We all know that ice cream is therapeutic for the soul. It spreads joy, brings people together and can brighten any mood. But what if it were literally part of a healthy treatment plan for disease or poor nutrition?
That’s the question the Drexel Food Lab is attempting to answer with its latest innovation: an ice cream packed with health benefits that can make people feel good in more ways than one.
By delivering protein, calories, vitamins and nutrients in a tasty package with modest levels of fat and sugar, the “functional ice cream” dreamed up by Food Lab Director Jonathan Deutsch and a team of staff and students can stand in for protein drinks like Ensure and Boost that may fall short on the deliciousness scale for many patients. The Food Lab’s frozen concoction could win over an audience including elderly individuals in need of extra nutrition, cancer patients hoping to maintain their health during treatment and even athletes — basically, anyone who would benefit from a burst of nutrients in a flavorful form.
“We want this to be something that can make people feel good and be delicious,” says Food Lab Manager Rachel Sherman. Her favorite flavor? Heath bar crunch.
“You go through your entire adult life having the flavors you want and then you have to eat something therapeutic and it has no texture and nothing interesting going on.”
Jonathan Deutsch, Food Lab director
The ice cream has been in development for five years and evolved out of a conversation between Deutsch (favorite flavor: chocolate) and an executive at the Minnesota-based insurer UnitedHealth Group. The company was discouraged by how much health care money was wasted on supplements that stack up, unused, in the corners of people’s homes. What would entice those people to actually ingest the nutrition they need?
Deutsch, who is a professor in the departments of Food and Hospitality Management and Nutrition Sciences in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, was the right person to turn to in search of a solution. The Food Lab works on projects with attributes of sustainability, access or health. The request from UnitedHealth fit squarely into the last group, so Deutsch got to work with his team.
The project boiled down to a simple question, says Robert McGrath, the senior associate vice provost for technology management at Drexel Applied Innovation, which oversees tech commercialization at the University: “Can you deliver a similar outcome in a tastier package?”
Deutsch turned the question over to students in his food product development course in fall 2017 and worked with them to find foods that might fit the bill. The research involved experimenting with several ideas for functional food products that could replace the common (and commonly disliked) oral liquid nutrition supplements: a Nutella-style chocolate spread, coffee creamers, a trail mix-inspired quickbread full of seeds and fruit, high-protein pancakes and waffles, and smoothies.
“We had a lot of good ideas,” Deutsch says, “but not all of them were feasible and not all of them were appealing.”
Ice cream, however, consistently scored well in consumer testing — no surprise there. The Food Lab found it could offer the same macronutrient profile found in Ensure and Boost drinks, but in a food that fit nicely into people’s lifestyle. It could be shared with friends and family as part of a meal, eliminating the isolation some patients feel while supping on nutritional shakes. And it fit more naturally into a daily habits, especially among the elderly.
Through ethnographic research with seniors over the age of 80, students learned that the “early-bird special” stereotype among elderly individuals is based in real behavior. Seniors they interviewed tended to eat dinner around 5 p.m. and sit down with a bowl of ice cream to watch television around 8 p.m. A shake might not have a place in that routine, but a serving of chocolate ice cream with brownie chunks sure does.
The Food Lab’s high-protein ice cream is not the first of its kind to market, Deutsch says, but he believes it offers consumers an improvement on anything currently available.
Some options currently on the market use protein in the ice cream itself, which creates a graininess — not the creamy base everyone craves. And no one offers functional ice cream with “inclusions” — the chunks of goodness that make ice cream a textural treat.
“You go through your entire adult life having the flavors you want,” Deutsch explains — flavors like butter pecan, rocky road and moose tracks — “and then you have to eat something therapeutic and it has no texture and nothing interesting going on.”
The Food Lab’s ice cream keeps things culinary by including a brownie mix-in developed by former Drexel Food Lab manager Alexandra Zeitz Romey that is the primary source of its nutritional benefits.
With a general concept of the functional ice cream in place, the project turned over to Sherman, a former pastry chef who serves as research chef for the Food Lab. Testing and refining an ice cream recipe was right in her wheelhouse.
“I love ice cream,” Sherman says. “It’s one of my favorite things to play with and to make.”
