The Problems With Modern Vanilla Ice Cream


Which Magazine tells us that many modern vanilla ice creams contain not much cream and possibly no vanilla. An outrage, clearly. About which The Guardian says “Only products labelled as “dairy ice-cream” should contain at least 5% dairy fat, some protein from a dairy source” s we seem to have the problem sorted. Want milk? Then get dairy ice cream.

Wessex Man also gives us a little more on this:

“Britain’s longest heatwave since 1976 has seen ice-cream sales soar, but a survey has revealed that some brands are sold without vanilla, cream or fresh milk.
Vanilla has traditionally been Britain’s favourite flavour but a Which? investigation of supermarket and branded vanilla ice-creams found a number of them were lacking some key ingredients.

One in five of the ice-creams examined by the consumer watchdog had none of the three ingredients shoppers might reasonably expect to find in vanilla ice-cream. Only half of the 24 surveyed contained all three traditional ingredients. “

For anyone who’s ever read 1984, you’ll know that Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth was changing the old newspapers to lower the stories about chocolate rations, so when the government lowered the chocolate ration, it appeared to anyone looking at old news that it had gone up.

This is not too far from doing the same, but in reverse.

Compared to truly traditional ice creams, it’s fair to say that supermarket basic ice cream doesn’t compare. But most people historically didn’t eat truly traditional ice creams. If you went to an ice cream van in the 70s and bought a 99, or arctic roll, or a tub of Lyons Maid soft scoop, they all had vanilla flavouring. They all didn’t have much cream. If you’d done this survey in the 1970s, I doubt you’d have had more than a tiny percentage that ticked all 3 boxes.

So, we’re at the point where there’s still some basic soft scoop in the freezers at supermarkets, but they’re also stocking ice creams like Carte d’Or that ticks a box, or the likes of Ben and Jerrys that ticks all three. You can look at this as food companies making a lot of ersatz ice cream, but another way to look at it is that we have far less ersatz ice cream than we used to. Whatever is going on is improving the quality of ice cream.

Making vanilla ice cream is about growing and harvesting vanilla orchids, transporting the seed pods, keeping cows and milking them, keeping chickens and getting eggs, and growing sugar. Then you make some custard, add cream, freeze it, then package it, transport it to supermarkets and they put it on shelves. And almost every part of that has improved. Bourbon Vanilla is tricky to grow and harvest. It needs certain conditions and it’s lots of manual labour. There’s also a strange thing about it needing a certain sort of bee to pollenate. But at the worst, production has increased as it’s profitable. So, price has fallen. I’m sure agricultural techniques have improved in terms of disease and pests, lowering costs. Transportation will have fallen in price – shipping crates, computer tracking. We know the price of milk has fallen as the farmers keep complaining about it. Farmers have better quality control on eggs. I’m sure that Unilever have invested in more automation at their ice cream factories, so there’s a couple of people watching a load of robots. Tesco and the like have invested in stock control systems, even tracking it to the weather forecast, which reduces waste costs.

It would be wonderful for everyone to have the great stuff right now, but it isn’t going to happen. The only routes to that are subsidising ice cream (which sounds like a bad idea), insisting the supermarkets only sell the traditional stuff or lower prices (which will deny most people ice cream), putting the men in the ministry in charge (which will work about as well as it did under Mao). The only way to get better ice cream is what we’ve been doing for 30 years – letting the market work out how to do it better – all those people involved in the supply chain working out how to do it a little better each year.