Ice cream and avalanches are two subjects that usually only fit together in a child's dreams, but Nestle is now looking at how research on one could help in making the other. The food company recently teamed up with an avalanche research center in Switzerland to study how ice crystals grow within ice cream as it sits in the freezer. Typically these crystals dilute the flavor of the ice cream while also making it harder to scoop and eat. By using the center's equipment and research with their own products, Nestle hopes to develop a method for slowing the ice growth and produce a creamy dessert that will retain its taste and texture much longer.
Scientists at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland usually study the formation of ice crystals in nature that can lead to avalanches, but Nestle has found their research applies to ice cream quite well. The company has wanted to study ice cream more closely in the past but only had methods that left it melted, and thus couldn't accurately mimic freezer conditions. Using an X-ray tomography machine from the institute, researchers have been able to capture microscopic images of the ice cream's structure at sub-zero temperatures.
The research has already found the more visible white frost on top is the result of temperature fluctuations as the dessert is transported and stored. Some of the problem has to do with the freezers most people have in their homes, which often don't keep a steady temperature, causing ice crystals to melt and then re-freeze over and over. This process changes the ice cream's overall structure, which alters its taste. So far researchers have managed to create time lapse images of ice crystals only a few microns wide as they were subjected to differing temperatures.
Currently, Nestle's main goal is to discover the specific conditions that trigger the ice crystals to expand and merge, since this will be the key to inhibiting their growth. Once the company can identify what factors cause the crystals to form, it can then work on slowing them down and keeping their ice cream fresh.