Local Ice Cream: A Better Batch

Dairy, dairy, dairy

Americans take their dairy seriously... sort of. (flickr/imuttoo)

Bostonians love ice cream. Though we suffer every year through bitterly cold and snowy winters, we still support and maintain over a half-dozen extremely popular local ice creameries, some of whom remain local and some of whom have gone on to national or international success. Ben & Jerry’s, Brigham’s, Christina’s, Emack & Bolio’s, Herrell’s, J.P. Licks, and Toscanini’s all churn out ice cream year-round and have loyal, devoted fanbases, to say nothing of the vendors located in the city’s suburbs.

We’re not the only ones: ice cream has gone from a relatively high-end, elite product into a $65 billion dollar a year industry, a figure which will continue to grow as ice cream giants like Nestle and Unilever push their brands into Asia and South America, where ice cream has never before been available on a large scale.

One consequence of the explosive growth in the ice cream industry is that it becomes more and more likely that, no matter where you live, the ice cream you are eating is made further and further away from you. As production and distribution centers become larger, they consolidate, so that they are simpler and more efficient for companies to manage. This isn’t necessarily better for you or for the environment, although it is likely to make your ice cream cheaper, because manufacturers are able to employ fewer people and keep their costs down.

That doesn’t mean that we’re out of options if we want to keep our ice cream a little more familiar. Batch, a new ice cream company launched this past May by two Jamaica Plain entrepreneurs, aims to provide Boston with simpler, more local ice cream. It’s a good start; local dairy can be a difficult terrain for consumers to navigate, and there just aren’t very many (if any) ice cream producers who source from single farms. Batch does: their milk and cream come from Arruda’s Dairy in Tiverton, Rhode Island, right across the RA/MI border.

Dairy cows feeding

Dairy Cows Feeding -- image courtesy sustainlane.com

The source of the milk is important. Animal products tend to have a greater environmental impact than non-animal products. They require a lot more food, which needs to be grown, transported, processed, and then administered. They also generate lots of waste of their own. These are environmental and economic issues – animal products can also be ethically tricky, depending on your beliefs on how non-human animals should be treated. Most milk in this country comes from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations; regardless of where you stand on the issue, you owe it to yourself to consider the negatives of such production methods. This includes milk from H.P. Hood, the region’s largest dairy supplier, and the source of Toscanini’s and Christinas‘ dairy. When dairy comes from smaller farms, not only are you supporting your local and regional community, it’s also much easier to monitor what’s going on.

It’s not just about the cream, though. They also skip  a lot of the factory-produced emulifiers and stabilizers that just about every other ice creamer you’ll come across uses. These products — things like guar gum — serve to enhace the “shelf life” of ice cream (and an incredibly vast number of other products), but they also greatly increase the ice cream’s carbon footprint, as the raw materials are usually sourced internationally and then produced or refined in large factories.

To pick another popular “local” ice cream at random, Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia contains guar gum, carrageenan, and soy lecithin. From a personal perspective, there isn’t really anything wrong with these products. They’re derived from plants. They aren’t going to kill you; they probably won’t really have any effect on you at all. But they’re just not necessary in your food.

(They do all have many non-food applications. Carrageenan, for example, is used in shampoo, shoe polish, and sexual lubricants. Guar gum is used in clothing and paper.)

The only reason that they’re used in foods as well is because many foods, like shampoos and lubricants, are made in large factories. Here, they are used as stabilizers, thickeners, or bonding agents that help keep your food exactly the same on its journey between the production facility and your dinner plate. The longer the journey, the more necessary they become from the producer’s viewpoint. If you can skip the factory, those products just aren’t necessary.

(A lot of non-factory foods feature these as well, usually because they are either produced from pre-made blends or mixes, or because they allow the producer to more finely-tune things like texture and consistency).

Soy Monoculture in Paraguay

Soy Monoculture in Paraguay -- Image via Flickr courtesy Pro Cosara

So even though it won’t kill you to eat them, it will harm the environment. Guar gum is derived from guar beans, which are grown almost entirely in India and Pakistan. Carrageenan is derived from seaweeds grown along the shorelines of the northern Atlantic. Soy lecithin is derived from refined soy oil; most of the world’s soybeans are grown in Brazil, Argentina and the U.S., where their prodution is heavily subsidized. Soy lecithin is also a tricky subject because it’s subject to being produced using genetically modified soybeans, even if your food is labeled organic. All of these products need to travel around the world just before they wind up in your ice cream, and this is often the case even if your ice cream is “local.”

Batch is going to run you a bit more than your ordinary pint, but that isn’t because Batch is expensive, it’s because other ice cream is cheap. I’m certainly not trying to shill for them specifically, but I am encouraging you to think a little more about where your ice cream comes from. If there are other people in the area doing the same thing batch does, I don’t know about them.

If you’ve been looking for an ice cream that’s a little more environmentally responsible than your average pint from Toscanini’s, click here to see where you can find batch within the city. I’m partial to the salted caramel, and also a big fan of the way that this stuff melts considerably faster than your average ice cream does. That’s what frozen cream does when it gets warm. Remember?

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