The scoop on plant-based ice cream: ‘Countless exciting and significant growth prospects’

The ice cream category is traditionally driven by indulgence. However, it is currently witnessing a surge in better-for-you options which can be traced to the launch of Halo Top’s pioneering low-calorie high protein desserts initially in the US.

Are guilt-free ice creams too good to be true? Probably. But formulations that allow consumers to enjoy a permissible treat offer a clear USP in a luxury category whose main selling point is pleasure over health.

Plant-based ice creams fall into this bracket. Boosted by the overall upswing in dairy alternatives, dairy-free ice cream benefits from a health halo that typically extends across the plant-based sector.

Citing an Opinion Matters survey of European consumers, Yves Vantomme, Product Strategic Manager of Plant Nutrition at Glanbia Nutritionals, observed: “With an impressive 12% growth in 2020, plant-based milk is increasing market share in this category and building momentum in the European market. One in three UK consumers indicate they perceive plant-based milk as healthier than dairy milk, suggesting that the trend for plant-based beverages and snacks such as yoghurt and ice cream, will continue into 2021 and beyond.”

Data from market researchers at Innova reveals a four-fold increase in plant-based ice cream in Western Europe between 2014 and 2018. In 2019, the category generated retail sales of €135m in the region and CAGR is forecast at 12.6% through to 2024.

Delivering positive nutrition through ice cream?

According to Torben Vilsgaard, Ice Cream Academy Manager at Tetra Pak, the surge in consumer desire for ice cream makers to deliver on the twin – and somewhat contradictory – points of health and indulgence has been boosted by the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our collective outlook.

“Increased consumer demand for a range of plant-based ice cream is not only due to a general rise in vegetarian and vegan diets. The COVID-19 pandemic is also broadening ice cream from an indulgence into a healthy dessert choice,”​ he told us.

“The pandemic is encouraging consumers to seek out healthier foods as they make the link between gut health and improved immunity. In fact, data from Mintel shows that eating healthily became a higher priority for 40% of Australian consumers since the initial outbreak, while 35% of UK consumers are interested in ice creams that improve gut health. To capitalise on this trend, ice cream makers are trying to broaden out the food’s image by launching healthy, pre/probiotic options.”

Getty Images We Are - ice cream

Consumers want better-for-you ice cream in the post-pandemic new normal, experts claim / Pic: Getty Images We Are

Declan Rooney, Strategic Marketing Manager Savoury and Savoury Alternatives for Ingredion EMEA, concurs that the COVID pandemic has had an influential impact on consumers seeking out healthier alternatives. “As the pandemic has continued, a rise in healthy eating to maintain health has also surged. In the UK alone, 57% of consumers are now considering changing their diet to become healthier and more sustainable,”​ he noted.

With manufacturers leveraging innovation to meet this need, Rooney suggests that they need to be mindful of the claims consumers are most interested in for any given category. “Plant-based presents a key opportunity and for optimum impact, but formulations should provide claims that reflect consumer concerns. Organic, functional benefits and nutrition claims are all forecast to grow,” he noted. “Choosing the right claim is very important.”

Claims and clean label: What consumers want in vegan ice cream

So, what claims resonate? “For dairy alternatives, top claims are ‘gluten free’, ‘vegan’ and ‘lactose-free’, followed by ‘no added sugar’ and ‘source of protein’. Additional claims should feed into functional benefits of the products. Consumers are looking for claims that support specific health benefits such as ‘digestive health’, ‘vitamin/mineral fortified’, ‘added calcium’ and ‘high source of protein’.”

Examples of better-for-you innovation range from Danone’s Alpro 360 plant-based ice cream that carries the ‘no sweeteners’ claim front of pack and contains just 360 calories per tub, to Spanish ice cream maker Ibense’s vegan, gluten & lactose-free SKU, which claims to be low in calories, saturated fats and sodium, but rich in oleic acids (associated with cardiovascular health). 

Rooney also stressed that while consumers look positively at the substitution of traditional dairy proteins by plant-based options, they nevertheless remain laser focused on the need to see clean ingredient lists that are recognisable and free-from artificial additives.

“Ingredients are a key differentiator,”​ he suggested. “Label-reading consumers will choose between products by peering at the ingredients list first. This presents a great opportunity, as manufacturers have not yet fully leveraged cleaner labels in those markets. Companies should aim to keep the number of ingredients to a minimum, ensure ingredients are recognisable to consumers and be aware of some of the potential pitfalls on the horizon.”

Getty-Images David Malan ice cream

What do consumers want their plant-based ice cream to deliver? / Pic: Getty-Images David Malan

From camelina to nori: Onboarding new protein sources

In order to achieve a positive nutritional profile – as well as the organoleptic properties people associate with ice cream – innovators are looking to new protein sources to broaden their formulation toolkits, Vilsgaard observed.

“We’re seeing plant-based alternatives being established in a growing number of forms – from pea-protein and oats to almonds and soybean. Ice cream makers are using a range of different alternatives to milk depending on the functional requirements they have. For example, the number of pea-protein based ice cream launches in 2019 was more than twice that of the previous year according to data from Mintel. Globally, plant-based ice creams have doubled their share of the market over the last five years,”​ he noted.

“There are countless exciting and significant growth prospects within plant-based ice cream.”

Vantomme agrees that protein diversification is one of the major factors supporting innovation in plant-based ice cream, with consumer interest in new and exciting protein options high. “Consumer demand for new and exciting plant-based protein products is driving sophisticated, science-based exploration of new protein sources. Research underway includes the characterisation of proteins from camelina, an oilseed cover crop in the Brassicaceae family, and red seaweeds like nori and ogo.”

Take pleasure seriously

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At the end of the day, people eat ice cream because it gives them pleasure / Pic: GettyImages-wondervisuals

But better-for-you isn’t the direction every plant-based ice cream maker has decided to go. When Unilever rolled out its vegan Magnum line, the company was unashamedly focused on indulgence, billing the products as ‘luxurious vegan treats for 100% pleasure.’ 

“From mastering the art of a delicious vegan protein ball, to getting creative with the best vegan ice cream, treating yourself with vegan sweets no longer means saying goodbye to spine tingling indulgence,”​ the company stresses in its marketing material. 

This underlines the importance that indulgence and pleasure continues to play in the ice cream fixture, be it vegan or dairy-based.

As new plant proteins come online, the key to longevity will be the functional properties they can deliver. Because while consumers are keen to try out plant-based ice cream options, they are not willing to sacrifice taste to do so. Better-for-you messaging in ice cream – without delivering on taste – will only get you so far. 

“Ice cream innovators are increasingly realising that producing plant-based ice cream for a mainstream customer-base means delivering flavours and textures that can match those of traditional ice cream.

“Viscosity is a key parameter in dairy ice cream making. So too for plant-based frozen desserts. Optimal viscosity is essential for a smooth process as well as for product texture and mouthfeel. Working with plant proteins can present unique challenges with mix viscosity, with both low and excessively high viscosities being observed,”​ Vilsgaard observed.

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