Eat a traditional ice cream cone in the summer, and you’ll need to lick quick to make sure the treat doesn’t end up melting down your hand. Reach for an ice cream sandwich instead, and the ice cream seemingly magically stays intact longer. You might even recall a 2014 trend in which viral videos kept calling out Walmart for its ice cream sandwiches that wouldn’t even melt when it was 80°F (or hotter). Something seems unnatural about an ice cream that refuses to melt, but you might be surprised by what’s really behind its practically heat-proof capabilities.
In theory, all you’d really need to make ice cream is milk, cream, sugar, and flavoring. As delicious as that is, it wouldn’t hold up well for mass-produced ice cream sandwiches. Companies (and consumers) don’t want the ice cream to melt so quickly that you’re left with two cookies covered in sticky, liquid ice cream, so they add a few ingredients that keep them intact longer. In fact, Japanese scientists have even invented an ice cream that will never melt.
Bare-bones ice cream in the freezer would inevitably lead to ice crystals because of its water content. Most packaged ice cream—whether it’s in a tub or sandwiched between two cookies—contains ingredients called emulsifiers that bind water to fat to prevent ice crystals. One type of emulsifier is called a stabilizer, and they go a step further by helping to keep the texture consistent, even under the hot sun. On an ingredients list, you might find the emulsifiers and stabilizers guar gum, calcium sulfate, carob bean gum, or mono- and diglycerides. They’re different chemicals with the same goal: to hold moisture in so the ice cream doesn’t turn to goop. Ice cream sandwiches generally contain more of those additives than hand-scooped versions, which is also why their texture also tends to be a bit foamier.
If you’re worried about sticking with “ingredients you recognize,” additives like diglycerides and calcium sulfate might conjure up images that belong in a lab, not your kitchen. Even natural ingredients like guar gum, which comes from legumes, might give you pause if you’ve heard about its use (and misuse) in weight-loss efforts. Guar gum is high in fiber, which can keep you full and move things along in your digestive tract, but it’s been banned in weight-loss products because high doses can block up the esophagus and the small intestine. Find out more things that food manufacturers aren’t telling you.
Of course, the FDA takes any of those nasty side effects into account, and the amount you’d find in an ice cream sandwich isn’t enough to cause those sorts of problems. Meanwhile, mono- and diglycerides, along with calcium sulfate, are generally recognized as safe. While we commend anyone willing to dole their own scoops of ice cream onto cookies as a more natural alternative, there’s no reason to fear your kids’ safety if they want to indulge in a store-bought treat. All that a slow melt rate means is less cleanup for you. Next, find out why grape ice cream is impossible to find.