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Turning Ice Cream into a Functional Food


Is it possible to turn ice cream into something that is good for you? Are we ready for two scoops of functional food on a cone with sprinkles? University of Missouri ice cream researchers are hoping to make it so.

Functional foods are defined as processed foods that contain ingredients that aid specific bodily functions, in addition to being nutritious. Ice cream researchers at the University of Missouri, an institution that has been studying the dairy dessert since the 1920s, are working on creating ice cream that contains added nutrients such as probiotics (beneficial bacteria) and fiber, both of which can improve digestive health. Other additions, including antioxidants, are also being considered.

According to Ingolf Gruen, professor of food chemistry and ice cream researcher at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, he and his team are “working on making ice cream satisfying and healthy.”

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Gruen admits that tampering with one of America’s most loved foods is a challenge. “Our major challenges are texture, flavor and psychological acceptance,” he noted in the University’s news release. One problem is that the nutrients typically have a bitter taste and can change the texture of ice cream. Another is whether people will be upset. “We need to know if they would be more willing to pay for ice cream with added nutritional benefits.”

More and more functional foods are finding their way into the marketplace, and Americans are already enjoying many of them. Calcium-enriched orange juice, nutritionally fortified cereals and breakfast bars, and water with added vitamins are commonplace. In limited areas of the country one can even buy pizza that contains probiotics.

Although there are probably hundreds of flavors of ice cream, the number one flavor in the United States, based on the NPD Group’s National Eating Trends Services, is vanilla, which garners 26 percent of the market. Chocolate is second at 12.9 percent, with Neapolitan (4.8%), strawberry (4.3%), and cookies n/cream (4.0%) finishing the top five. Americans also love their ice cream, regardless of the flavor: the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Services reports that the average American consumes more than 17 liters of the creamy dessert per year.

Gruen and his colleagues are hoping that some of the liters of ice cream people consume will be healthful as well as great tasting. They are working on adding remnants from grapes in wine-making and acai berries to the dessert and plan to release a prototype of their ice cream as functional food in about six months.

NPD Group, National Eating Trends Services
University of Missouri news release, Nov. 5, 2009
US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Services