This ubiquitous summer foodstuff lights up the brain's pleasure zones, say UK researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, that tracked the brain activity of people eating vanilla ice cream.
"Ice cream has an immediate effect on parts of the brain that previous research shows responds to pleasurable tastes, including the orbitofrontal cortex, the 'processing' area of the brain" say the UK scientists.
Unilever, the world's largest ice cream maker, backed this expensive, but small study, in a bid to build a stronger picture of the brain's direct response to ice cream.
They are hoping findings from this fundamental research will be used as a foundation for future product development in ice cream.
"This is the first study of its kind. Now we will start to look at the brain response to different flavours, the delivery and to texture," Dr. Amanda Mistlin, at Unilever's ice cream technology centre and involved in the research, tells FoodNavigator.com.
For the study eight participants were given about 30g of Wall's (Unilever-owned) vanilla ice to eat, in doses of 15 teaspoons.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to initially take baseline images of the brain region of interest at rest, and then after while the subject performed the task.
fMRI measures functional changes in brain activity, by taking a series of images of the brain in quick succession.
The first set of images is subtracted from the second: the areas that are most visible in the resulting image are presumed to have been activated by the task.
"This is the first time that we've been able to show that ice-cream makes you happy. Just one spoonful of Carte D'Or lights up the happy zones of the brain in clinical trials," says Don Darling, vice president of development at Unilever Ice Cream Europe.
From happy zones to healthy profiles, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods firm that sells the Magnum, Carte D'Or and Cornetto brands among its 2000 ice cream products, announced last week it will turn to health and wellness to fuel growth in ice cream this year.
The Unilever group said this summer five per cent of its range will be reduced sugar and fat, with a target of 15 to 20 per cent of healthier products by 2010.
Announcing a "commitment to healthier ice cream options", the firm said it will pour 40 per cent of its annual €50m budget on ice cream R&D into the health and wellness sector.
"We are now looking at how we can incorporate ingredients like 'super' fruits, which are high in added nutrients such as vitamin, minerals or phytochemicals, into ice cream," said Don Darling, vice president development at Unilever Ice Cream.
In 2004 the firm, that claims a 17 per cent market share of global market worth €4.4 billion, rolled out its first Magnum Light ice cream. But European ice cream sales fell nearly 10 per cent to €2.3 billion in 2004 due to a cool wet summer: a situation the firm is under pressure from shareholders to avoid in 2005.