also incorporates air into the mixture and gives ice cream its signature creamy texture. Gelato, an Italian ice cream that is milk-based, gets its dense, sticky texture from having about 35% less air whipped into it.
It is not uncommon for commercially produced ice cream to be made without any of the three basic building blocks from which ice cream originates. Instead it will often include an entire pantry of synthetic flavors, sweeteners, stabilizers, and preservatives. To compete with the flavor and texture of full-fat ice creams, commercial low-fat ice creams–which incorporate a larger percentage of air–must substitute synthetic emulsifiers to keep them smooth and other artificial thickeners to make up for the loss of creamy texture.
It seems that the ingredients deemed suitable for use in ice cream become more bizarre as time goes by. Unilever, the largest producer of ice cream in the U.S., recently introduced a genetically-modified "anti-freeze" protein derived from the blood of a polar ocean fish. This protein, when used in the ice cream making process, imitates the smooth and creamy texture of real ice cream without incorporating any of the confection’s real ingredients. Such "breakthroughs" in technology appeal to the consumer—who can seemingly enjoy the pleasure of real ice cream without any of the guilt—as well as the manufacturer, who profits from using cheaper ingredients of lower quality.
But such short term solutions are detrimental both to human health and to that of the planet and the other life forms that it supports. Many commercial ice creams are made with milk from cows raised by dairy producers that administer large doses of artificial growth hormones and antibiotics, and that provide feed heavily laden with pesticides.
The commercial dairy industry has a staggering effect on the air and water quality of the environment, and the production of ice cream plays a significant role in this impact.
Ice Cream Alternatives to Scream About
Fortunate for us, ice cream is experiencing a return to the old appreciation for high quality. A more natural and exciting range of ice cream exists today than ever before. A wealth of homemade ice creams made from quality organic ingredients sourced from sustainable dairies can be found in grocery store freezers. Visit this EcoBusinessLinks directory of organic ice cream providers for an online directory of some of the most well-known organic brands. In addition, many small-scale organic ice cream shops are popping up in cities all over the country, offering an array of mouth-watering ice cream flavors that are made fresh daily with ingredients determined by the seasons.
New flavors run the gamut from herb-infused fruit ice creams to exotic concoctions spiked with cardamom or saffron. Many of these shops also make sophisticated ice cream "cakes," which are perfect for special occasions when you find yourself short on time. So long relegated to the ranks of foods to be shunned, heavy cream and egg yolks are once again gaining status as ingredients to be cherished and appreciated in the realm of "real" ice cream. In our developing era of eating organic foods as one sustainable solution for living, developing quality presents a better solution than focusing on quantity. And so eating a small amount of ice cream made with the best ingredients available is better than eating a lot of artificial ice cream.
There is also a wealth of healthy ice cream alternatives on the market that can be just as satisfying for consumers with dietary restrictions. These days it is as easy to find a pint of organic frozen yogurt or sorbet in your favorite flavor as it is to eat it. Many dairy-free ice creams made from goat’s milk or soy products are also easy to find, as are ice cream products incorporating fair-trade ingredients, such as fair trade chocolate and coffee. Of course, the best way to know exactly what is in your ice cream is to make it yourself. Modern-day electric ice cream makers take much of the work out of making ice cream, and new eco-friendly, manual models are also available if you want to churn your ice cream the old-fashioned way. A wealth of recipes for homemade ice creams, gelatos, yogurts, and sorbets can be found online or in the cookbook section of your nearest bookstore.
Article Contributors: Julie Reid