Why You Might Want To Think Twice Before Eating Soft Serve Ice Cream

Soft serve ice cream (not to be confused with regular ice cream) is the ultimate cold treat to enjoy on hot summer days. This frozen dessert has a soft, creamy texture and is served at a slightly warmer temperature than regular ice cream, making it easier to bite into. It comes in many variations and may also include additional ingredients like fruit, candy, or cookie dough. Soft serve is commonly served in cones or cups and can be topped with a variety of items, such as sprinkles, hot fudge, or whipped cream, making this dessert a treat that can be customized to suit your flavor preferences.

It may sound ideal, but soft serve is actually hiding one dirty, little secret — bacteria. If soft serve is stored at anything hotter than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, bacteria can grow rapidly, potentially causing foodborne illness. Soft serve already contains certain strains of natural bacteria due to the ingredients used to make it. It is supposed to be stored at 32 degrees Fahrenheit in the machine, but that doesn't mean that it has always stayed that cold, nor does it mean that bacteria can't grow at temperatures below 40 degrees. This, and other factors, means that your soft serve may have bacteria growing in it.

Soft serve machines are a breeding ground for bacteria

Aside from the soft serve itself, the soft serve machines used to dispense your treat have the potential to harbor bacteria if they are not cleaned and maintained properly. If the machine is not cleaned and sanitized regularly, bacteria can accumulate in the nooks and crannies. According to State Food Safely (via MSN), these machines should ideally be cleaned every 10-24 hours. If not, the bacteria growing in your soft serve can cause food poisoning.

This is why it is important to routinely clean the machines with hot water and detergent and sterilize them with a food-grade sanitizer. Unfortunately, many food workers aren't thoroughly trained on how to disassemble and clean commercial equipment, and sometimes they just don't have the time to do it. This means there are a whole lot of soft serve machines out there that don't get cleaned properly. When soft serve ice cream is dispensed through a dirty machine, the bacteria can be transferred to your dessert, potentially causing contamination. 

Enjoying soft serve at home

This doesn't mean that all soft serve machines are just crawling with bacteria, though. Federal and state guidelines must be followed for food safety, and restaurant inspectors will flag any issue with these machines. As long as the establishment you go to is serving the ice cream at the correct temperature, regularly cleaning and sanitizing the soft serve machine, and discarding any unused ice cream after about two weeks, the risk of foodborne illness can be significantly reduced.

If you are still unsure about trusting your health to a soft serve machine, you can make your own right at home, and you don't even need a soft serve machine to get that signature light, airy texture. All you will need is a container, a hand blender, and a good homemade ice cream recipe. You can even add bananas, peanut butter, or strawberries and cream to make the perfect soft serve at home in your perfectly sanitized kitchen.