Ice cream brand Zhong Xue Gao has always prided itself on using the best all-natural ingredients. That helps to support its hefty prices: the Ecuador Pink, its most expensive offering, promises pink cocoa powder from the South American country, plus Japanese shaddock juice, at Rmb66 a pop.
Yet last week, the company – whose main brand is known as Chicecream in English – ran into a storm of bad publicity about its goods. A video that soon got forwarded widely purported to show one of its ice cream popsicles looking pristine despite being left outside in temperatures of 31°C for over 50 minutes. Soon afterwards, another video showed a man torching one of the brand’s blue-and-cream-coloured Sea Salt Coconut popsicles with a blowtorch. Even the direct flame didn’t melt the ice cream, which instead turned brown and started to char.
Netizens were shocked and confused. “If the ice cream doesn’t even melt under flames, I wonder what it does inside my stomach,” one wondered. “Zhong Xue Gao should consider going into fire safety,” advised another.
The company went on to explain that its products retain their shape at temperatures above freezing because they contain little to no water. Instead of melting into puddles, they morph into more of a sticky blob. All of the ice creams also contain carrageenan, it said, an additive and stabiliser derived from seaweed that is widely used to preserve structure.
It also rebuked the amateur ice cream testers. “We think it is unscientific to judge the quality of ice cream by baking, drying or heating it,” it censured.
The brand’s founder Lin Sheng then posted on social media his conclusion that the accusations were a smear campaign orchestrated by its competitors. “It [Zhong Xue Gao] is obviously a product with quality that far exceeds the national standard and all these accusations were taken out of context by pseudoscience,” he wrote.
Lin also predicted more bad publicity as trolls hired by competitors went to work again. “More sequels – three, four, five, six – are about to come,” he claimed.
Food scientists have also weighed in on the debate. According to Ruan Guangfeng, the reason Zhong Xue Gao’s goods didn’t melt more immediately into mush is because the ice cream bars are thick and the temperatures were relatively low, “and so direct flame doesn’t completely burn through it”.
“The surface, however, is affected by the high temperature and that’s why it is carbonised and blackened. Just like barbequing meat, only the outside is burned and blackened,” he told TechWeb.
Still, the controversy again brought the brand’s higher prices into question, with many asking whether it is worth spending so much on an ice cream that doesn’t melt in the way that you might expect.
“All the discussion about Zhong Xue Gao really begs the question: just because it comes with a big price tag does it mean it’s worth it? I’m not talking about quality or food safety issues here. But after the news came out, we all suddenly noticed that prices of ice cream have gone up a lot in the last few years. All the lower-end brands have all but disappeared. But these high-end ice creams have alienated consumers because their prices don’t correlate with quality,” one weibo user thundered.
The spoils of Zhong Xue Gao’s previous success have lured more homegrown ice cream brands into the premium end of the market (even booze giant Moutai is trying its luck). Initially sold through online channels, some brands have done well enough to launch product ranges in stores. Unlike more established competitors they aren’t sold from dedicated brand freezers, however, leading to confusion from consumers over some of the prices of competing popsicles sold from mixed refrigeration units.
In fact, some consumers have given Zhong Xue Gao the moniker of “ice cream assassin” to describe their dismay at its expensive but sometimes unassuming frozen desserts. Because of the relatively ordinary packaging, others complain they feel like they have been “stabbed” when they find out the high prices of the ice cream from the cashier.
Industry commentators argue that Zhong Xue Gao’s problem isn’t that its prices are too high but that retailers need to display them more clearly to avoid confusion about what they cost. “Why can’t domestic ice cream be expensive?” one asked. “In the absence of ‘assassin’ behaviour, we unequivocally support the upgrading of raw materials for domestic ice cream brands and the increase in prices.”
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