Ice Cream: Sugar & Dairy Get the Boot

ice cream

Innovation in the ice cream and desserts space increasingly reflects consumers’ changing attitudes to health and wellness, as well as the draw of novel flavor blends, a review of the latest global launches reveals. By Tom Warden, Gama

Emerging ingredient alternatives, in particular, are putting pressure on traditional formulations as consumers embrace the ‘free from’ trend, with dairy and sugar gradually being usurped by plant-derived ingredients and natural sweeteners such as stevia. Insights from Gama Compass™, Gama’s leading platform for FMCG innovation, also indicate a continuing interest in ‘healthy indulgence’, with fashionable coconut and Greek yoghurt, as well as more avantgarde choices such as herbal tea, among the flavors now catering to consumers’ more adventurous palates.

Overall, ice cream & desserts continues to be a significant contributor to total NPD within the frozen food space, accounting for almost one in every two launches in each of 2015 and 2016. This percentage rises to over 50% in Asia Pacific and Latin America, where ice cream & desserts have proven to be a dominant force in frozen food launch activity in the last three years.

No milk…

Of the many broad trends impacting food innovation over the past few years, the one that is most strikingly represented within ice cream & desserts is ‘free from’, specifically the rise of new natural sweeteners and plant-derived ingredients, as consumers embrace options such as almond milk, coconut oil and stevia as alternatives to ‘bad for you’ dairy and sugar.

Evidencing this rise in ‘better for you’ launches, 2016 saw the ‘low calories’ claim nudge up to joint fifth on the leader board for new ice cream and dessert products, with 6.4% of launches being promoted for their low calorie content, according to Gama Compass™.

From the product perspective, the arrival of major players on the ‘free from’ scene points to the way ‘special dietary needs’ are, by all accounts, becoming anything but ‘special’, as consumers of all kinds cut down on traditional staples such as dairy, sugar, wheat and other in the name of better health. The past two years, for instance, has seen global giant Unilever invest heavily in dairy alternative innovation such as Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert; at the time the launch was announced, Unilever proclaimed that it was the first mainstream company to launch a dairy-free alternative in the ice cream category. Other major brands to have expanded in the non-dairy space have included Hain Daniels, with the launch of its Almond Dream almond milk ice cream for the UK market, and WhiteWave Foods, which last year added new varieties to its So Delicious Dairy Free Cashew Milk ice cream range in the US.

It is not just in ‘free from’, however, that traditional cow’s milk finds itself under threat: as well as growth in sheep and goat’s milk products, one of the quirkier developments in recent years has been the emergence of camel’s milk, a traditional – and strongly-flavored — ingredient found in the cuisines and cultures of the Middle East. Al Ain Farms, a UAE-based dairy and poultry firm, caused something of a media stir in 2015 when it launched a pioneering line of camel milk ice cream for its home retail market. Camelait brand ice cream, which Al Ain promoted as “rich [and] luxurious”, was described at the time as breakthrough for the ice cream category, having required new manufacturing techniques to handle the complex proteins of camel milk in the pasteurization process.

…and no sugar

Where traditional cow’s milk has been giving way to almonds, coconuts and even camels, another key staple ingredient in the ice cream & desserts pantry – table sugar – has also found itself in the firing line, as a growing niche of ‘non-sugar’ ice cream launches – 3.6% of all those reported on Gama Compass™ in 2016 – threatens to upset the applecart.

Among the major catalysts for this change has been the relatively recent approval of natural sweetener stevia in Europe, enticing a number of players to dabble in new low-sugar options: in 2014, for example, leading Italian ice cream firm Sammontana launched its Levia brand of stevia-sweetened ice cream products, beginning with ice lollies and later expanding to dairy ice cream. The UK, meanwhile, has seen the launch of Perfect World Ice Cream containing “a sweet blend of polyols and stevia [that] has less than 1/3 the calories of any sugar”, as well as Jersey Dairy’s Minioti Premium Ice Cream, containing a stevia-sweetened formula as well as live cultures for added functional benefit.

This instinct to ally sugar-free and functional benefits is not just confined to Jersey Dairy – instead, the strategy is among the key features of the burgeoning no and low sugar ice cream scene. 2014, for instance, saw the launch of the low-calorie SeiTu Funcional Ice Cream Dessert in Argentina, promoted as containing phytosterols and omega 3 and as having cholesterol-lowering benefits. The UAE’s Whey2Go, meanwhile, launched its own sugar-free ice-cream, sweetened with xylitol and featuring a whey-based formula for added protein benefits.

Yet while no-sugar ice cream and desserts represents an important and growing segment, it is interesting to note that this is not reflected in sugar content across the board: so while ‘no sugar’ claims were up in 2016 on the previous year, so too – marginally – was the average sugar content in new launches, according to Gama Compass™ data. In a climate where sugar is being increasingly reviled, this apparent contradiction is suggestive of a polarization within the market, with low and no sugar launches expanding at one end of the scale, and indulgent, high sugar launches holding their own at the other.

‘Healthy’ flavors

A parallel development in the drive towards a ‘no sugar’, ‘no dairy’ future in ice cream & desserts is growth in new flavors and products that reflect comparable ideas of ‘light’, ‘healthy’ and ‘natural’. As ably demonstrated by its widespread use as a dairy alternative, coconut has been one of the chief beneficiaries of this broad trend, with coconut flavors increasing in 2016 to feature on 6% of new ice cream and dessert launches across the year, and coconut oil emerging as the leading ‘oil’ ingredient in NPD, featuring on over 20% of launches in the last three years. From the product point of view, meanwhile, coconut continues to show its versatility, inspiring unusual launches such as French frozen retailer Picard’s Coconut Sorbet, which not only features a grated coconut filling but is also served in a ‘natural shell’, enhancing its appeal as a dessert for special occasions.

Elsewhere, other ‘healthy halo’ ingredients are also continuing to make their presence felt. Greek yoghurt continues to be prominent, with whole swathes of frozen Greek yoghurt products, including from major brands such as Australia’s Bulla, Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s and Brazil’s Jundia, hitting shelves in recent years. Fruit also continues to play a key role, with recent launches emphasizing the ‘healthy’ power of fruit including Tesco’s low-calorie Frozen Smoothie line, which came in varieties such as Orange Mango & Passionfruit and Apple Pear & Kiwi, as well as Acai Frooty’s new line of Dragonfruit Ice Cream in Brazil, in one variety aping an on-the-go yoghurt dessert by combining ice cream with a granola topping.

Over in the US meanwhile, the ‘healthy and natural’ trend is illustrated by companies such as Tea-rrific! Ice Cream, whose recently launched line of products is promoted as a “new ice cream sensation that elevates America’s favorite dessert with all the great taste and natural goodness of tea”.  The product line, which is infused with “the best specialty blends of loose leaf and herbal teas…imparting all the goodness nature intended”, comes in a range of novel fruit, spice and floral flavors, including Lavender’s Blueberry, Chamomile, Masala Chai and Ginger Matcha.