Ice cream is one of the greatest of all foodstuffs. Ever since a Roman emperor reportedly had servants bring snow from the Alps to Rome by foot to make his sorbet, humans have been enjoying this tasty treat — but it does have one obvious drawback. It melts. And the tantrums that ensue when a cone slips onto the floor on a hot day are nothing compared to the losses of the ice cream industry in sultry weather. Fortunately, though, pioneering chemists are devoting themselves to this culinary crime, and are formulating ways to make ice cream that doesn't melt — or at least keeps its shape for a longer period.
The American Chemical Society has revealed at a press conference that it's developing a novel approach when it comes to fixing the dessert disaster. Scientists have been formulating ice cream that uses cellulose extracted from the stems of banana plants, which are normally thrown away. Normally the only bits of banana plant that humans use are, well, the bananas — but the chemists have isolated a kind of cellulose fiber from the stems of the plant, called rachis. The fibers, in case you're wondering if the resulting ice cream would look like a hedgehog, are incredibly tiny, far smaller than a human hair, and have been widely used in a bunch of other contexts for hundreds of years. They're also pretty harmless to ingest.
The ground-up fibers were put in ice cream in varying concentrations, but always in very small proportions that didn't affect the flavor: the most the scientists put in was .3 of a gram per 100 grams of ice cream. And the results were seriously promising. The banana-fiber ice creams melted far more slowly than traditional ones, were more resistant to temperature fluctuations, and made them feel creamier in the mouth. And there wasn't a noticeable banana flavor, or in fact any apparent impact on the flavor profile at all.
Environmental food groups are pretty excited. The idea is sustainable, because the plants would otherwise just be thrown out, and would be massively helpful for human energy consumption, because right now transporting and storing ice cream takes up a lot of cooling energy. Fridges burn into energy bills.
The researchers are now aiming big, hoping to replace the fats traditionally used in ice cream — mostly dairy fats — with their banana option. Replacing dairy in ice cream is actually a new food trend worldwide; veganism and the environmental cost of poorly managed dairy farming are both contributing to the idea. Vegan ice creams commonly use soy and nut-based products, though coconut milk is also proving to be pretty popular; the American Chemical Society scientists name-check it as a potential combination with banana plant fibers for a creamy, long-lasting non-dairy ice cream. Gelato, which has far lower dairy content than ice cream, may also benefit from a bit of stabilizing fiber; it's made with milk rather than cream and has a swift melting point, and cellulose could make it sturdier.
The scientists note that theirs isn't the only current option being investigated for unmeltable ice cream. In 2017, Japanese scientists made a huge splash by announcing that they'd invented non-melting ice cream by accident. An experiment in trying to invent a new strawberry dessert had instead yielded strawberry-extracted polyphenol liquid that made ice cream highly heat-resistant. Fascinated reporters left the resulting ice cream out in room temperature for three hours and discovered it had barely melted at all and still tasted cold.
However, strawberries are expensive out of season and would have to be custom-grown, so strawberry-based ice cream may not be as cost-effective or sustainable as the banana plant version. It's a race to make the tastiest long-lasting cold treat. Whoever wins the competition to make ice cream longer-lasting in summer heat, though, we all know who the real winners are: our tummies. Bring on ice cream that won't melt all over our hands on a sweltering afternoon.