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Healthy ice cream

Why not? Pumping up the nutrition of ice cream might be easier than cutting consumption

Ingolf Gruen

Food researcher Ingolf Gruen and graduate student Ting-Ning Lin think adding fiber, probiotic bacteria and cancer-fighting antioxidants to creamy concoctions makes sense.

When most ice cream makers dream up new flavors of America’s favorite frozen treat, they usually look to over-the-top additions such as chocolate chunks, exotic fruits and luscious bits of cookies and candy. Ingolf Gruen is taking a different approach.

The MU food chemist is adding fiber, probiotic bacteria and cancer-fighting antioxidants to a new generation of creamy concoctions. Gruen and his fellow researchers are trying to change ice cream’s well-deserved reputation as a high-fat, calorie-loaded, artery-clogging food time bomb. If they have their way, ice cream will become a new health food.

But using ice cream as a base for creating healthier foods seems counterintuitive. Why not start with a food that already is a nutritional powerhouse, like broccoli? “The problem with using healthy foods is that people don’t really like them,” Gruen says. “We believe it is smart to use foods that everybody likes.” What’s not to like about ice cream? Although it’s high in fat — particularly saturated fat — ice cream does have some healthy aspects. “Dairy proteins are good proteins, no doubt about it,” Gruen says. And ice cream has a low glycemic index, which is a measure of how quickly your blood sugar goes up when you eat it. In addition, ice cream has high levels of calcium, phosphorus, potassium, pantothenic acid and vitamins B2 and B12. “And just think of how blissful your mental health is when you eat ice cream,” Gruen says. He and his colleagues aim to take a good thing and make it even better.

Gruen and his team are among a growing number of Mizzou researchers who are taking new approaches to creating healthier foods. Azlin Mustapha, associate professor of food microbiology, is studying the health benefits of adding beneficial bacteria to foods. Called “probiotics,” these bacteria are thought to improve the immune system, help prevent some cancers, and lower cholesterol and blood pressure. But, Mustapha says, when weighing the benefits of medicinal food, it’s important to know the difference between health and hype. She says advertisers sometimes make claims about probiotics without scientific research. For instance, “Bifidus regularis [found in Activia yogurt] isn’t a scientific name for any bacteria. It’s a marketing term,” Mustapha says. Because the Food and Drug Administration considers probiotics a food-grade organism, there are no specific requirements for food companies in their use of the bacteria, other than following good manufacturing practices. But consumers should know that each probiotic strain has its own effect on health, and the touted benefits of one are not representative of all, Mustapha says.

Decades behind Europe and Asia, the United States only recently joined the probiotics movement. While marketers are busy developing slogans that sound good to consumers, scientists are just beginning to uncover proven benefits from probiotics. Researchers have concrete evidence that these bacteria bolster the immune system, Mustapha says. Studies also suggest that probiotics help lactose-intolerant individuals digest milk, as particular strains contain the enzymes that break down dairy products. Some tests even show that probiotics can shrink the size of colon cancer tumors.

Mustapha says the greatest potential for probiotics rests in preventive health benefits. “We’re hoping that research will continue to show that if people get a regular supply of probiotics in their food, they won’t have to take so many prescription drugs later in life.”

Back on Mizzou’s ice cream front, Gruen and his team are adding a probiotic strain called Lactobacillus rhamnosis to their laboratory samples. They’re also adding a “prebiotic” substance called inulin, which is intended to stimulate the growth of beneficial intestinal microbes. Getting just the right amount of inulin is vital. The substance, taken from chicory roots or artichokes, is also a laxative, Gruen says. “If you use too much, you will be eating your ice cream in the bathroom.” There are some other challenges to fiddling around with traditional frozen treats, Gruen says. “We do not want to make an ice cream that now nobody likes.”

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