What Chemicals Are In Ice Cream? | The Science Blog (2024)

Just like many other types of food, ice cream contains a mixture of organic and inorganic chemicals. Some of these chemicals are present naturally whereas others, such as magnesium hydroxide and potassium sorbate, are added during the manufacturing process.

To some extent, these food additives are necessary evils as they prolong the shelf life of commercial ice cream products and allow the ingredients to combine more easily. However, as we explain in this post, they can be detrimental to your health if you consume too much.

Read on to learn more about some of the hazardous chemicals that can be found in ice cream, along with the potential health risks they pose.

Does ice cream contain chemicals?

Ice cream is one of the most popular desserts in the world, with seven out of 10 UK adults admitting that it’s still their favourite pudding. It might come as a surprise then to learn that this much-loved frozen treat actually contains numerous chemicals. What Chemicals Are In Ice Cream? | The Science Blog (1)

Technically speaking, all foods, including ice cream, are a mixture of various types of chemicals. Some of these chemicals are naturally-occurring substances that are present in the ingredients, such as the protein and minerals in milk. On the other hand, some chemicals are synthetic food additives that are used for various purposes, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, and artificial flavours.

Most of the chemicals found in ice cream, including sugar and fats, aren’t harmful if they’re consumed in moderation. However, as we explain later, there are a few chemicals in ice cream that pose potential health hazards – even when consumed in moderation. The most harmful chemicals are generally inorganic artificial food additives.

While these types of chemicals can be detrimental to our health, the high sugar and fat content of ice cream is the main reason why it’s important to avoid eating too much – no matter how tempting or delicious it might be! What Chemicals Are In Ice Cream? | The Science Blog (2)

What are the unhealthy ingredients in ice cream?

Although ice cream contains some nutrients, it’s considered a high-calorie food. This means it contains large amounts of energy per unit mass. If you regularly consume too much ice cream, your body won’t use all of the calories – some will be stored as fats. Over time, this can lead to obesity and other health long-term problems.

The high number of calories in ice cream primarily comes from sugar and fats, as outlined below:

1. High percentages of fat

In terms of industry standards, ice cream contains at least 10% milk fats. A very large proportion of milk (98%) from cows consists of triglycerides. When this substance accumulates in the blood, it can potentially increase the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. What Chemicals Are In Ice Cream? | The Science Blog (3)

2. High percentage of carbohydrates

Ice cream contains up to 24% sugar by weight. It’s an essential ingredient that gives ice cream its sweet flavour. Various types of sugar are used in ice cream, such as glucose, fructose, and sucrose. The high sugar content in ice cream increases the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

As well as sugar and fat, most varieties of mass-produced ice cream also contain potentially harmful chemicals and food additives. Common types of food additives in ice cream include emulsifiers, preservatives, and artificial flavours.

What harmful chemicals are in ice cream?

It would be extremely difficult to maintain the texture, colour, flavour, and shelf life of ice cream without using artificial food additives. Despite their potentially harmful effects, they’ve become integral to the mass production process.

It’s important to note that not all food additives are harmful. In most cases, the health risks they pose when ingested increase along with their proportional amounts. However, there are a few examples of harmful chemicals that are worth mentioning because of the associated health risks. Here are three of them:

1. Magnesium hydroxide

More commonly known as milk of magnesia, magnesium hydroxide (Mg(OH)₂) is added to ice cream as a preservative. It prevents ice cream from turning sour when stored for a long time. Magnesium hydroxide is also used as medicine for hyperacidity, however, consuming excessive amounts can cause several medical issues such as severe nausea, vomiting, and LBM.

2. Potassium sorbate

Potassium sorbate (C6H7KO2 ) is also added to ice cream as a preservative to prevent moulds from growing. It’s a salt that’s synthetically produced through the neutralisation reaction between sorbic acid and potassium hydroxide. Potassium sorbate can trigger an allergic reaction in some people.

3. Polysorbate 80

Polysorbate 80 is used as an emulsifier in ice cream as it allows the hydrophobic and hydrophilic ingredients of ice cream to mix well. However, the substance has been associated with immune system suppression, allergies, and reproductive toxicity.

You can read more about the effects of food additives and preservatives here.

What is the most common hazard associated with ice cream?

Aside from the health risks posed by fats, sugar, and food additives, the most common hazard associated with ice cream is food spoilage. Bacterial or fungal contamination can produce toxins that can cause diarrhoea and other diseases.

A study on ice cream contamination revealed that the following microorganisms were detected in the samples:

  • Coliforms
  • L. monocytogenes
  • S. Aureus
  • Salmonella spp.

Ice cream should therefore be made and stored in the appropriate conditions to help reduce the risk of contamination. Anyone handling ice cream should also follow strict hygiene practices to minimise the risk to others.

How is ice cream made?

Whether it’s mass-produced in a factory or made in your own kitchen, ice cream has the same basic ingredients and follows the same general procedures. The main difference is in the quantity and desired shelf life of the products. Ice cream that’s made commercially has to be produced in large quantities and requires a much longer shelf life than homemade ice cream. What Chemicals Are In Ice Cream? | The Science Blog (4)

Consequently, ice cream manufacturers add food additives to help preserve their products and make the ice cream more attractive to consumers in terms of taste, texture, and colour. Large machines, freezers, and trucks are needed to produce commercially available ice cream products.

The basic recipe for ice cream includes milk, sugar, thickened cream, and vanilla extract. Fruit, chocolate, and other flavourings may also be added. All the ingredients are mixed together in a proportion based on a predetermined recipe. In most cases, the mixture is also pasteurised to kill any bacteria that might be present.

Artificial food additives such as preservatives, flavours, colours, and emulsifiers may also be added during the production process. The mixture is then allowed to cool before being frozen. Once frozen, the ice cream sludge is packaged into different containers, which are then labelled and distributed to the retailer.


While protein and minerals are naturally present in ice cream, synthetic chemicals such as magnesium hydroxide, potassium sorbate, and polysorbate 80 are added during the production process. These types of artificial food additives are used to improve the colour, taste, texture, and shelf life of commercial ice cream products. Although generally safe in low quantities, consuming too much of these substances can be detrimental to your health. The high sugar and fat content in ice cream can also have some negative health risks. Ice cream should therefore be eaten in moderation based on your caloric needs.

What Chemicals Are In Ice Cream? | The Science Blog (2024)
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