Using nutrition software, she identified the various flours and powders that could pack a punch in the brownie bits that go into the ice creams, eventually landing on chickpea flour, sunflower seeds, flax oil and a fiber supplement called Fibersol as the key ingredients, alongside chocolate and cocoa powder. With students’ help, she tested at least 20 recipes to reach the right result, using focus groups to ensure each flavor would delight the tastebuds. The lab developed recipes for chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, cherry and banana. (“We weren’t sure about banana,” Sherman says, “but bananas add so much texture that they were actually really perfect for this kind of ice cream.”)
The classic vanilla and chocolate flavors will be first to be released.
With an ice cream recipe in hand, Deutsch sought the support that could take it from the Food Lab’s freezers to consumers’ couches. He turned to Kathie Jordan, the then-head of the Coulter-Drexel Translational Research Partnership program, to secure a $165,000 grant for a clinical trial to demonstrate the ice cream’s potential.
The Coulter program typically supports the development of medical devices and diagnostics, small-molecule therapeutics and products in the wellness space, but, as Jordan (favorite flavor: coffee) points out, “This one really meets a medical need.”
Deutsch gathered an interdisciplinary team that paired the Food Lab with Rose Ann DiMaria-Ghalili, professor and senior associate dean for research in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, who would lead the trial; Kathleen Fisher, a professor focused on nursing; Brandy-Joe Milliron, an associate professor focused on nutrition; and partners from the private sector who would help take the ice cream to market.
“We have colleagues at the different cancer centers in the city, and when they learned about this project the common response is, ‘Sign us up. Our patients need this product.’”
Brandy-Joe Milliron, associate professor
With a cohort of older adults, the clinical trial sought to compare the ice cream against the top oral liquid nutrition supplements. They used health effects for comparison — using gauges like grip strength, frailty measures and weight maintenance. They also compared the products on what Deutsch calls “palate fatigue.”
Because the ice cream doesn’t need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the clinical trial isn’t required for commercialization, but “we don’t want to market something that we don’t feel good about,” Deutsch says. The goal is to demonstrate that the ice cream can make a meaningful difference for patients while overcoming the unappealing flavor and format that dooms most supplements to the back shelves of patients’ pantries.
In her research on nutrition in cancer survivorship, Milliron (favorite flavor: coffee) hears a common complaint from patients and caregivers when standard nutrition supplements come up: “They don’t taste good,” they say. When patients don’t eat them, they may continue to lose weight, and are at risk of treatment delays due to weight loss.
She thinks the Food Lab’s ice cream could reach far beyond senior citizens in need of a nutritional boost.
“We have colleagues at the different cancer centers in the city, and when they learned about this project the common response is, ‘Sign us up. Our patients need this product,’” Milliron says.
When her father had dementia and congestive heart failure, she watched as boxes of Boost piled up around the house. But the Food Lab’s functional ice cream is much more likely to become part of a patient’s daily diet — and part of the path to better health.
“This type of intervention can be tailored to many populations,” Milliron says.
Fisher (favorite flavor: chocolate chip) thinks functional ice cream could also win over athletes and people who are very active. And in speaking with a Drexel faculty member whose daughter had jaw surgery, she realized it could also help prevent postoperative weight loss, which is often as high as 20 to 25 pounds.
With a potentially big market, Deutsch is now focused on getting the ice cream into the freezer aisle and into the hands of doctors who might otherwise tell their patients to seek out an oral liquid nutrition supplement. Drexel Applied Innovation’s McGrath is helping out, leaning on Deutsch’s long history of relationships in the food industry to find a group of partners with deep expertise in health care, food service and product development. Together, they are in the process of forming a company that will take the Food Lab’s ice cream through all the steps of commercialization: manufacturing, packaging, marketing, storage and distribution.
McGrath (favorite flavor: coffee with chocolate chips) has been working with the Food Lab for seven years and has been part of nearly 40 collaborations between Deutsch’s team and industry partners in the last few years.
“They see an opportunity to have an impact and they take it,” McGrath says of the Food Lab.
Food Lab research projects typically begin with someone from private industry asking for culinary innovation to solve a problem in the market. While much of the technology transfer that takes place needs many years to materialize, the Food Lab’s work happens on a much less painstaking timeline.
“The beauty of culinary arts and what Jon does is you can go from an idea to a prototype that won’t kill you in a matter of days or weeks,” McGrath says.
The ice cream could be available within a year-and-a-half, says McGrath, giving patients of all stripes a welcome alternative in the search for nutritional stability. For the Food Lab’s collaborators, dessert has never sounded so sweet.
“It’s food as medicine at its finest,” Milliron says.