Plant-Based Ice Cream Hits European Markets

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Science has given ice cream a makeover, expanding the number of options for people with lactose intolerance who cannot digest most dairy products.

Soy has long been an ingredient for alternative ice creams, but some claim it doesn't measure up in taste and "mouthfeel."

In an effort to create tasty non-dairy options, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging in Germany decided to experiment with a reedlike plant called lupin (from the genus Lupinus). Protein sets lupin and soy plants apart, the researchers say, according to one German broadcasting company. Lupin seeds produce high quality proteins comparable to milk, while soy lags behind and is unable to recreate the creaminess of true ice cream.

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As a result, researchers have lent the technology and recipe to one company to market the plant-based ice cream as "Lupinesse," which is available in a handful of flavors, including chocolate, vanilla cherry and strawberry mousse to European consumers at a few grocers.

So far, lupin ice cream has performed well in informal taste tests.

Costing around $4 per half liter, lupin ice cream provides more variety for the 60 percent of people around the world unable to digest lactose. Vegans could also find the dairy-free product appealing.

The lupin plant

So, why can some people digest lactose while others can't?

The ability to digest lactose after being weaned from breast milk is also called lactase persistence. Generally speaking, the fact that some humans can digest milk after infancy is unusual and not something that's seen in other species. Around the globe, most children lose their ability to produce the enzyme responsible for digesting lactose between 3 and 5 years of age.

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In this light, a person who cannot digest milk isn't necessarily intolerant, they're "non-persistent" because they lack a certain allele — or variant — of a gene that produces the enzyme lactase to break down lactose in milk after childhood. Some populations, mostly from Europe, acquired a form of a gene that allowed people to continue producing lactase throughout life. One paper estimates the change occurred 7,500 years ago.

Though lactose intolerance — or lactase non-persistence — isn't deadly, it certainly affects people's quality of life and diet. Symptoms usually include stomach swelling and pain, diarrhea, and gas, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. People overcome the condition by avoiding foods containing milk, eating certain dairy alongside medications or taking supplements to account for vitamin D in the diet.

Ice cream photo courtesy Fraunhofer IVV

Lupin plant photo by Clarence A. Rechenthin @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

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