For the pint-sized inquisitive mind, a trip to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral can be the highlight of an educational away-day. Filled with astrophysical oddities and actual rocket scientists, it’s enough to instill wonder and inspire innovation in minds young and not-so-young alike. When one of our researchers visited the center recently, their youngest astronaut-in-the-making was overawed by one of the simplest demonstrations there. Was it a tour of the launch pad or a stroll around the rocket park? No, the source of the excitement seemed a little more mundane: ice cream. Freeze-dried space ice cream, to be precise. It’s so futuristic, so ‘out of this world.’ And it is so fun to imagine astronauts on the International Space Station devouring their fast melting frozen treat while orbiting the Earth at 5 miles per second.
But, it is a gastronomic reality and apparently quite the favorite with those aboard. Which started us thinking about ice-cream’s appeal. From Indonesia’s Jackfruit Es Puter (a coconut milk-based confection) to Japan’s Azuki Bean scoops to Syria’s Booza (a elastic and melt-resistant dessert that incorporates mastic, the resin of a tree), frozen milk concoctions are universally beloved. But what’s the secret? Is it purely the comforting sweetness? Maybe the deliciousness of the freeze? Is it the iconography of a generous scoop atop a waffle cone confirming the arrival of summer? Or perhaps it’s the ephemeral decadence of a treat that, left to its own devices, will quickly shape shift, leaving a slow consumer in a sticky little puddle. Whatever the psychology behind our love of ice-cream, the fact remains that it’s one of the most universally popular desserts known.
Even when you really want to savor the indulgence, you inevitably become embroiled in a race to the finish, chasing the melting rivulets as they race down the cone to drip onto the ground. While we are aware that, on the scale of it, this is definitely a first world problem, we are nonetheless thrilled to reveal that there may now be a solution. Let’s look east for a potential solution to this vexing subject and examine new research on a natural compound found in strawberries – the polyphenol…
In the Higashi-Chaya district of Kanazawa in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture, better known for its gold leaf products and ornate tea houses, a lone ice cream shop offers customers relief from steamy temperatures rising well into the 80s. Kanazawa Ice is the local outlet for a new kind of ice-cream ‘popsicle’ that maintains its cool even when temperatures rise. Created by Biotherapy Development Research Center Co., the products remain solid even when subjected to the heat of a domestic hair drier.(1) In a demonstration, the popsicle remained frozen, albeit slightly changed in color, long after its dairy counterpart had melted to a puddle. And how is this possible? It’s not magic, it’s science.
Kanazawa Ice has built upon the work of Professor Emeritus of Pharmacy Tomihisa Ota of Kanazawa University who was examining how technology could assist strawberry farmers in the regions affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Given that recent harvests had produced berries that had developed non-standard shapes, consumer demand had plummeted and Ota’s research led him to focus in on a liquid extract of the fruit. Isolating a group of compounds known as polyphenols, Ota’s team engaged the services of a local pastry chef with the mandate of using the liquid to create a unique dessert.(2) When the chef complained that the compound made milk solidify instantly the team realized the potential impact of the discovery leading to the development of a non-melting ice-cream.(3)
According to Sara Wilson, Senior Director of Clinical Nutrition at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City ‘Polyphenols are phytochemicals that occur naturally in plants. Known for their antioxidant properties, studies have reported a diet rich in polyphenols may offer protection against inflammation and chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.’(4) All of which sounds good. She does go on to reflect that there is still a lot to be learned about the compound’s absorption, how it metabolizes, and what the daily intake guidelines should be, but her largely positive assessment is backed up by research published by the National Institutes of Health. In a paper published in 2009, Kanti Bhooshan Pandey and Syed Ibrahim Rizvi examined the potential health benefits and concluded that long-term consumption of plants rich in polyphenols did indeed offer protection from cancers, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, asthma, infection, and aging.(5) Polyphenols – of which we have identified more than 8000 compounds in a variety of plant species – are secondary metabolites of plants found either in the cell walls or in the cell vacuoles. There are four main sub-groups – flavonoids, lignans, stilbenes, and phenolic acids – and their function within the structure is primarily one of defense, either against pathogens or against UV radiation.
