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What’s Going On With Ice Cream?

Not only is it now available in once unimaginable flavors, like salted caramel and prosciutto, but scientists also are trying to make it good for you.

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Our relationship with ice cream is getting complicated. Photo courtesy of Flickr user wautierp

This weekend Men in Black 3 opens just about anywhere there’s a screen, but I’ll bet you didn’t know that not one, not two, but three ice cream treats have been chosen to mark the occasion.

Since the beginning of the month, in fact, Baskin-Robbins has, in recognition of this cinema event, been serving up something called “Pink Surprise Cake,” supposedly inspired by a scene in the movie, along with two sundaes, “Lunar Lander” and “Agent 31.” Both are built on scoops of “lunar cheesecake” ice cream–a flavor last sold when NASA first landed men on the moon. Since that’s not happening again any time soon, they must have figured it’s okay to bring it back for a movie about aliens coming to Earth.

Then, just the other day, came word that Carl’s Jr., a fast food chain in the western U.S., has started selling something called a Brrrger. It looks like a burger, with a thick brown slab between what appear to be buns, and ketchup and mustard seemingly running down the side, next to overhanging lettuce. But it’s actually a less-than-savory-looking ice cream sandwich, a chunk of chocolate ice cream between two cookies and dressed up with icing to create the effect of dripping condiments.

And I have to ask: What is going on with ice cream? Has it been reduced to a simple marketing prop or worse, a burger wannabe? How, after so many billion delectable licks, has it come to this?

But there’s hope. Some impressively innovative and, in some cases, truly bizarre things are happening to our cold and creamy chum.

Bacon strikes again

Let’s start with flavors. Full disclosure: I am not an adventurous eater of ice cream because I’ve never considered ice cream eating an adventure. So I’m among the 70 percent of people who prefer vanilla, chocolate or strawberry. But if you’re in the ice cream business, it’s the other flavors that bring people through the door.

Premium ice cream brands like Ben and Jerry’s moved us into uncharted taste territory long ago, but we’ve sailed way beyond Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia. Even flavors that once felt so exotic–ginger, hazelnut, mango, kiwi–now just seem like feisty vanilla. These days almost any food imaginable–and some you wouldn’t want to imagine–can make its way into a frozen dessert. In the past year Baskin-Robbins has come out with French Toast and Creole Cream Cheese, Cold Stone Creamery with something called Strawberry Basil–which includes the herb–and another named Mojito Sorbet. (It’s mint and lime, minus the booze.)

Not long ago Travel and Leisure provided a glimpse of how bizarre all this has become with a rundown of the “world’s strangest ice cream.” Among the more deviant flavors: Tuna, roses, wheat beer, pineapple shrimp, and haggis. That’s right, the infamous Scottish dish of sheep innards.

Some researchers have started experimenting with dual flavors, with one having a delayed release. But probably the hottest trend in the ice cream biz is to mix sweet and salty. At last year’s Ice Cream Technology Conference (Who knew?), “salted caramel chocolate pretzel” was named the most innovative flavor of the year. And now you’re seeing salty, creamy concoctions popping up everywhere from cinnamon sugar popcorn flavor to salted caramel and beer flavor to–Are you ready for ice cream breakfast?–the “Maple Bacon Waffle Frozen Custard Sandwich,” created in Dallas.

Try a little healthiness

At the same time there’s a big push to turn ice cream into food that’s actually healthy. While many, myself included, might ask, “Is this really necessary,?” scientists have been focusing not only on making it lower in fat, but also rich in fiber, antioxidants, and probiotics–the kind of beneficial bacteria found in yogurt.

Other researchers are looking to develop a line of vegetable extract blends that can be added to ice cream to give it a boost of beta-carotene from carrots or pumpkins or sweet potatoes.

Still, introducing healthiness to ice cream is a tricky thing. One of the lead researchers in the field, University of Missouri food chemist Ingolf Gruen, says that once the fiber content in experimental ice cream reaches 20 percent of the ingredients, people don’t like it.

Another top ice cream scientist, Douglas Goff, of the University of Guelph in Ontario, puts it this way: “Honestly, at the end of the day, people eat ice cream for pleasure and enjoyment. With some exceptions, I don’t think they think very much about the nutritional context of it.”

Quick licks

Here’s recent news from the cold front:

  • Hey, I only eat a pint a night: A recent study at the Oregon Research Institute found that people who regularly eat ice cream develop a craving that’s not unlike a drug addiction. The research, which involved 151 teenagers, concluded that when ice cream was eaten to excess, the chemicals in the food tampered with the brain’s reward response, reducing the ‘feel good’ boost and making them want more.
  • Now you can slurp lite: Okay, it’s not ice cream, but the Slurpee is an icy icon, and this week, for the first time, 7-Eleven began offering a sugar-free version of the slushy drink. Right now, three low-cal flavors are available–mango, strawberry banana and cherry limeade–with more on the way.
  • Don’t even think about it: Yes, it’s true. There actually is a security ring that you can attach to the top of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to keep roommates and family members from tapping into your frozen stash.
  • Some like it dots: Looks like Dippin’ Dots, those little beads of ice cream, will not be going away after all. The company that makes them declared bankruptcy last year, but it was purchased by a group of Oklahoma City investors who say they’ll expand the business.
  • Don’t let it go to your head; A new study may have nailed the cause of brain freeze. Researchers discovered that when subjects sipped ice water through a straw and aimed it at the roof of their mouths, their anterior cerebral arteries widened just before they got a headache and then contracted as the pain faded. The finding could help in treating people who get migraines. Is there anything ice cream can’t do?

Video bonus: I’ll go out on the limb and say that you don’t often have a hankering for a big bowl of pork and ice cream. But a lot of people swear by the prosciutto flavor at the Humphry Slocombe ice cream shop in San Francisco. Watch a batch being made.

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