03/27/2012 03:00 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2012

Nestlé Uses Avalanche Research To Improve Its Ice Cream

Forget the tempest in the teapot. Thanks to Nestle, you'll soon be able to taste the avalanche in the ice cream cup.

The Swiss company has been using techniques developed to study avalanche ice dynamics to try to learn lessons that will help it improve its ice cream.

The problem researchers are targeting has frustrated ice cream lovers since the dawn of refrigeration. Namely: over time, ice cream stored in a home freezer develops texture-ruining ice crystals. Until recently, it was impossible to figure out how this ice developed in time, because inspecting the state of the ice cream required destroying the sample. You could only look at any given carton once.

The new technology allows Nestle's scientists to look into cartons of ice cream using X-rays, just as scientists at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, which pioneered the technique, look into the center of avalanches. This allows them to track the development of ice crystals without disturbing their structure.

So far, the advanced technique's findings aren't all that surprising. In a paper published this month in "Soft Matter," the team notes that it observed "dramatic effects of the heat shock protocol on the samples, and marked differences between warm and cold periods." They concluded, "We could identify a partial melting refreezing mechanism as the dominant coarsening mechanism for the investigated storage condition."

In other words, ice cream in your home freezer gets unpleasantly icy when you let it melt and refreeze. Any true ice cream fan could tell you that!

Still, Nestle, the world's largest food company, hopes that it will eventually be able to understand ice crystal formation well enough to be able to develop ice cream that resists it even in the face of unstable temperatures. That's a worthy enough goal that we're willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for now.