Researchers Study How Fat Content Affects Ice Cream Taste

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Changing just one ingredient in ice cream can change its taste, but most people wouldn’t even know it.

Penn State food scientists found that a majority of people can’t taste fat content differences in ice cream — an element most believe is key to good ice cream. Laura Rolon, lead author of the study, said the taste tests by the team revealed that perceptions of a fatty ice cream means a good ice cream isn’t necessarily valid.

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“I think the most important finding in our study was that there were no differences in consumer acceptability when changing fat content within a certain range,” Rolon said in a press release. “There is a preconception of ‘more fat is better,’ but we did not see it within our study.”

Fat contributes to texture, mouth feel, and flavor, and serves as a structural element, the study said. The study participants didn’t notice any differences, though, as long as ice cream samples were within a fat range of six to 12 percent.

If the samples were in that specific range, people were unable to notice a two percent difference in the fat levels of vanilla ice cream. However, the participants did notice a four percent difference between samples with a fat range of six to 10 percent.

None of the participants noticed a four percent difference in ice cream samples with a fat range between eight and 12 percent. Robert Roberts, a professor and head of the Food Science department at Penn, said the first question participants were asked didn’t address any changes in fat content.

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“Was there a difference in liking – that was our primary question – and could they tell the difference was our secondary question,” Roberts said.

The food scientists altered the fat contents of the samples by replacing fat with maltodextrin, an artificial sugar that is commonly found in packaged foods. The ice cream samples were stored at -18 degrees Celsius.

The samples that were a mixture of eight percent fat and six percent maltodextrin, and 10 percent fat and four percent maltodextrin, weren’t as acceptable to participants compared to fresh ice cream with the same fat content. Overall, removing fat and replacing it with the maltodextrin didn’t change consumer acceptability for either fresh or stored ice creams, the study said.

The scientists said the samples were measured by overrun, apparent viscosity, fat particle size, fat destabilization, hardness and melting rate. Roberts said premium ice cream is equivalent to high-fat ice cream, which isn’t always the case.

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Since people barely notice changes in taste based on fat content, ice cream creators are most likely allowed more creativity in creating products for customers with dietary concerns. John Coupland, a professor of Food Science, said premium ice creams are more expensive due to the price of fatty ingredients.

“Fat is always the most expensive bulk ingredient of ice cream and so when you’re talking about premium ice cream, it tends to have a higher fat content and cost more, while the less expensive economy brands tend to have lower fat content,” Coupland said.

While maltodextrin was a replacement for fat in the samples, the tasteless, starch-based additive isn’t necessarily a healthier alternative. Coupland said the study could help ice cream manufacturers understand how consumers perceive fat contents.

“We don’t want to give the impression that we were trying to create a healthier type of ice cream,” he said. “But, if you were in charge of an ice cream brand this information may help you decide if you are getting any advantage of having high fat in your product, or whether it’s worth the economic cost, or worth the brand risk to change the fat level of your ice cream.”

Tori Linville
Tori Linville is a freelance writer and editor from Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s faithfully watching her alma mater, the University of Alabama, dominate the football field.