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Scientists Developing Melt-Resistant Ice Cream

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One of the hazards of eating ice cream is having it melt all over the place, coating your fingers with sticky goo and forcing you to scramble for a pile of napkins.

But scientists in Scotland may have come up with a way to keep that from happening.

They have identified a naturally occurring protein that allows ice cream to last longer in the heat. The protein also has been shown to reduce those annoying ice crystals that form when ice cream sits in the freezer a little too long - ensuring a fine, smooth texture like those of luxury ice creams.

"We are predicting that you should be able to eat an ice cream cone without the ice cream dribbling down the side," University of Edinburgh's Cait MacPhee, who led the team that worked out how the protein function, told CBS News.

The protein, known as BslA, is already used in some Southeast Asian foods including a traditional soybean breakfast dish called Natto in Japan. It works by adhering to fat droplets and air bubbles, making them more stable in a mixture and preventing the ice cream from melting.

MacPhee said the protein is formed as part of an effort by microbial communities to protect themselves.

"They protect themselves by producing this protein and that protein goes to the outer surface of this community and makes a film that we dubbed a bacterial raincoat - it becomes basically water repellent," she said. "That means if there are any other bugs in the environment that want to attack our friendly bacteria, they can't get through because they bounce off. It's a pretty clever strategy."

When she and Nicola Stanley-Wall of the University of Dundee first began studying the microbial communities that produce this protein, MacPhee admitted that making a better ice cream wasn't on their agenda. She was "mainly trying to characterize how well the protein behaved."

But they soon realized much of what the protein does in terms of forming this bacterial raincoat or film would lend itself to prolonging the life of ice cream.

"This film forms because there is an interface between the colony, which is wet, and the outside environment, which is air, essentially," she said.

"So it can form this film between the interface of air and water. That instantly suggests it can stabilize air bubbles, which it does do. It also can stabilize a mixture of oil and water in exactly the same way. It also can coat solid surfaces," she said. "That combination of the three - having solid surfaces, having air bubbles and having oil and water mixtures - is the definition of ice cream."

Guided by that concept, the researchers turned their lab into a mini Baskin-Robbins to see if indeed the protein worked. They tried their hand at making vanilla ice cream, replacing the emulsifier with their protein.

"It melts more slowly, which was the big finding, but the ice crystals - you know when you have ice cream in your freezer for any extended time and you can get a gritty sensation in your mouth - it slows that down as well because the ice crystals can't grow as quickly," MacPhee said.

But what about the big question: How does it taste?

MacPhee acknowledged they have not yet tried eating their laboratory's ice cream, though she thinks wouldn't taste all that different.

"We haven't actually tasted it yet. But what we are replacing is a small molecule that is there in a small amount," she said. "So it shouldn't have an impact on the taste because there is very little of it in there at all. There won't be any impact on the way it feels in your mouth either because the structure is the same."

MacPhee, who is expecting to publish her findings soon, already has filed an application for a patent on the protein and is talking to food companies about its use in ice cream as well as other products ranging from salad dressing to chocolate mousse.

The researchers are expecting that ice cream with this protein could be on supermarket shelves in three to five years.

© 2015 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. 

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