Food Additives and the Ice Cream Sandwich That Won’t Melt: Should They Worry Us?

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 4.04.33 PMA barrage of articles and news reels have been abuzz with the story of a mom in Cincinnati and her accidental non-melting ice cream sandwich experiment.

“I noticed that my son had left his ice cream sandwich outside,” she said, “and I was wondering ‘Why is there still ice cream in there?'”

She thought that perhaps the sandwich not melting was a fluke, so she left another ice cream sandwich outside overnight to see if she would find similar results. Turns out, she did.

“Monday I came out and looked at it,” she said, “and there was still ice cream there. So I thought to myself: What am I feeding to my children?”

The news story went viral and soon, hundreds of articles filled the web and a few radio shows even conducted the same experiment on-air. The story was shared on my Facebook feed more times than I could remember, and I was tagged on several of the posts, as many friends know of my recent addiction to eating “real food.” Many thought I would be horrified, and while it was a little creepy to think of non-melting ice cream, I was more intrigued to find out the reasons behind this strange phenomenon. In the past year, I’ve routinely tried to take the stance of doing my own research first before jumping to conclusions, as the health food world can be quite ridden with a heady dose of fear-mongering.

It turns out that there is a scientific explanation to why the ice cream sandwiches from Walmart melted a heck of a lot slower than other, more “high quality” brands like Häagen-Dazs and Klondike. A representative from Walmart stated that their Great Value sandwiches don’t melt because they have a higher cream content. “Ice cream melts based on the ingredients including cream. Ice cream with more cream will generally melt at a slower rate, which is the case with our Great Value ice cream sandwiches.” Turns out this isn’t entirely accurate, as generally ice cream with more fat from cream will melt quicker, and ice cream with more water in it will melt slower. Sean O-Keefe, a professor and food chemist at Virginia Tech, explained back in 2009 that lower fat content in ice cream takes longer to melt than fatty ice cream because it has more water in it.

“More water means the ice cream will have to absorb more energy before it can melt.”

Giving Walmart the benefit of the doubt, I’d say their spokesperson suffers more from a failure to understand food science than deceptive spin tactics, but after some research in this vast world of ice cream science, it appears that the real reason the Walmart ice cream sandwiches don’t really melt is because of a couple of stabilizers, including guar gum and cellulose gum. In my quest to eat “real food” over the past year, I’ve certainly done my best to try and stay away from foods with additives at all, but as a family of five in today’s food world, it’s near impossible. Between outside food exposure at birthday parties and play dates and the sheer cost of buying really high quality “natural foods,” it can become quite challenging to avoid any sort of additive on a consistent basis. So I’ve taken the part of rabid researcher to educate myself on knowing the difference between the really scary stuff and the additives that are, it turns out, rather benign. This approach of picking my battles over the last year has helped me stay sane and not go broke.

Turns out that the addition of guar gum and cellulose gum in the Walmart ice cream sandwiches act as stabilizers that prevent ice crystals, give the “ice cream” that light and fluffy texture, and (as a sort of weird added benefit) prevent them from melting. Guar gum and cellulose gum are actually plant-based food additives, which are in essence declared food-grade safe by both the EU and FDA. After extensive research, both in animal testing and human testing, the additives have no proven ill effect other than abdominal gas in people with sensitive stomachs and those suffering from IBS. Fair enough.

Where it becomes a gray area for a real food advocate like myself is in the processing of these additives. Both go through a chemical process to take the form of “gum,” and I sort of just hold the theory that more chemicals, more problems. What’s more concerning for an eater like myself is the addition of corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, and palm oil in the ice cream sandwiches’ ingredient list. Palm oil, unless noted to be “fair trade certified,” is a rather unsustainable and ecologically damaging industry. And corn syrup is the result of intense chemical processing, as it’s cooked up in a lab, and over-consumption of the stuff leads to fatty liver, the most common non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in America today.

So while the cellulose and guar gum additives alone are not enough to declare these ice cream sandwiches toxic and harmful substances to be outlawed, the combination of all the cheap and highly processed ingredients make them a treat I wouldn’t personally buy for our home. However, if my kids ate one at a party, I certainly wouldn’t freak out. With that being said though, the amount of processed additives my kids are exposed to on a regular basis is quite low, so the occasional chemical- or even plant-based additive is likely to have an ill effect on their bodies.

But what about the kids who are consuming foods with tons of added sugars and low-cost, overly processed additives on a regular basis? Doesn’t it all add up to be just too much? Probably so, when you consider that a study released back in 2010 found that kids were getting almost half of their daily calories from junk food and that obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the last 30 years.

While science can explain away why ice cream sandwiches don’t melt, McDonald’s hamburgers don’t grow mold, and dispel the urban myth that Coca Cola rots teeth overnight, common sense should tell us that too much of anything is usually never a good thing, especially when it comes to junk food. So if your family is eating the occasional Walmart Great Value non-melting ice cream sandwich while also eating homemade, healthy meals 80 percent of the time, you probably don’t have much cause for concern. But if you check the labels of items in your pantry and come to find that most of the foods contain added, artificial sugars and weird preservatives, it may be time to ditch the Great Value for some peace of mind.

Photo credit: Walmart.com

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