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Urbino Project 2014 | April 15, 2024

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Flavor and Functionality

Kelsey Peck
Nutritional scientist Roberta De Sanctis wants you to have your gelato and eat it, too

For most of us, the words “tomato” and “gelato” just do not seem to go together. You would probably turn up your nose at the suggestion of spinach in gelato as well. What about carrots or saffron? Way too bizarre to be found in any normal gelato flavor, right? Not to Roberta De Sanctis.

In fact, De Sanctis, a food scientist, nutritionist, and teacher at the University of Urbino, believes in these odd combinations. After much research and taste testing, she is using them to create a new kind of gelato. She calls it “functional gelato.”

gelato varieties gelato counter Polo gelato

“Functional gelato is the future of gelato,” De Sanctis declares. Her basic strategy: combining one fruit and one vegetable of the same color with many other beneficial ingredients to turn gelato into a healthful snack or even a meal replacement.

To explain her four color-coded flavors, De Sanctis flips through a brochure titled “Il Gelato Che Fa Bene Alla Salute” or, “Gelato That Is Good For Your Health.” First is Giallo/Arancio, (yellow/orange) a gelato made with peaches and saffron. Because her formula calls for a lot of fruit, this flavor is rich in fiber and antioxidants, among other things. De Sanctis says it can help protect the skin from the aging effects of the summer sun. Her Rosso (red) gelato is made with raspberries and cherry tomatoes. Its high amounts of fiber, vitamin C, and lycopene help defend against inflammation of the cardiovascular system, according to De Sanctis. Viola (violet) combines purple carrots and blackberries. Also filled with fiber and vitamin C, Viola can prevent inflammation of the urinary tract, De Sanctis believes. Her Verde (green) flavor blends spinach and kiwi. Vitamin C in the kiwi helps the body more readily absorb iron from the spinach, which is especially important for people who may be anemic.

gelato counter

Urbanati’s niece anxiously waits to have her order taken at the counter.

De Sanctis explains that one of the challenges in developing these naturally sweet, fruit-based gelatos is controlling the types and amounts of sugar. She replaces some of the sugar in a standard gelato formula with inulin, a sweet-tasting dietary fiber that comes from the plant chicory. Regular doses of inulin are thought by some to promote immune system function, support the cardiovascular system, and enhance the absorption of minerals in the body. Inulin also may help with weight loss and ease digestion.

Inulin is not the only additional ingredient that makes functional gelato nutritious, says De Sanctis. Among others, she also includes casein, a protein found in milk and eggs that supports proper growth and development of children; omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower the risk of heart disease; and probiotics, naturally occurring bacteria that are believed to improve digestive health.

Functional gelato is the future of gelato,” says Roberta De Sanctis.

Of course, the abundance of healthful ingredients—not to mention the color green—is enough to make any gelato fan wonder whether functional gelato will offer the sweet and delicious tastes that the Italian people love. De Sanctis says she is used to skepticism. She recommends a trip to a gelato shop a few minutes outside Urbino for some first-hand research.

Polo Gelateria-Torteria sits on a quiet street in the small town of Gallo. On a recent hot evening in June, people are perched on benches outside, enjoying their cold treats. Stepping under a faded blue awning and into the shop, customers find the familiar rainbow-filled counter behind which the operator hurries back and forth. Although Polo may look like many other gelato shops in Italy, it is one of only three that offer De Sanctis’s four functional gelatos. A paper sign taped to the glass counter lists “I Colori Della Salute”—”the colors of health.”

Polo gelato

A mother and her two sons enjoying a treat outside Polo on a hot June evening.

Shop owner Claudia Urbanati, looks up, scoop in hand, to see De Sanctis enter. “Ciao! Ciao!” she exclaims. Urbanati and De Sanctis hug and chat like good friends as well as business partners. After De Sanctis became a customer a few years back, they instantly connected and started collaborating. De Sanctis does research perfecting her functional formulas in the “laboratory” in the back of the shop. Urbanati serves as the entrepreneurial half of the team by producing and selling De Sanctis’s products out front. As the secretary-treasurer of the Association of Maestros of Gelato, a group that promotes artisinal gelato, Urbanati is committed to authentic methods and health benefits for all the products she offers.

De Sanctis confidently steps behind the counter and starts scooping gelato for her six-year old daughter, Eleonora. The little girl’s face lights up as she watches piles of classic vanilla come to rest on top of her cone. De Sanctis says her three young children are not ready to appreciate her functional flavors. The same could be said of many adults. She says that despite increasing health consciousness among Italians, most are probably unaware of—or possibly unconvinced about—the good taste of gelato that is also good for you.

Don’t let any feelings you may have against spinach stop you from trying Verde. It’s full of tangy, mouth-watering kiwi.

Which brings us back to the need for a first-hand functional gelato tasting.

De Sanctis emerges from behind the counter offering a large cup with four generous scoops. The four functional flavors make up a beautiful assortment of lavender, pink, orange, and green gelato.

With the first bite of Rosso, you instantly get a sensation of tomato, but not an overpowering one. The raspberry kicks in quickly, balancing the tomato with a flavorful zing. It’s subtle and sweet, but also invigorating. Although this is perhaps her most unusual flavor combination, De Sanctis says, it is also the most popular.

gelato varieties

The variety of gelato makes it hard for customers to choose a flavor here at Polo Gelateria-Torteria.

Viola begins with a bold, possibly worrisome note of carrot, but any bitterness fades in a few seconds as sweet blackberry comes into play. It’s a satisfying blend.

Don’t let any feelings you may have against spinach stop you from trying Verde. Luckily, it does not taste anything like a spinach leaf. It is full of tangy, mouth-watering kiwi.

As soon as you try Giallo/Arancio, it is obvious that it is made with fresh peaches and not a lot of added sugar. It tastes like summer, a sensation you never want to end.

After a tasting like this, you are no longer worrying about health benefits and nutritious ingredients. That, of course, is part of De Sanctis’s strategy. Functionality is trumped by sweet, homemade flavors that leave you satisfied, feeling healthy, and wanting more.

This article also appears in Urbino Now magazine’s Mangia Bene section. You can read all the magazine articles in print by ordering a copy from MagCloud.