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College of Health and Human Sciences

Kelly Thompson's research takes her to gelato shops in Italy

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sampling as many as nine gelato flavors a day while in Florence, Italy, was all in a day's work for a Kansas State University graduate student, whose master's thesis project may flavor the types of ice cream and other foods produced in the United States.

Kelly ThompsonKelly Thompson, now a doctoral student in human ecology, was one of  five panelists from Sensory Analysis Center who went to Italy to eat ice cream for 10 days. "It was torture," she said. "We tried to find bad gelato for the study, but it wasn't easy."

She examined the differences between gelato from Italy and gelato available in the United States and compared them with U.S. ice cream.

"Mostly we thought the research could be useful for ice cream manufacturers here in the United States," Thompson said. "If they could see the differences, maybe they could market their products a little more toward gelato."

She worked with an adviser, Delores Chambers, associate professor of human nutrition. Because Thompson and the panelists were able to describe the flavors in such detail, she and Chambers think that the findings may also help manufacturers seeking intense, authentic flavors for other types of foods.

"If you can make the flavors of a product true to what you're calling it, that can make a huge difference," she said.

Thompson said she found that the main difference between Italian gelato and U.S. ice cream was the intensity and authenticity of the gelato's flavor, whether in common varieties or more unusual ones like bitter orange or chocolate with crushed pepper.

"Our ice creams have a lot more dairy and sweet attributes, and some have artificial flavorings," she said. "With the gelato, the flavor it was called is the flavor you got. When you took a bite of the lemon gelato, you actually felt like you were eating a lemon because you had the bitter and the sweet."

She said one of the reasons the Italian gelato is so different from U.S. ice cream is that lifestyles in the two countries dictate purchasing styles. Whereas people in the United States are more likely to buy ice cream in bulk for their home freezers, Italians generally walk to a gelato shop after dinner to buy individual servings. This means that they can get gelato made fresh every day and are willing to pay a higher price for better ingredients.

"Their machines produce a lot less overrun, which is the air they whip into the ice cream, and so it's more dense," she said. "It has more flavor, it's at a higher temperature, and the great thing about it is that it has fewer calories and less fat than American ice cream because they use fewer dairy products."

To conduct the comparisons, Thompson would shuttle gelato samples from nearby shops in Florence to the sensory analysts waiting back at the hotel. The panelists then rated the flavors for different attributes. Thompson originally planned for the panelists to conduct the studies in the shops.

"The first place we went they looked at us like 'What are those crazy Americans doing?' because we had to bring along our ballots with all of the characteristics on it and crackers and water for the tasting,'" Thompson said.

Thompson said she's been asked to talk about her research project with K-State undergraduate students to show them the types of research they can do as K-State graduate students.

Now she's working on her doctorate with Betsy Barrett, associate professor of hospitality management.

"I get all of the interesting projects. Now I'm looking at wine consumption in the millennial generation," Thompson said.

Her work appeared in the Journal of Sensory Studies.

This article was posted on Wednesday, March 31, 2010, and is filed under Food, Nutrition, Dietetics and Health, Hospitality Management, Sensory Analysis Center.