Channel Guide Magazine talks to Derek Spors of Ben & Jerry’s

Derek Spors, featured in National Geographic Channel’s “Sweet Tooth” special (which you can read about in “Channel Guide Magazine”) works in the Research & Development lab at Ben & Jerry’s, where he helps create the tasty flavors we have all come to know and love (his business card labels him as an “Ice Cream Scientician,” a name he gave himself). We talked with him a bit to get the double-scoop on the science and fun behind one of America’s favorite treats.

What exactly goes on in the Ben & Jerry’s lab?

Derek Spors: Between all of us [scientists] we kind of hit food from every angle. My background is Food Science; I have a degree from UW-Madison in Wisconsin. I kind of handle the technical … well, what we kind of refer to as the “geeky issues.” Then there’s a couple of other people who have a culinary background. Their expertise is making something taste fantastic. So each of us will develop our own flavor but we’ll help each other out quite a bit. If I need help making something taste good, I’ll go to someone with a culinary background; if they want to keep something crunchy or make something soft, something like that, they’ll come to me.

Where do the ideas for flavors come from? Do consumers submit suggestions?

Sometimes the ideas just come to use when we’re at a restaurant, eating a dessert, or just an idea that pops into our head. We do get a lot of consumer suggestions. I think the number is probably somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 suggestions per month on our web site alone. Anytime I’m walking through an airport with my business tag on my bag I get about another 200 more! Normally the conversation goes something like: “What do you do?” And I say, “Develop flavors for Ben & Jerry’s.” And the next thing out of their mouth, inevitably, is, “Oh, I’ve got a flavor idea!” We do look at all those consumer suggestions.

Everything has been suggested, and most of them have been tried. We’ve tried ranch ice cream with potato chips; anchovies. We’ll try anything once.

Which flavors can you claim on your development resume?

One that’s not on the market anymore that’s one of my favorites was In a Crunch. It was peanut butter ice cream with chocolate covered peanuts and a crispy fudge swirl. I did our vanilla and coffee recipes, which is kind of basic. [I did] a pint called Marsha Marsha Marshmallow, which is pretty much a s’mores in a pint. Karamel Sutra [is another one].

What are your most popular flavors?

Cookie Dough, Cherry Garcia. Those two have always been [numbers] one or two for us.

It seems like vanilla often comes up as the most popular ice cream flavor among people. Why is that?

Actually, having the option of any ice cream I want, that’s my favorite, too. Us, we’re kind of the odd man out. Most other companies, vanilla is their best selling flavor. I don’t know this as researched fact, but my interpretation is that people buy the ice cream because they’re making sundaes or something at home. They’re buying a cup of vanilla, and they’re also buying chocolate sauce or some caramel sauce and whipped cream and all those type of things to kind of doctor it up and make up what they want themselves. And I think that’s why we don’t sell as much, because we do all that for them – why buy vanilla when you can buy all the chunks and swirls already in there?

Do you get free samples?

More than I can handle! (laughs) Every employee throughout the company gets three pints a day to take home. Being in R&D I obviously have access to a lot more! I’m exposed to so much ice cream that I honestly don’t eat a whole lot of it for pleasure! I don’t take home my three pints a day; only when I have friends visiting or my wife really asks for something specific.

How long does the ice cream process take from idea to consumer distribution?

It can vary; on average we spend about a year on it. Sometimes you’ve got to do it in a hurry. It can be as little as six weeks from the time the idea is made until we’re making it in the factory. Sometimes it can be a couple of years or even longer. Some ideas that one of us developers just has an idea that we really like, we’ll just keep tweaking it. Try it one year, maybe it doesn’t get launched, tweak it again the next year.

Do you have a base that all your ice cream stems from?

We pretty much narrow it down to a couple of different base mixes. We have what’s called a chocolate base mix and what we call white mix. So white mix is the basis of all things that are ice cream. If you add cherries and chocolate to white mix, it becomes Cherry Garcia. If you add vanilla to it, it becomes vanilla ice cream.

Could someone make his or her own ice cream at home?

It’s a whole lot easier than making beer or wine. In fact, we even have a recipe book on our web site that will give you base mix recipes, ways to make your own fudge, things like that. It’s really quite easy at home. The one thing is that it doesn’t last very long when you make it at home. The way that we make it in mass production, the shelf life is about a year. That’s partly my job because it falls into the “geeky” realm. When you make it at home, it’s really not going to last more than about a week.

Based on what’s shown in “Sweet Tooth” and what you’ve said, there seems to be an awful lot of complicated science behind ice cream.

There actually is quite a bit of it going on. When you make ice cream, [there’s] the fat-to-protein ratio that you have to get right to get the right texture. There’s functional ingredients like a stabilizer that would help control the ice crystals. One of the biggest things you have to deal with is the freezing point since [ice cream is] water based. If it came out of your freezer without the freezing point depressed, it would be like an ice cube. If you had it too far down, it would never freeze. Even some pH chemistry becomes involved. If we wanted to make, say, a passion fruit ice cream, something that’s very acidic, you have to watch the pH of your mix because the dairy proteins can react to that acidity and give you a bad texture. So there is quite a bit of science kind of hidden inside that pint!

What new flavors can we taste next year?

Our standard response is, if I tell you I’ll have to kill you! [laughs] We’re nearing the end of our development cycle. Our new flavors launch at the beginning of each new year. We’ve got some new ones coming out that will hit the shelf around February.

Sweet Tooth premieres on National Geographic Channel Dec. 20.