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The future of ice cream. The dawn of the functional freeze

8 min read
AUTHOR: Elisa Roche

Traditionally an unctuous treat that’s as laden with dairy as it is nostalgia, the way we consume ice cream is changing. With Tetra Pak’s Torben Vilsgaard and Mintel’s Regina Haydon, we discover more about what the future holds for the world’s best-loved frozen food and find that shoppers want a treat that does it all. 

From Audrey Hepburn miraculously fitting a gelato into her 20 inch waist in Roman Holiday, to Harry Styles admitting he “stuffs his face all day” with Asian-style frozen mochi dough balls, ice cream will always be a favourite, timeless treat for all ages.  
But while ice cream sales are at an all time high, the product is rapidly changing along with consumer need, technological innovations, health concerns, and environmental worries. 

As with many foods and beverages, consumers are driving this change in the ice cream industry. “I don’t know if it’s coming directly from the Covid-19 pandemic, but I think we are more focused on treating ourselves nicely,” explains Torben Vilsgaard, who manages Tetra Pak’s rather enticing-sounding Ice Cream Academy. “Ice cream is a treat, something you have when you celebrate or when you want to do something good for yourself.” 

Mintel’s Regina Haydon, a Global Food and Drink Analyst at the research company Mintel, agrees: “Indulgent flavours and textures will always drive this category. However, we’re also seeing other interesting things happening. There’s the big impact of plant-based diets which affect the ice cream category, and we’re seeing the introduction of more functional ingredients because consumers are looking at food and drink as a way to enhance their wellbeing and health, as well as having something fun.”  
Many consumers are moving to plant-based ice creams – even when they’re not vegan or vegetarian – to try something different, enjoy some variety and reduce their impact on the environment, since the ethical and sustainability issues raised by the dairy industry continue to make headline news.  

The growth in plant-based ice creams goes hand-in-hand with consumers’ and producers’ environmental concerns, many of which will be invisible to the ordinary shopper, as Torben reveals: “We are focusing a lot on energy reduction, reducing food waste, reducing the water utilised for processing and the chemicals used in cleaning.” Optimising processes is a key concern for Torben and his colleagues at Tetra Pak, along with challenges such as sustainable refrigeration and delivery methods.  

The company is one of the world’s largest food processing and packaging businesses – as much as 50% of the world’s ice cream is produced using Tetra Pak equipment and lines, so they really are at the forefront of changes in the ice cream industry.  

Technically, the trend towards plant-based ice creams is leading to challenges. Regina explains that plant-based ice creams “are becoming more indulgent, they are trying to mimic full fat, dairy-based ice creams.” That in itself requires real innovation, as Torben reveals: “The plant-based movement is really a game changer from an ice cream point of view. For many years we’ve had two different types of proteins to work with from the dairy side – casein and whey proteins. Now we’ve opened up a playground with hundreds of new proteins, all of which have different functionalities and different challenges, but also new textures and new ways of presenting ice cream.” Torben hopes that the future of such innovative products will help reduce the need for such cost- or energy-heavy processes. 

Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in the origins of their ice cream ingredients, which is impacting the look of the product and the flavours available. 

Regina Haydon, Global Food and Drink Analyst, Mintel

Of course, it’s not just about what’s inside the ice cream that interests manufacturers and consumers. The outside is concerning too, especially since the product needs specific packaging to help contain its properties. Regina believes that the Covid-19 pandemic, when ice cream sales boomed, has reinforced the need for sustainability even more (the US alone consumed nearly 4 billion litres of ice cream in 2020). “People began to consider their impact on the environment as the world stood still,” she says. “In terms of ice cream packaging, there is much more that can be done. We’ve seen some big brands moving in that direction, including Ben and Jerry’s, who introduced a paper wrapper instead which can be recycled in the paper recycling. We’ve also seen Carte D’Or introduce degradable packaging – big players are trying to meet consumer demand for more sustainable pack solutions.” 

Shoppers are becoming increasingly interested in the origins of their ice cream ingredients too, which is impacting the look of the product and the flavours available. Previously, consumers were happy eating an ice cream which was “just some mixed, blended stuff,” says Torben. “But now what consumers want to see is the fruits they’re eating, such as huge blocks of strawberries. Inclusions are becoming really popular – big chunks of dough or almonds for example.” The technology to drive those inclusions, especially when it comes to stick or novelty ice creams, is moving at pace, “so you really have this handcrafted appearance of a commercially-produced ice cream,” explains Torben.  

That links in with the ‘premiumisation’ of the marketplace, with consumers keen to understand the provenance of what they’re eating. Far from a traditional flavour like vanilla being boring, there are now over 100 types of vanilla so, as Regina says: “Why not talk specifically about which type, how we got it, who made it, who grew it? Consumers want to hear those stories as it changes how they perceive the flavour.” 

And further ingredient innovations continue: much like in the soft drinks market, the ice cream market is looking towards more functional ingredients in order to help boost popularity among health-conscious shoppers. Regina continues: “Ice cream is such an indulgent category, there is room to be healthier. And therefore we see more functional ingredients making a move to ice cream, such as probiotics or vitamins, or ingredients like goji berries. These can give you something extra healthy.”  

Small, bite-sized ice mini creams are also massively gaining in popularity – after going viral on TikTok thanks to celebrities like Harry Styles and Kendall Jenner. Sales of mochi ice cream brand Little Moons rose 2500% in the UK in the first three months of 2021 alone and the brand’s hashtag has been seen more than 50million times on Instagram. Regina feels that young audiences in particular are keen on these miniature portion sizes, and they’ll snap them on Instagram which provides the brand with extra exposure… Before the younger consumers demand the next big (or small!) thing. Torben explains that Tetra Pak’s machines produce up to one million units every 24 hours, so “when you have tiny products, you really need to go into precision manufacturing and getting everything to work together, with the aim of having almost nothing going to waste during production” – whether that’s food waste or money being lost. 

These miniature ice creams are also a reflection of this health movement,” says Regina, “because we ultimately consume less sugar, less fat, fewer calories, or we have this boost for our mind – that indulgent boost. Consumers understand that mental health and physical health are so related. It’s a complex and holistic approach to our wellbeing, and tiny bites of ice cream can give that boost.”  

Japan especially has been responsible for some amazing innovations and flavour combinations, like mochi balls, plus wasabi and seaweed flavours for example. The Asia influence looks set to be boosted even more by the Beijing Olympics, where – if they can’t attend the international event – people will buy into the innovative, locally-inspired food trends and limited edition flavours that tend to appear alongside many global sports events. Regina certainly has her eye on Asia as a trendsetting area when it comes to ice cream flavours, textures and products, while India is predicted to be the fastest growing market in the next five years in terms of ice cream consumption.  

With technological advances, changing consumer tastes and global and societal concerns driving innovation, our favourite indulgent treat looks set to change considerably over the coming years, but ice cream is here to stay.  

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