Healthy, "functional" ice cream in the works

A healthy ice cream that delivers nutritional benefits in addition to instant gratification could be hitting the freezer aisles soon.

After years of development, a US scientist says he's putting the finishing touches on a "functional ice cream" that has added fiber, probiotic bacteria and antioxidants.

Though lighter, fat-free versions of ice cream and frozen yogurt currently exist, food chemist Ingolf Gruen from the University of Missouri has taken a different approach to creating a healthy frozen dessert: instead of taking the fat and sugar content out - two of the things that make ice cream so decadent - Gruen is adding nutrients and antioxidants in.

But developing an ice cream that retains its sensory characteristics - melting point, richness and texture - was a challenge for Gruen's team, he told industry site this week.

The addition of fiber and probiotics gave researchers textural problems like clumping and crunchiness, and the probiotics added an unappetizing, slightly acidic flavor.

Getting the right amount of pre- and probiotics is vital, he added, as inulin, which is used to stimulate the growth of beneficial intestinal microbes, can also be a laxative.

Some research has shown that probiotics can be good for gastrointestinal problems, including diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome.

For antioxidants, scientists used acai purée.

Despite the textural challenges, ice cream is a good "carrier" because of its low storage temperature,  ability to stabilize ingredients, and popularity among consumers.

"We have been working on a 'probiotic processed cheese' product and have not been very successful," he said.

Though some brands like Nestlé's Skinny Cow sell low-fat ice creams with added fiber, Gruen claims theirs is the first to boast antioxidants and probiotics as well.

A 157 ml container of Skinny Cow's Chocolate Fudge Brownie clocks in at 170 calories, 2 g of fat and 4 g of fiber.

Dairy-free, vegan alternatives include Tofutti ice cream, a soy-based dessert, and coconut-based ice creams such as those by Coconut Bliss.