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Freaky Things in Our Ice-cream? Gumbo Might Help

Aug 25, 2014 05:48 PM EDT

Earlier last month, a mother in Cincinnati noticed that a generic brand ice-cream sandwich, which her child had left in the sun for hours, had somehow kept its form. It didn't even look melted until she questioningly prodded the desert, which collapsed a little and oozed what looked like a gelatinous mess.

Since ABC 7 introduced the world to Cincinnati's Christie Watson and her questionable ice-cream sandwich, there has been a significant amount of attention on asking "just what is in our ice-cream?"

Dozens of reaction videos have appeared on YouTube with people wanting to try Watson's strange experiment for themselves. You can even watch a Walmart Great Value brand bar "melt" alongside a pair of Briars ice-cream scoops in triple digit heat.

The end result is always the same. No matter how long the bar is left sitting, or how hot it is outside, the sandwich appears to keep its form.

So what's causing this? When ABC 7's WXYZ in Detroit contacted Walmart asking why this happens, the company blamed the cream - an expected ingredient.

"Ice cream melts based on the ingredients including cream," they wrote in a statement. "Ice cream with more cream will generally melt at a slower rate, which is the case with our Great Value ice cream sandwiches."

And in a way, that's partially true. Cream and its fat content understandably makes it harder for the frozen water in ice-cream to melt compared to a chunk of ice alone, but when you expect all ice-cream to have cream, you also expect them to melt at about the same rate.

And that's certainly not what consumers were seeing. The Inquisitor ran its own test last month and found that, interestingly, Haagen Daz vanilla ice-cream quickly becomes a pool of creamy goodness after some time in the heat, despite having more cream and fat content than the Great Value brand.

So what's the difference? Shelf-life. And a different shelf-life means different ingredients.

Do You Like Your Ice-Cream Free Range or Immortal?

According to the Institute of Food Technologies, ice-cream starts go bad even when kept cold due to the size of its ice crystals.

"As ice cream melts and refreezes during distribution and storage, the ice crystals grow in size causing ice cream to become courser in texture which limits shelf life," the institute said.

You might call it "freezer burn" for ice-cream, when a sharp line of crystals starts to coat the underside of your carton's lid and the ice cream's ingredients appear to be separating.

In the case of Haagan Daz ice-cream, this happens pretty fast. That's because the brand likes to stick to the basics, using cream, milk, sugar, eggs and vanilla extract. Of course, the consequence is a shorter shelf-life and thus, escalated pricing.

Other companies provide affordable ice-cream that, for better-or-worse, could winter like a bear in your freezer. That's thanks to stabilizers like some oils, mono- and di-glycerides, various gum, and something called carrageenan. These are all additives that were deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and can even be found in nature. In fact, it is really how these stabilizers were extracted and included in your ice-cream that determines if a provider can slap the word "organic" on the front of packaging.

And what do these stabilizers do? They keep those ice-crystals in check and evenly distribute them between all that fat, oil and cream.

In that sense, there's really nothing wrong with the Great Value bar. According to Walmart, its Great Value ice-cream contains one percent of each stabilizer. Still, it pretty much covers the entire list of potential stabilizers doing so, making it an incredibly controlled block of cream, milk and ice.

So it really all comes down to the question: Do you want diglycerides with your ice-cream, or the other way around?

It also means that a very "stable" ice-cream may not melt in a characteristic way. The cream and ice crystals, even when melted, are firmly held together by these bonding agents, and it'll take more than a light breeze to shake them free.

The Trouble With Seaweed

Still, not everyone is a fan of these stabilizers. Aside from making your ice-cream sandwich look like a bar of ice-creamish gel in a few hours, they may also have some unexpected side effects.

That is, at least according to the Cornucopia Institute, which has been waging war with the FDA about carrageen for years.

Carrageenans are extracted from red edible seaweeds, which on its own sounds perfectly safe. Some organic dairy products use naturally extracted carrageenans as binding agents, keeping a product fresh and togeather longer.

However, according to WebMD, the extract is also used in medicine to treat intestinal problems and even tuberculosis. Carrageenans are known to contain some chemicals that decrease stomach and intestinal secretions, and large amounts of carrageen is even suspected to pull water into the intestine. Unfortunately, this also makes it both a suspected inflammatory and anti-inflammatory for the gut, depending on how it is used.

Back in 2012, researcher Joanne Tobacman expressed her concerns that numerous cases of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and other inflammatory illnesses could all be linked to this stabilizing additive.

In the wake of this work, the Cornucopia Institute renewed efforts to have the additive banned from the US market, petitioning the FDA to "act in the interest of public health."

"For decades, scientists conducting laboratory animal experiments using the common food additive carrageenan have found higher rates of gastrointestinal inflammation, colitis-like disease, and even colon cancer," the organization stipulated.

However, in 2012 the FDA did consider scientific evidence supposedly damning the ingredient, and found it inadequate.

A New Contender

So what now? There isn't likely going to be a strike on ice-cream sandwiches any time soon. It's the dead of August. It's hot, and every kid (and parent) needs their summer indulgences.

So carrageen isn't going anywhere, right?

Maybe, but the Institute of Food Technology's Journal of Food Science recently published a study that there are at least other options, like gumbo.

Now hold on. The study's authors aren't suggesting that everyone's favorite ice-cream should now come with a New Orleans kick. But they are suggesting that the extract of okra (also known as gumbo, and the main ingredient of the hearty Gulf Coast stew) can serve as an effective agent to "maintain a smooth consistency, hinder melting, improve the handling properties, and make ice cream last longer."

The kicker? The extract appears strictly effective as an ingredient for ice-cream, and unlike carrageen, has not been seen to affect the intestines in any way at all. It will just be there; a safe alternative to help your ice-cream sandwich melt as unnaturally as ever.

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