The more we think about it, the stranger it seems. There are ice creams and sorbets of almost all flavors – from fruits, chocolate, nuts, and spices, to more unexpected ingredients like truffles, foie gras, and Iberian ham. So what’s stopping us from creating an ice cream made from one of the west’s most popular fruits? The reason may surprise you.
First attempts and discoveries
The first documented attempt to make grape ice cream dates back to 1875, when Robert Green, who was already famous for his inventions in the field of sub-zero desserts, promised his followers a grape ice cream for the food fair that would be held the next year. However, each of his experiments failed miserably due to a component in the grapes: anthocyanin, a chemical compound that inhibits the freezing process.
Years later, Baskin & Robbins would take the reins in search of a grape ice cream, again failing due to the antifreeze effects of anthocyanin. Another complication arose, in that anthocyanin, when frozen, also modifies the color and flavor of the grape so the acidic nature of this fruit causes the dairy element to sour. Additionally, due to the high water content of grapes, it ends up containing icy chunks, quite undesirable for a creamy ice cream. For a time, there was a fake grape ice cream made from artificial flavoring, but according to the staff it was never very popular.
When fiction takes over
The reasons above are little known and, given their science-y nature, perhaps too boring for anyone to remark on. Which is why another explanation, albeit a completely fabricated one, quickly made the rounds and obscured the real reasons.
This urban legend goes that, in 1976, Ben Cohen (co-creator of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream) would make a prototype grape ice cream on the request of Jerry’s attractive sister Becky. While Ben had no idea about the anthocyanin, he discovered in his tests that the peel aided the freezing process (although chemically, it translated into higher levels of anthocyanin). The creator offered Becky a scoop of the new ice cream, and she in turn offered it to her dog. The pup seemed to enjoy the ice cream until he suddenly dropped dead.
It seems neither Becky nor Ben were aware that grapes are actually toxic to dogs, and the claim is that in this case, the high concentrations of anthocyanin were responsible for the sudden lethality of the ice cream. Ben, devastated by the result, made a report to the FDA informing them of the incident. The case was supposedly investigated and, in 1982, any subsequent attempts to make natural or artificial grape ice cream were prohibited citing the danger to pets.
A more dramatic story indeed, though one that has been thoroughly debunked. But now we know why it is impossible to find grape ice cream. Perhaps with some luck and ingenuity from a small ice cream parlor that will change. In the meantime, you can try to make it yourself at home, or remember, there’s always grape popsicles.