How happy would parents be to discover that the smooth, whipped confections sold from seaside vans are not the iced dairy cream of our desire but made from frozen, whipped palm oil, artificially emulsified, preserved and flavored? Ice cream has come a long way from the original syrupy sherbets of the Middle East – especially in Britain, where the real cream element has been compromised by some clever chemical additions.
According to an article in The Telegraph, one of the first jobs undertaken by a young Margaret Thatcher in her father’s shop was to discover ways to ‘inflate’ ice cream with air and boost its value. With supermarkets forcing producers to cut their costs, some ingenious producers have added up to 250 percent air by volume to their ice creams.
In pots marked ‘ice cream’, any fat that is not dairy cream or milk can simply be marked ‘vegetable fat’. Consequently, manufacturers use cheap fats, such as highly saturated palm kernel oil. This is most commonly used in the whipped ice cream sold from vans. Ingredients must be listed in order of quantity – which can often include water. In the big world of business, each substitution of a fresh product by a cheaper one adds to the bottom line. Few ingredients are cheaper than water, added to a product already bulked up by air.
Added colorings, especially chemical reds and oranges, have been linked to hyperactivity in children. Starches may be a problem for the gluten-allergic but beetroot-based reds are fine and cane sugar is preferable to other sugars. Water and stabilizers are added to preserve it, together with emulsifiers to help ‘fix’ the fat.
Egg yolks are used in traditional mixes to emulsify. They also add texture and flavor. Despite some consumers concerns, it is almost impossible to suffer from salmonella poisoning from the egg yolks or brucellosis from the milk; all ingredients are pasteurized to kill bacteria.
Commercial ice creams contain cheaper glycerides, emulsifiers made from partially hydrogenated fat. Dairy fat is healthier. Those made with sheep, goat or buffalo milk will always be labeled as such, although can be hard to source.
If looked after properly and put away carefully and quickly after use, ice cream will keep for a long time. In the case of dairy ice cream, the fewer artificial additives there are, the shorter the freezer shelf life will be. In order to thicken the water in the milk and stop the formation of ice crystals, most manufacturers add polysaccharide stabilizers. These are the additives that make some ice creams seem chewy.
Gelatine is a more natural alternative, but because it is animal-based, makers prefer to use plant-based gums, such as guar gum, extracted from the guar bean or the more natural locust bean gum made from carob beans. Carrageenan, a red seaweed-derived thickener, is the best natural alternative.
Why buy local artisan ice cream?
All good, local, ice cream manufacturers will only use liquid milk and cream, sugars and often egg yolks. The sourcing of the ingredients will be localized so as to help protect local farmers and local jobs, and it will certainly taste much better than the mass-produced alternatives. Usually, there is little difference in price, as the artisan producers will deliver their own ice cream, avoiding distributors and wholesaler costs. Traceability is all important to today’s consumer who can see the local cows, fruit trees or plants that help produce an ice cream that’s healthier, tastier and more ethical.
Big companies use clever accountants and these bean-counters constantly look at ways to improve their bottom line through substituting natural products by cheaper chemicals. More worryingly, is the disregard towards the consumer, whose taste buds are assumed to be half dead when eating and comparing a once mighty product that has undergone a bean-counter’s ax.
Subtle changes are hard to detect but over a period of time, the consumer is no longer fooled and often turns to another brand in search of the original quality. In the meanwhile, vast profits have been accumulated, sales have soared and the bean-counter is made CEO. Nevertheless, the seeds are then sown for the gradual erosion of the perception of that particular brand in the eyes of its followers.
The Secret of Survival
What should a thrusting, the upwardly mobile company do? The answer is stick to its guns. Do not sell one’s soul to the supermarkets and refuse to discount one’s product to garner ever greater sales. Many a company has lost its crown in the name of the volume and some searching on the part of the consumer for a quality product is no bad war between Tyrrell’s Crisps and Tesco and the forcing of the giant supermarket to remove bags purchased on the gray market from its shelves was a case in point. The loss of profits by refusing to sell to a supermarket was far outweighed by the free publicity gained.
So keep true to the philosophy of quality over quantity, keep to quality ice cream recipes and one cannot go wrong; the slippery road down to palm oil is a dangerous game and not one that is likely to lick the opposition in the war of the ice creams. Now the secrets of the multi-nationals are out, would any of us touch a seaside van or would we search for a local supplier of the ‘real thing’? The choice is yours.