Everything Is Better With Ice Cream And Science
March 26, 2012

Everything Is Better With Ice Cream And Science

Nestle takes advantage of technology used to study avalanches to improve their ice cream

Ice cream creators have plenty of varying factors to consider when they concoct their frozen treats. The dairy desserts are incredible susceptible to temperature, not only during the creation stage, but also as its being transported, stored, and even eaten. They only have full control over temperature in their factories.

Once a carton of ice cream leaves the factory at ideal, frosty temperatures, a myriad of possible situations arise. The air conditioning on the delivery trucks could malfunction, storage environments may not be ideal, grocers may not stock the ice cream in the recommended way. These variables cause ice cream makers to become very nervous because once the ice cream reaches a certain temperature threshold, it changes texture on a microscopic level. Ice crystals begin to melt and take on a different shape. If these ice crystals freeze again after melting, they can cause a very different taste and mouthfeel than the creators originally intended.

In an effort to study these tasty crystals at a micro-level, one ice cream maker is looking to avalanche research.

Nestle is working in tandem with scientists at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland. The team is making use of an x-ray machine that is typically used to study the way avalanches form by looking at ice crystal formations. This x-ray tomography machine can take images of very tiny structures at sub-zero temperatures. This gives ice cream makers at Nestle a view of their product that they´ve yet to see.

“Previously, we could not look inside ice cream without destroying the sample in the process,” said Nestle food scientist Dr. Cedric Dubois.

“This method is non-invasive and does not disturb the product.”

By looking at how the ice cream forms on such a molecular level, the researchers at Nestle hope to create a product that can withstand temperature changes better than their current product.

“We already know the growth of ice crystals in ice cream is triggered by a number of different factors,” added Dr Dubois. “If we can identify the main mechanism, we can find better ways to slow it down.”

Dr. Hans Jörg Limbach, a scientist at the Nestle Research Center in Switzerland said in a recent press release: “Ice cream is an inherently unstable substance.”

“As part of its natural aging process, the ice will separate from the original ingredients such as cream and sugar. “When you store ice cream in the freezer at home for a prolonged period, you will eventually see ice crystals begin to form in the product. This is water from the ice cream itself,” he added.

Nestle beleives that ice cream lovers often judge the overall taste of the dairy treat based on appearance and texture. Both of these qualities are adversely affected when the structural ice crystals melt prematurely.

“We know temperature variations are not good for ice cream quality,” Dr Limbach continued. “These variations can occur at different stages of the product´s transportation and storage.

“It fluctuates by a couple of degrees in either direction, which causes parts of the ice cream to melt and then freeze again. The ice cream can sometimes become chewy due to loss of water or air, or icier and harder to scoop.”

The scientists conducting this study have published their findings online in the journal Soft Matter. According to the press release, a follow up study is underway to give scientists the ability to examine higher resolutions of microscopic ice cream particles.