The Ice Cream War was one of Scotland’s most notorious criminal cases. It
involved two rival Glasgow families using ice cream vans to sell drugs and
stolen goods in the Eighties. The vicious turf war culminated in arson and
murder. Now, a new ice cream war has erupted – less violent but just as
It features the biggest manufacturers in the British ice cream market, two
different government departments, the European Union and a Byzantine row
over whether ice cream should be sold by weight – in grams – or by volume –
in litres. When you pop to the supermarket, should you put a 500ml tub of
ice cream into your basket, or a 430g pot? This may sound like a triviality.
But as you brave the bank holiday weather with a cone of vanilla, countless
lobbyists and lawyers are working on resolving this dispute.
When it comes to food, it is usually the case that the more delicious the
treat, the more tortuous the row. It took 13 years to resolve whether a
Marks & Spencer marshmallow tea cake was a cake or a biscuit (it’s a
Ice cream has always been sold by volume. Tubs of the high-end, premium stuff
in the supermarket are sold in half-litre pots, while traditional English
ice cream is sold in litre tubs or bigger.
Grand Met, the US food giant that owns the Häagen-Dazs brand, wants to change
that, to ensure ice cream is sold by weight, and claims consumers are being
misled. The reason for this is simple: Häagen-Dazs is expensive. A 500ml tub
usually costs £4.50. Compare that with a 1.8 litre tub of Wall’s soft-scoop
ice cream – which costs £2. The premium stuff is nine times as expensive as
the soft scoop on a per-litre basis.
Compare it by weight, however, and Wall’s looks not quite so cheap after all –
just four times cheaper on a pence-per-gram basis. And that’s because a tub
of Wall’s ice cream has lots of air inside.
Phil Pearman, legal and technical consultant at the British trade association,
the Ice Cream Alliance, says: “You can’t make ice cream without air. If you
freeze it without air, it would be like a solid block of ice.” What is
disputed is how much air is needed.
The ice cream industry, fond of jargon, describes the process of adding air
through whisking as the “overrun”. Take a bowl with some cream and sugar. If
you double the quantity by adding air through vigorous whisking, it is
called 100 per cent overrun. In cheap ice creams, the overrun can stretch to
120 per cent, or even 150 per cent.
Robin Weir, a historian and the co-author of Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati,
says: “In commercial ice creams they are able to add incredible quantities
of air, which in most of Europe and in America is illegal.” In the US, the
maximum overrun is 100 per cent, but there is no legal limit in Britain.
In order to hold all that air, emulsifiers and stabilisers are needed. The
ingredients list for Tesco Everyday Value vanilla ice cream reads:
“Partially reconstituted skimmed milk concentrate, sugar, vegetable oil,
whey powder, dextrose, emulsifier (mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids),
flavouring, stabilisers (guar gum, sodium alginate), colours (beetroot red,
Most of the rest of the world is horrified that so much British ice cream is
made up of vegetable fat and air. Ezio Biribicchi, an ice cream consultant
who runs one of Italy’s best gelaterias, Snoopy in Tuscany, says: “The cost
of my ice cream is the ingredients, the pistachios, the chocolate. What is
the cost of air? Nothing.” Good Italian gelato tends to have about 30 per
The dispute comes to a head later this year, when a raft of new European food
regulations comes into force. The Department of Food and Rural Affairs and
the Department for Business (which is in charge of weights and measures) has
to decide which side to back.
Opposing Grand Met is Unilever, the British food giant that owns Wall’s, the
country’s biggest brand of ice cream. It claims that lots of air helps keep
down the calorie content of its ice cream. A spokesman adds: “We all know
that the ‘one scoop or two’ system works best, and findings suggest that
volume labelling is more likely to help in this regard. We believe there is
currently little appetite for a change.”
The company has history on its side. Wall’s helped to pioneer soft scoop in
Britain, which took off in the Fifties, when the end of rationing coincided
with the advent of affordable domestic freezers. Contrary to popular myth,
Margaret Thatcher as a young research scientist had little or no role in the
invention of Mr Whippy (though she did work for Lyons Maid).
Ever since this era, many in Britain have had a soft spot for soft scoop. But
things are changing in the £1 billion British ice cream market. According to
sales figures from Waitrose this week, shoppers are turning their backs on
the cheap stuff and trading up to more expensive Italian gelato, which not
only has less air, but also less fat, thanks to milk rather than cream being
used. This has partly been driven by the number of high-end gelaterias
opening around the country. So far this year, premium ice-cream sales have
climbed 17 per cent, while value ice cream sales have slightly fallen.
Susan Stretch, who owns the Black Vanilla gelateria in London, says she is not
surprised. “People always want an affordable treat. And good ice cream is
exactly that.” Just be wary how much of that bank holiday treat is made up
of cold air.
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