Delicious, sweet and full of saturated fat, the concept of ice-cream as a health food is as ridiculous as it is compelling.
But in what will be welcome news for many as Britain basks in warmer weather this week, an American public health historian has revealed how numerous studies over several decades have repeatedly found mysterious potential health benefits of the frozen dessert – only to be glossed over by scientists.
In an article for the Atlantic magazine, David Merritt Johns said he first started looking into the claims last summer, after hearing about some 2018 research by a Harvard doctoral student which had found that eating half a cup (64g) of ice-cream a day was associated with a lower risk of heart problems for diabetics.
On further investigation, Johns discovered that the link was in fact more than 20 years old. Mark Pereira, the epidemiologist who came across it, told Johns that despite thorough analysis: “I still to this day don’t have an answer for it.”
Pereira found that dairy-based desserts such as ice-cream were associated with heavily reduced chances of developing insulin-resistance syndrome (a precursor to diabetes) among overweight people, but the alleged health benefits were not publicised. Scientists preferred to focus on the supposed health benefits of yoghurt.
“Could the idea that ice-cream is metabolically protective be true? It would be pretty bonkers. Still, there are at least a few points in its favour,” writes Johns, citing the glycaemic index of ice-cream, which is lower than brown rice, and the supposed benefits of dairy products where the membrane is intact.
But the findings have so far received a slightly frosty reception in Britain. “As an academic public health doctor, I’m not going to be rushing out to eat more ice-cream based on this research,” said John Ford, academic public health doctor and senior clinical lecturer at Queen Mary University London.
“There are lots of other potential explanations – it may be that people are more likely to have an ice-cream to cool down after a walk or some exercise, or it may be that people who tend to choose ice-cream as a dessert instead of a high-calorie slab of chocolate cake are also likely to substitute other high-fat foods.”
It would be interesting to look at the types of people who were more likely to eat ice-cream and the other lifestyle choices they made, Ford added.
Dr Duane Mellor, a senior lecturer and dietitian at Aston Medical School, cautioned against homing in on the health benefits of a single type of food, and warned of the potential inaccuracy of food intake studies, which are usually conducted using questionnaires.
He said: “The problem ultimately is that we try to link a health effect or benefit to a single food, when in reality we eat a variety of foods, and it is our whole dietary pattern that counts.”
Mellor did concede, however, that ice-cream “may contain some nutrients which could be beneficial” such as calcium, and that it had a low glycaemic index, but that this was is likely to be outweighed by its sugar and calorie content.
“So, overall we should not be considering ice-cream as a health food, only something which can be enjoyed in small amounts as part of an overall health dietary pattern,” he said.
The Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England declined to comment.
Source: The Guardian