In what might seem to defy the laws of comfort foods, researchers are setting out to concoct a healthy, yes healthy, ice cream.
If the food scientists are successful, ice cream would become another so-called functional food, alongside whole oat products and foods made with soy protein, which have scientifically established health benefits beyond basic nutrition. (The United States doesn't currently have a formal definition for functional foods.)
In addition to ice-cream's fat- and calorie-filled ingredients, the researchers hope to add dietary fiber, antioxidants and probiotics (gut bacteria that support a healthy digestive system) to your delectable dessert. Antioxidants could protect cells from damage caused by molecules called free radicals and are suspected of helping to prevent a slew of diseases.
The scientists expect to have a prototype, meaning a product ready for tasting but not yet ready for market, within six months and a marketable product in perhaps two years.
If and when it does hit store shelves, the researchers don't advocate replacing your fruits and veggies with the functional ice cream.
"The intent is that instead of feeling guilty because you are eating this ice cream, which has received a bad rap because it is so high-fat, to really say that 'Yeah I treated myself to a full-fat ice cream, but I did contribute to my nutritional needs in regard to my gut health, my antioxidant needs and my dietary fiber,'" said ice-cream researcher Ingolf Gruen, a professor of food chemistry at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Gruen and his colleagues chose the added ingredients because they have been shown to contribute to a person's health and also because they are familiar to consumers.
Gruen said people buy a food for two reasons: either because they really enjoy the food or because it's good for them. If the researchers were to add foreign, albeit beneficial, ingredients, consumers might pass right by the treat. "We're trying to hit the big three, so to speak, of what consumers know about," Gruen told LiveScience.
The researchers foresee a healthy ice cream that tastes good but likely wouldn't be the ultra-delicious stuff that makes you gain weight just thinking about it.
They also foresee consumers saying, "Oh it's not as good as the full-fat heavy ice cream, but because it is good for me, and it still tastes good, I will purchase it," Gruen said.
Challenges abound, however.
"Our major challenges are texture, flavor and psychological acceptance," Gruen said. "The nutrients we add often have bitter tastes and affect the texture of ice cream that we have to mask."
He added, "Flavors like chocolate are easier to work with because the flavor is so strong that it can overcome other flavors from the nutrients."
For instance, they could just add a dash of dietary fiber to avoid too gritty a texture, but Gruen said that's not the point.
"We want to make sure if you consume it there is a significant contribution to health benefits from these ingredients," Gruen said. He said the final product could contain between 10 and 15 percent of your daily fiber requirements.
To inject the ice cream with antioxidants, the team is trying out different amounts of the açai berry. The berry has an unpleasant flavor, Gruen noted, so the researchers are figuring out how to balance a good antioxidant punch with the least açai flavor.