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Healthy Ice Cream?

Could eating ice cream make you healthier? If so, it might also make someone rich.

There is growing interest in adding nutriceuticals — foods with medicinal properties — to ice cream.

Getting them into ice cream is relatively easy, researchers say. The trick is to do it in such a way that the finished product still tastes like ice cream — and not like fish, as has happened in some early experiments.

"There are a lot of people who don't want us to screw up their ice cream," said Bob Roberts, associate professor of food science at Penn State University. These are the same people who say, "I eat it because it tastes good, I don't eat it because it's good for me," he said.

Roberts and Eric Decker, professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, are working on ways to add Omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce levels of blood fats linked with cardiovascular disease, to ice cream.

The research is part of a broader trend toward developing "functional foods," everyday items that are fortified with extra nutrients. Some chicken farmers already are producing eggs fortified with Omega-3 fatty acids. Other examples include calcium-fortified orange juice and margarines with cholesterol-lowering compounds.

Rather than trying to persuade people to eat things they might not like, Roberts, Decker and a team of scientists from Penn State, UMass and the University of Connecticut are looking for ways to add Omega-3s to a wide range of foods in addition to ice cream, from orange juice to salad dressing to processed meats. Researchers at Harvard University will evaluate the health benefits of whatever products the scientists develop.

"Our ultimate goal is just to provide more types of foods that you can get your Omega-3s from, and foods where you can't tell the difference," Decker said.

But Omega-3 fatty acids, which most people get from eating fish, can have an unpleasant effect on ice cream. When Omega-3 fatty acids decompose, they develop a fishy smell and taste — not exactly what most American ice cream customers are looking for (although, Roberts notes, fish-flavored ice creams are popular in some countries).

Roberts also is looking at ways to add probiotic microbes, similar to the bacteria found in yogurt, to ice cream. Depending on the species, such microbes could aid in digestion, boost the immune system or even fight harmful bacteria, such as E. coli.

Although the research is still preliminary, there is good news.

Decker said a trial at UMass produced an Omega-3-fortified yogurt that tasted like regular yogurt. And David Smith, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said research at his university found that replacing corn syrup with a sugar more likely to promote some probiotic microbes did produce some off flavors, but also produced a creamier product with less ice crystallization.

If researchers can find ways to infuse ice cream with nutriceuticals, the industry will take notice.

"I think it's something that has drawn our interest," said Dave Smetter, spokesman for Iowa-based ice cream maker Wells' Dairy Inc. "But we're still waiting for more science to provide more details on how these products can be added into the ice cream products. And we'll need to look at more consumer research on whether this is what consumers want."

To be successful, Smith said, researchers also will have to find a way to keep the cost of such products down. "If I can get a pail of ice cream for six bucks or a pint of this stuff for nine, I might as well buy three pints of Haagen-Dazs," he said.

But Decker said he hopes the technology for fortifying ice cream with Omega-3 fatty acids would cost manufacturers just pennies per serving.

Most research on functional foods aim for products that people will eat every day. Roberts and Decker acknowledge that ice cream doesn't fit into that category, but they say that it's something almost everyone likes, which would make it a good vehicle for delivering nutrients.

Roberts, who also runs Penn State's Ice Cream Short Course, an international training ground for those in the frozen confection industry, said no matter what gets added to ice cream, it should never be taken too seriously.

"I never want to take the fun out of ice cream," he said. "But if you can have your cake and eat it too — or have your ice cream and eat it too — I think that that's a potential advantage."