The answer is relatively simple. As Ota noted in an article published in The Asahi Shimbun, an online and print newspaper dedicated to the Asian and Japanese markets: “Polyphenol liquid has properties to make it difficult for water and oil to separate so that a popsicle containing it will be able to retain the original shape of the cream for a longer time than usual and be hard to melt.”(6)
But, of course, there is a drawback. The base ingredient for extracting these polyphenols – strawberries – are notoriously difficult fruit to produce. Like raspberries, mulberries, or blueberries, they are soft-bodied which makes them prone to damage while harvesting, in transit, and in storage. Conventionally-grown strawberries are also subjected to myriad chemical pest controls and are listed #1 on the Dirty Dozen guide to the most polluted fruits and vegetables.(7) If produced organically, they are also seasonal fruits and not always locally grown. And given that we are rapidly running out of available land for crop production and the challenges inherent in climate change and sea level rise, the model for agriculture and food production/management for a growing global population has to evolve. So does science has the answer? Is there a way to grow fruits like strawberries year-round, without excessive pesticides, and hyper-locally? Could a technology like cell-culturing in the comforts of our own cleanrooms or even our homes or restaurants be a path forward?
is a topic we’ve written about in previous articles in relation to the recent proliferation of technology-based start-ups looking to find a way of increasing the global supply of high quality protein while simultaneously lowering the environmental impact of our food choices and removing animals from the equation. With interest from investors such as Sir Richard Branson (The Virgin Group), Bill Gates (Microsoft), and Kimbal Musk, to name just a few high-profile entrepreneurs, interest in the possibilities for lab-grown meat is increasing rapidly as more consumers seek cleaner, healthier, and more ethically sourced meats and fish.
And following this trend, new research from VTT Technical Research Center in Finland has brought us one step closer to the reality of cell-cultured fruits and – most relevant to us – berries. Although the scientists had been successfully producing viable fruit matter through plant cell culture (PCC), the results were largely uninspiring. While nutrient-dense, they were also bland and devoid of flavor – not a winning proposition in terms of growing a customer base. But in a new development, cell cultures taken from cloudberry, stoneberry, and lingonberry fruits were found to be not only rich in polyphenols and unsaturated fatty acids, high in protein (14%-19%) and fiber (21% – 37%), but also just as palatable as their ‘natural’ counterparts.(8) In fact, in dried form, the PCC samples had a more intense flavor than the natural berries and in vitro testing demonstrated good protein digestibility indicative of acceptable bioavailability of the nutrients.
And this is a significant breakthrough. As Emilia Nordlund, Leader of VTT’s Food Solutions Team commented in an article published in Nutrition Insight, an online repository of articles dedicated to nutrition and diet trends: “This is not only a completely new opportunity for the food industry but to society as a whole. There is not enough arable land to meet the growing global population’s food demands; new solutions are desperately needed. Cell cultures have serious potential for meeting this need.”(9)
But we should not assume that the PCC alternatives will be modeled to look the same as their conventional counterparts. We are unlikely, for instance, to see punnets of PCC strawberries for sale in the grocery store alongside the other berries. According to Heiko Rischer of VTT’s Plant Biotechnology Research Team, the institute’s ‘Food My Way’ project is looking to leverage interest in PCC technology to help formulate new and customized superfoods.(10) Already slated to be added to a whole range of new superfood products like smoothies, energy/nutritional bars, cereals, and snacks, cell cultured fruit could also be custom created in a bioreactor within a restaurant, school, or even a hospital. The compote of fresh, nutrient-dense cells could be added to a food item that would be completely customizable for the tastes of the customer or the nutritional needs of the patient. Easy to produce, easy to digest and with an increase in nutritional value matching a decrease in environmental impact, this has to be a winning solution to myriad problems and one that we look forward to tracking as the science matures and business models are developed to mainstream the products.
On a side note, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that much of the most creative and innovative scientific research currently underway is based on understanding and creating new uses for plant materials. As the global mindset increasingly moves away from a lazy reliance upon synthetics and petroleum-based derivatives, we are beginning to see that natural compounds such as polyphenols – or indeed the cellulose nanofibrils (FNFs) of ground up banana stems that are currently also being tested for their ability to prolong the shelf life of ice-cream products – are gaining importance in terms of tech innovation.(11) It is said (with some level of romanticism) that for every illness, the natural world has a cure. This may or may not be the case. However, gauging by the exciting and rapid pace of development in the fields of human nutrition science, it just might be argued successfully that Mother Nature offers more solutions and is more bountiful than we had previously given her credit for.
Non-melting ice-cream – an exciting new culinary adventure or a solution looking for a problem? We’d love to know your thoughts!