Whatever Happened to Ice Cream?

Ice cream

Here’s your ice cream. Stop with the screaming already.

In my last post, “Budget the Luxuries First,” I finished off by saying that a good rule for a happy home is to own an ice cream maker. I have since come to learn it’s more than a good idea, it’s an absolute necessity, since apparently commercial ice cream no longer exists.

My good friend Mordechai Luchins (author of the “On the Cheap” column at Techcitement) posted a note on Facebook in response to my post here, in which he described his grandfather’s love of ice cream and the family traditions involving it, and pointed out that his family’s favorite ice cream no longer exists except in name. Breyers All Natural Ice Cream was once a product and company that prided itself on using only four ingredients in its vanilla (milk, cream, sugar, vanilla); today it’s a subsidiary of Unilever, a conglomerate that also makes soap and margarine, and several of their formerly all-natural ice cream flavors now have so many non-dairy ingredients (including tara gum and something called “natural flavor” where vanilla used to be) that they are no longer legally allowed to be labeled as ice cream; they’re now “Frozen Dairy Desserts.”

It’s worth noting that if you go to the Unilver website, the first thing you will see, front and center, is the latest data on their stock price. Their products are only incidental to their main business, which is selling stock to Wall Street traders.

Brace yourself: Unilever also owns Ben & Jerry’s, so if you were holding on to them as your backup plan, you might want to shop around a bit more.

I stopped to pick up some ice cream the other night; I usually go to Vons, but their freezer was broken and all the ice cream gone, so I popped over to Ralph’s, since their private label ice cream was all natural the last time I bought it. No more. (For those of you in other areas, Vons is the west coast version of Safeway/Randalls/Tom Thumb/Genuardi/Carrs,  and Ralph’s is Kroger/Foods Co./Baker’s/Dillons/Fred Meyer/City Market/Food4Less/Gerbes/Owen’s/QFC/JayC/King Soopers/etc.) The Ralph’s “Private Selection” brand ice cream ingredient lists reads like a kid’s chemistry set; I ended up settling for Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, which is technically “natural” though it does contain a lot of dubious stuff like carageenan; at least it didn’t have any “cellulose gel;” what the heck is that?

As it turns out, cellulose gel is actually microcrystalline cellulose, invented by FMC BioPolymer and marketed under the brand name Avicel. They describe it as “derived from naturally occurring cellulose similar to that found in fruits and vegetables.” A little research will reveal that cellulose, while a natural part of plants, is not digestible by humans; it falls in the category of “dietary fiber.” It ends up in ice cream because in its gel state it behaves a lot like egg white or other emulsifiers; it keeps ingredients from separating, acts as a foaming agent to keep things fluffy, and just generally adds thickness. They use cellulose gel (and cellulose gum, which is the same thing in a little thicker consistency) because it’s a lot cheaper than egg whites or other food substances. You see, although cellulose gel can be made from fruits and vegetables, it’s cheaper to make it from things that are “similar to fruits and vegetables.” Those things would be cotton and wood. Yup, you’re eating a mint chip and knotty pine sundae.

And we haven’t even gotten to the polysorbate and maltodextrin and diglycerides and all the rest of it, not to mention that the sugar has been replaced with high fructose corn syrup.

To cut to the chase: there are still a few all natural real ice creams out there, but they are usually expensive and seem to be regional, so I can’t give you a recommendation; I hear Blue Bunny is good, but they don’t have it in Southern California, and I’m sure if I listed some of our varieties I’d hear from people who say they can’t get that where they are. So you just have to shop. Or buy an ice cream maker. Cuisinart makes one. So does Hamilton Beach. And Sunbeam makes one. Kitchenaid has an ice cream maker attachment for their standard mixer, so if you have one of those bad boys, you can really go to town.

(And yes, those links will generate a little commission for us if you buy one of these fine products from Amazon. Crass commercialism for the win.)

If you want to go low-tech, you can make your own ice cream maker out of two coffee cans, but you need a couple of kids to make it work. Here’s what you do: Find a big 3-pound coffee can and a smaller 1 pound coffee can, both empty, both with lids. Pour your favorite ice cream ingredients into the small can. Seal it and set it inside the big can. Fill the space between the two cans with layers of crushed ice and rock salt (about 2″ of ice covered with about 3 tablespoons of salt, repeat until can is full) and put the lid on. Lie the can on its side in the back yard, park a kid on either side about four feet apart. Tell them to roll the can back and forth; see who can roll it fastest or furthest, but keep it moving for about 20-30 minutes. Voila! Ice cream!




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  1. A quick check of the Blue Bunny website store locator shows that, in my area, it’s sold at Albertson’s & WalMart.
    But I do have an ice cream maker, and right now, I even have the ingredients to make some!

    • Marlene on October 31, 2012 at 1:23 am
    • Reply

    Or go for a walk. Kick the can around the block and come home having earned your sweet treat.

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