Soft serve ice cream is a beloved part of the summer experience. It even has its own holiday right smack in the middle of the season, on August 19. It’s enjoyed at every level, from your standard DQ serving to high-end Los Angeles black soft serve.
We hate to be the ones to ruin this lovely treat, but we think you should know something: that summertime dessert isn’t always as pure as your childhood dreams about it.
We took a look at the ingredients listed in McDonald’s and Dairy Queen soft serve ― two options that can be purchased nationally ― and here’s what we found lurking on the list (along with the more expected ingredients like milk, nonfat milk, sugar, corn syrup and whey):
Polysorbate 80 is used as an emulsifier in foods and cosmetics. It’s added to soft serve to prevent milk proteins from completely coating the fat droplets. This allows the soft serve to bind and locks air into the mixture. (McDonald’s, DQ)
Mono- and diglycerides come from fatty acids. They’re used as another emulsifier. They help combine ingredients containing fat with ingredients containing water (because the two don’t normally merge well on their own). (McDonald’s, DQ)
Carrageenan is a carbohydrate extracted from red seaweed. It’s used for its gelling, stabilizing and thickening properties. (McDonald’s, DQ)
Guar gum is made from the endosperm of the guar bean. It’s used as a thickening agent. The use of it in diet pills was banned in the 1980s because it was dangerous, but small amounts of it ― like what’s found in soft serve ― have been established as safe. (McDonald’s, DQ)
Cellulose gum comes from the cell walls of plants such as wood pulp and cottonseeds. It is another thickener. It is commonly used in the food industry and adds to the mouthfeel and texture of a product. (McDonald’s)
Sodium Phosphate is used in many foods and serves many purposes. It can be used as a texturizer, an emulsifier or a leavening agent. (McDonald’s)
So why are all these ingredients in the mix?
According to Forbes, lots of soft serve is made with cheap powdered mix that’s reconstituted with water ― it has a longer shelf life than real ice cream that’s made with milk and eggs, so it’s a more affordable option for ice cream stands.
Types of soft serve that are slightly more premium than the powdered mix, Forbes explains, are made from a liquid mix, which is added straight to the machine and gets its consistency from the freezing cylinder inside the machines (soft serve has to reach a cool 19 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain its beloved consistency).
Of course, not all soft serve is created equal. And if you want to make sure you’re getting something good, make your own ice cream from scratch ― we’ve got the recipes you need.