Let's admit it: Attempts to make ice cream healthier by deleting fat and sugar didn't work. At least not for true ice cream lovers.
But rather than taking stuff out, what if you could add an array of healthy ingredients to ice cream without wrecking it in the process?
Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia are in the final throes of taste-testing their "multifunctional ice cream," a name that makes it clear these are food scientists, not marketing wizards.
University food chemist Ingolf Gruen knows he and his team are in touchy territory, this tinkering with ice cream. Americans love ice cream and eat a lot of it. But by adding four components -- antioxidants, dietary fiber, probiotics and prebiotics -- the scientists think they have hit on something.
Adding probiotics or "good" bacteria to food products is hot right now, although experts caution that some health claims need to be scrutinized.
Whether their fruit-flavored, full-fat ice cream concoction ever goes commercial isn't known, but it might be available this summer at Buck's Ice Cream Place, the College of Agriculture's shop.
While there are some decent low-fat and no-fat ice creams, Gruen said, they aren't preferred.
"Food is all about taste," he said. "If something doesn't taste good, people don't come back. We do a lot of sensory studies in our department."
Those trials are led by Ting-ning Lin, a doctoral candidate who got hooked more than two years ago on the idea of ice cream with a larger purpose.
Lin is aware of potential criticism, that good-for-you ice cream could promote overconsumption. The other way to look at it: If you're going to occasionally indulge, a treat might as well have healthy additions.
"Ice cream is high-fat compared with other products, so moderate eating is still very important," Lin said.
Fiber & antioxidants
The challenges of adding function to ice cream have been many. Turns out ice cream is easy to mess up. Besides taste, there's texture and even the way it behaves in your mouth.
"You want a clean melting profile," Gruen said. "It can't be sticky or gummy or gooey. On the flip side, you don't want it to be too watery, to melt too fast."
Adding dietary fiber wasn't too difficult, except to determine how much could be included without altering flavor and texture. The proper amount seemed to be equivalent to 15 percent of the recommended daily intake. Many Americans consume about half the recommended fiber in a day.
Adding antioxidants was a bit thorny. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said only Vitamins A, C and E could be called antioxidants, so the ice cream needed a fruit addition that would fit the bill. Acai, a trendy Brazilian fruit, was the choice.
"It's a little bit exotic and has given us some flavor challenges," Gruen said. "It's not a flavor people recognize -- chocolaty and woody. It's different."
What about blueberries?
"Good point," he said. "We might, in fact, switch. We're playing around with it."
Adding probiotics proved the toughest challenge. The term refers to "good" bacteria, live microorganisms that have been tested for health benefits, such as countering gastrointestinal problems, diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome.
The researchers chose Lactobacillus rhamnosus. The bacteria couldn't be grown in ice cream, but, after their inclusion, they needed to survive the hard freeze of ice cream storage. Researchers learned they could keep the bacteria alive in frigid temperatures, but then another issue arose. The bacteria like to clump together, which became a texture problem, a little bit crunchy, like biting into ice crystals.
Ice cream add-ins such as candy bar bits and cookie crumbs can have texture, but the ice cream itself must be smooth, Gruen said.
"We had to get those clumps into smaller pieces without destroying the cells," he said.
Besides probiotics, you also can add prebiotics to your diet. Prebiotics are food for the beneficial bacteria living in the colon. Gruen and Lin chose inulin; humans can't digest it, but those beneficial microorganisms love it.
Inulin is a laxative at certain levels, and a laxative is not something most people want in their ice cream. Getting the amount right was crucial.
As for the health effects of probiotics, consumers are getting bombarded with claims. Fermented foods can be good sources of live cultures -- everybody knows about yogurt.
"Our native, colonizing microbes play an important role in health," said Mary Ellen Sanders, a probiotics expert and consultant to the food industry. "Recent research has highlighted that humans have an ongoing relationship with them. They talk to us. We talk to them. They talk to each other.
"The question has been, if we add microbes to this already colonized system, can we further promote health?"
Among the reasonable conclusions from research so far: Some probiotics can decrease gastrointestinal side effects from antibiotics. Some can decrease the duration of infectious diarrhea. Some can help with irritable bowel syndrome and intestinal regularity. Some can improve the reaction of your immune system.