That headline got your attention, didn't it? It caught my eye, too, especially when I saw the words "anti-aging ice cream" on the websites of well-known journalism outlets like Allure Magazine and Fox New York. This so-called news emanated from a deal that consumer-products giant Unilever signed recently with a Silicon Valley company called Ampere Life Sciences.
Unilever said in a statement that the two companies were going to work together to unlock "the core biology of aging," using Ampere's technology to build products containing antioxidants. The terms of the partnership or the planned products were not disclosed.
Somehow, Fox New York surmised that the prospect of anti-aging ice cream was "being explored" by Unilever, which owns the wildly popular ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's. The story did not say who the source of that news was. Nevertheless, it went viral on the Internet: A search for "anti-aging ice cream" turned up 40,000 hits.
I decided to pursue this story like a journalist and actually contact Unilever, Ben & Jerry's and Ampere, both by phone and email. Dr. Guy Miller, executive chairman of Ampere, said he couldn't say anything beyond what was in the original statement. And Ben & Jerry's spokesman Sean Greenwood said in an email that any discussion of future products "would be premature." Unilever didn't answer me at all -- as sure a sign as any that this rumor is, well, nothing but a rumor.
But let's indulge everyone's fantasy for a moment and think about whether or not ice cream could ever be an anti-aging remedy. With my sincere apologies to Ben and Jerry, I doubt it.
Why? It all gets down to the fat content. Take my favorite flavor, for example: Chunky Monkey. A half a cup of this banana-flavored ice cream with chocolate chunks has a whopping 10 grams of saturated fat -- 50 percent of the daily recommended intake. It has 65 milligrams of cholesterol, which is 22 percent of the daily recommended value. High-fat, high-cholesterol diets can cause cardiovascular disease, the number-one cause of death in this country.
Whether boosting the antioxidant content of ice cream would actually make it healthier is open to question. Antioxidants such as vitamin A, C and E have been shown to reduce cell damage, which some scientists believe may protect people against age-related diseases like cancer. But the scientific literature on this topic is thin, at best.
Some scientists who study aging think the whole antioxidant craze is overblown. Manuel Collado, a biomedical researcher at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center in Madrid, Spain, maintains a website that debunks anti-aging claims. He says most of the studies done on healthy volunteers taking antioxidants have shown that they may do more harm than good, including a trial published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showing that men who took excessive amounts of multivitamins seemed to face an increase risk of prostate cancer.
"When antioxidant supplementation has been directly tested in large, controlled, well-conducted human clinical trials, the whole thing was clearly disappointing, to the point of some trials having to be halted due to increased incidence of cancer among the antioxidant treated participants," Collado says.
And we've already seen food makers get into hot water by making overly hyped health claims. In 2009, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration warned General Mills about claims that Cheerios is clinically proven to lower cholesterol. In June of this year, the Federal Trade Commission found fault with Kellogg's claim that Rice Krispies supports a child's immunity. Both those cereals contain antioxidants.
So if you truly want to fend off the aging process, don't hold your breath waiting for anti-aging ice cream. Says Greenwood, "Ben & Jerry's will stick to bringing you joy for the belly and soul for now." Indeed, Chunky Monkey may keep you young at heart -- but it won't protect your heart from growing old.