Not all ice cream is created equal. Aside from the ice cream's flavor and a myriad of mix ins from peanut butter cups to cookie dough, there is one ingredient that you will find in every tub of ice cream - air. There are legitimate reasons for manufacturers to pump air into ice cream. For instance, it gives it a lighter texture. But, the problem is, you’ll never see a label that tells you exactly how much air you’re paying for. With some brands, you might be surprised how little ice cream you are actually getting.
Air dilutes ice cream in the same way water dilutes fruit concentrates and to put it mildly, the amount of air in a scoop of ice cream can vary by wild margins. In the United States, there are guidelines that limit the maximum amount of air a manufacturer can pump into tub of vanilla - it can’t be more than half by volume. Think of it like humidity, where 100% humidity is the maximum amount of moisture you can have in the air. With ice cream, 100% aeration translates into 50% of the volume. Since ice cream is sold by volume and not by weight, you can see the problem with comparing cost per liter.
So how much difference can it make? Well, premium ice cream, like Ben and Jerry’s, contains only 12% air by volume. It’s one of the reasons it comes with a super premium price. With some brands like Breyers Natural Vanilla, the same quart of Ice Cream can be half air - half ice cream. If you put them on a scale, the air diluted ice cream would weigh 38% less. With Breyers, you could be paying for a lot of cold air - pun intended. Give it a try, grab 3 pints of Ben & Jerry's and a 1.5 L (3.33 pints) "Half Gallon" of Breyers. Even with the missing 1/3rd of a pint, you'll be shocked how much heavier the Ben & Jerry's weighs.
Every scoop of ice cream has to have a little air in it; otherwise it would be hard as ice. But when it has too much air in it, you don’t have to be conspiratorial to figure out that the manufacturer is trying to pull a fast one on consumers and you don’t have to be chemist to figure out if you’re being taken. When you dig in your spoon; if you don’t get a little resistance, you know it’s pumped with air. We've talked about shrinking ice cream before, but if you factor in pumping in more air on top of smaller packages, the numbers can get truly startling. A half gallon package reduced to 1.5 liters with air content increased from 25% to 50% would yield a stunning 50% decrease in the actual ice cream that is being sold.
For you history buffs who believe that the aeration of ice cream is a right-wing capitalist conspiracy, you might be onto something. It was chemical research team in Britain which included Baroness Margaret Thatcher that discovered the method for doubling the amount of air in ice cream. And the rest is history. The method was quickly adopted by manufacturers who wanted to reduce cost by using less actual ingredients.
It’s hard to judge the quality of the ingredients. When it comes to taste buds - to each his own. But there is one thing you might want to notice on the labeling. It makes a big difference whether you’re buying vanilla flavored ice cream versus ice cream that is actually made with real vanilla. Just watch out for the key word ‘flavored’ to get an idea of the quality of ingredients they mix in. Also, another golden rule of ice cream: If you find it hard to pronounce the ingredients, don't buy the ice cream.
I may be biased, but if I am going to risk adding to my waistline, I'll go for the good stuff in the small packages. I'll take Ben & Jerry's with less air and more butterfat. I'd rather eat it a little less often and enjoy it that much more. And heck, they seem to be the only company that isn't shrinking their packages or pumping more air to increase their profits.
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