I grew up in the country, on a gravel back road where the diary truck drove by to fill its tank at the local dairy farms. Those cows, I know now, were living the high life. Grazing idyllic in oak tree savanna fields, with miles of territory to wander. I knew the farmers’ kids. I even helped them with their chores, although not often because it wasn’t fun, even though they said it would be.
My assistance did result in my first taste of milk squirted straight from the udder! The term “Organic” was not used then, but now I know those were family owned organic farms in every sense of the term. No hormones. No cages. Hey, the farm kids even gave the cows names! At the time, my mom would buy name brand ice cream from the town’s market. My favorite was mint chocolate chip ice cream (the green kind). The flavor is super hip right now for being a “trashy” flavor. When I say hip and trashy, I mean in a weird nostalgic unhealthy food like tater tots and grilled cheese kind of way. Some basic research reveals those cheap ice creams were, for their time, wholesome, waaaayyyy more wholesome than they are now.
Things have since changed in my hometown. Those family owned dairy farms are gone, replaced with mega dairy farms. And ice cream, especially my favorite trashy and hip flavor, has changed into what I consider to be really unhealthy in an environmentally unfriendly way. Palm oil. You might not know this, but palm oil is an ingredient in most frozen desserts and frozen dairy desserts (ice cream with a sub label). Palm oil is high in saturated fat and can affect cardiovascular health. The FDA does not require palm oil to be labeled, and instead the term vegetable oil is frequently substituted. Because most palm oil plantations are unsustainable, their spread across the landscape threatens rain forests, causes habitat loss for endangered species, violates human rights, and impacts climate change. Most name brand ice cream manufacturers currently use the stuff, but don’t want to be identified with its impacts. Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Assistant Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles, and tropical conservation ecologist Jennifer Sheridan has some serious concerns about the palm oil industry and has witnessed firsthand its impacts on rainforest ecology. Check out her work here.
So how do I fix this? Or maybe, how do I get my chocolate mint chip ice cream fix?
First off, during the pandemic, I’ve been making homemade ice cream. I’ve been able to control the ingredients and add in special touches like fresh mint (growing out of control in my neighbor’s garden). Here’s a quick blender recipe I’ve used that doesn’t use sweetened condensed milk, which contains palm oil. When I need ice cream from the store for my movie binges, I choose companies that clearly label their ice cream to be palm oil free. Ben and Jerry’s does this very well. As the ice cream shops open up, I will go local.
All of these options may seem high priced or too much work. Surprisingly the homemade recipes are really easy to make, and pretty cheap considering the quality of ice cream produced. The great thing is you can enjoy the process, sit back and not feel guilty about using palm oil, the really unhealthy and not cool ingredient in ice cream. And for me, it takes me back, to when ice cream had ingredients I could point to.
Asia Ward is CMNH Anthropocene Program Manager and Science Communication Fellow. Museum staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.