Other than being cold, you may not think that avalanches and ice cream have a whole lot in common. But avalanche experts from the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland, are currently in cahoots with Nestle to produce a better tasting ice cream, reports the BBC.
What can avalanches teach us about ice cream? It turns out that a technique used to study ice crystal formation in avalanches also tells us something about why ice cream loses its flavor and texture after sitting too long in the freezer.
Using a specialized X-ray machine at the Swiss Institute, scientists were able to peer closer at the structure of ice cream than ever before. The machine is one of only a few in the world that can take images of tiny structures at sub-zero temperatures.
"Previously, we could not look inside ice cream without destroying the sample in the process," said Nestle food scientist Dr. Cedric Dubois.
So does ice cream look as delicious up close at it does sitting on the top of a cone? That all depends on the size and shape of its ice crystals. The larger the ice crystals get, the "chewier," icier and less pleasurable to eat the ice cream becomes, researchers found.
One example of this effect is revealed after ice cream has been stored in a freezer for too long. As white frosty ice forms on the ice cream, it becomes harder to scoop, loses a lot of its flavor and doesn't retain that creamy texture we all love.
Part of the blame for this unspeakable tragedy lies with our freezers, according to Dubois.
"Most home freezers are set at minus 18C, but the temperature doesn't remain constant," he said. "It fluctuates by a couple of degrees in either direction, which causes parts of the ice cream to melt and then freeze again."
The institute's X-ray machine was precise enough to capture a time lapse of ice crystals that were only a few microns across as the ice cream fluctuated through a small range of temperature changes. By studying how the crystals began in their formation, scientists hope to eventually produce better, more durable ice cream that will retain its taste and texture for longer.
"We already know the growth of ice crystals in ice cream is triggered by a number of different factors," said Dubois. "If we can identify the main mechanism, we can find better ways to slow it down."