UPDATE: A McDonald’s spokesperson says that they’re close implementing a new soft serve in all 14,000 restaurants nationwide. The new version contains no artificial flavors, artificial colors or preservatives. The introduction of the new soft serve began in Fall of 2016 and is close to being implemented in all 14,000 restaurants nationwide.
Soft serve is a national favorite. Despite our love for hard ice cream, soft serve gets picked about 70 percent of the time. It’s not hard to understand why ― this soft, pillowy puff of magic defines summer ― but it’s a little tricky to wrap our heads around all the ingredients that show up in this summertime treat.
Turns out it's not just "soft" ice cream. It gets that texture for a reason.
Soft serve contains the expected dairy and sweeteners, like milk, nonfat milk, sugar, corn syrup and whey, but, there’s more. There’s a list of harder-to-pronounce ingredients that are even trickier to understand.
Polysorbate 80 is used as an emulsifier in foods and cosmetics. It’s added to soft serve to prevent milk proteins from completely coating the fat droplets. This allows the soft serve to bind and locks air into the mixture. (McDonald’s, DQ)
Mono- and diglycerides come from fatty acids. They’re used as another emulsifier. They help combine ingredients containing fat with ingredients containing water (because the two don’t normally merge well on their own). (McDonald’s, DQ)
Carrageenan is a carbohydrate extracted from red seaweed. It’s used for its gelling, stabilizing and thickening properties. (McDonald’s, DQ)
Guar gum is made from the endosperm of the guar bean. It’s used as a thickening agent. The use of it in diet pills was banned in the 1980s because it was dangerous, but small amounts of it ― like what’s found in soft serve ― have been established as safe. (McDonald’s, DQ)
Cellulose gum comes from the cell walls of plants such as wood pulp and cottonseeds. It is another thickener. It is commonly used in the food industry and adds to the mouthfeel and texture of a product. (McDonald’s)
Sodium Phosphate is used in many foods and serves many purposes. It can be used as a texturizer, an emulsifier or a leavening agent. (McDonald’s)
Of course, not all soft serve is created equal. You could probably find soft serve without all those additives, but you’ll want to be careful with the cone, dip and toppings. The listed ingredients above find themselves in a lot of those foods.
If you’d like to avoid those added ingredients in your diet, you might consider making your own 2-ingredient “soft serve.” It’s made almost entirely out of bananas, which we can all pronounce.
CORRECTION: A previous article of the story incorrectly stated that Polysorbate 80 was a hydrocarbon.