Ice Cream innovation helps frozen treats win big in North America

by | Jul 8, 2021

Ice cream and other frozen desserts have an indulgent design. The sweet, cold, rich, creamy, and flavorful elements of ice cream deliver a feel-good eating experience that’s almost irresistible.

  • Ice cream’s sweetness provides energy and reduces the presence of stress-inducing hormones.
  • The initial cold shock of a frozen dessert that transforms into a rich taste is exciting (even if a ‘brain-freeze’ comes with it). Producers build on that thrill by using variegates of fudge, bright fruits, or other sweet inclusions to create a dynamic contrast with the ice cream.
  • The creamy mouthfeel of ice cream helps the flavors linger, sustaining the enjoyment of every lick or spoonful.
  • And the lightness of ice cream (from the air infused into the product during the production process) can compel people to indulge in one more bite because they don’t feel full.

New Zealanders hold the global record as ice-cream lovers, enjoying about 60 pints per person every year. But North Americans are ‘all-in’ with ice cream. More than 90% of residents consume 50 pints per person, generating more than $12 billion annually!

Producers are stepping up ice cream innovation to meet demand and align with changing consumer tastes. In our summary of the latest trends, you’ll find formulation insights to fuel your NPD.

Ice Cream Innovation Focuses on Building Consumer Connections

The wide acceptance of ice cream gives manufacturers several innovation paths, from seeking out emerging areas like mood enhancement to following broader trends such as nostalgia. Each tactic offers opportunities to build share by meeting consumer expectations.

Functional benefits transform ice cream into a purposeful treat

Producers are folding functionality into ice cream to personalize products for specific lifestyles and nutritional needs.

  • Nutritional priorities target naturalness and lower sugar. A recent Innova survey shows about 20 percent of consumers look for ice cream made with real ingredients and no artificial flavors or colors. More than 16 percent want to see no/low/reduced sugar on the label, a level of interest that outweighs the 11 percent who want a low/no/reduced fat ice cream.
    • Formulation Insight: A blending of sweeteners like tapioca syrup, honey, or brown sugar can help optimize taste while addressing consumer desire for natural ingredients.
  • Plant-bases and protein innovations align with dietary choices. Mintel reports that plant-based frozen dessert launches accounted for 14 percent of NPD in 2020, and manufacturers are exploring a range of plant bases and blends to create a dairy-like taste and texture.
    • Formulation Insight: Recent launch activity shows that ice cream producers who incorporate protein often deliver a lower sugar formulation, relying on allulose or stevia for sweetness.
  • Immunity concerns are leading to direct (and subtle) ingredient claims. Globally, 54 percent of consumers surveyed by Innova agree they’ve invested time to learn about ingredients that can boost immune health. Some ice cream innovations in the last year call out immunity benefits on front-of-pack. But more rely on consumers to read the ingredient list and recognize that elderberry, aloe vera, turmeric, and hibiscus have immunity-boosting properties.
    • Formulation Insight: Recent FlavorSum research shows that less than 10 percent of North Americans seek immunity support from ice cream or frozen desserts. While immunity is a broad concern, lack of ‘fit’ with ice cream could impede the trial of frozen desserts making immunity claims.
  • Ice cream’s association with mood enhancement invites innovation. Maintaining mental and emotional wellbeing are goals for more than 40 percent of consumers worldwide, and ice cream manufacturers are investigating ways to help. Some turn to on-pack claims about naturalness, presenting product quality as a feel-good choice. Others rely on natural ingredients to provide energy or detoxifying effects. And a few ice cream innovations (in limited distribution) feature C8 MCT oil to improve mood and cognitive function.
    • Formulation Insight: According to FlavorSum research, one in 4 North American consumers associate ice cream with mood enhancement, increasing the acceptability of innovations focused on mood.

Indulgence in ice cream can happen with a variety of innovation tactics

More than 60 percent of consumers want food and beverage sensory experiences, and ice cream innovators use several approaches to fulfill their taste for adventure.

  • Hybrid flavor innovation can widen the parameters of indulgence. NPD relies on crossovers to pull favorite confectionery, bakery, and beverage flavors into ice cream. Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD) shows dessert-inspired launches represented about 9 percent of North American ice cream activity in 2020, and coffee tie-ins increased +11 percent. Recent mashups using sweet cereals, bits of cookies, or other bakery inclusions are addressing consumer interest in texture.
    • Formulation Insight: Variegates made of chocolate, caramel, or fruit are the most important inclusion that consumers look for in ice cream or frozen desserts.
  • Limited edition ice creams always create a buzz of excitement. According to Innova Market Insights, limited time offers (LTOs) contributed 7 percent of ice cream NPD in 2020. Consumers associate seasonal flavors with freshness, nostalgia, and celebrations. Seasonal items evoke images of being homemade and carry associations with happy memories and tasty treats. And (LTOs) entice consumers to try a flavor that may not be around long-term.
    • Formulation Insight: Recent LTOs focus on elevating familiar tastes into indulgence with ingredients like ruby chocolate or bourbon flavor to offer an appealing, craveable, and unique ice cream.
  • Gelato is emerging across frozen dessert formats. Producers of gelato, a frozen dessert often lower in sugar than traditional ice cream, are aligning with consumer nutritional and taste goals, offering dairy, plant-based, and cleaner-label options.
    • Formulation Insight: Plant-based gelato launches have foundations of oat, almond, cashew, coconut, and peanut. Recent entries blend in coconut oil or pea protein with sweetness from cane sugar or glucose syrup.
  • Global tastes can attract flavor explorers. Matcha tea and yuzu are two of the fastest-growing Asian flavors tracked by Innova, both showing double-digit gains in the global ice cream market. Regional flavors like churro and chai also have appeal in the North American market.
    • Formulation Insight: Pairing a familiar flavor, like vanilla, with an unknown such as the citrusy taste of yuzu can reduce consumers’ wariness about trying a new taste.

Creating Your Next Ice Cream innovation

A consistent theme in recent ice cream development is added value. Producers are bringing more than a sweet treat to consumers through indulgent flavors, inclusions, limited editions, and hybrids. Functional benefits in ice cream support consumers’ need for permissible indulgence, driving ice cream manufacturers to offer options featuring low(er) sugar, high protein, plant-bases, or mood-enhancing ingredients.

As you explore your ice cream innovation opportunities, connect with the FlavorSum team. A partnership with our flavor experts can help you navigate development hurdles and speed time to market. We’re here to find solutions that achieve your goals!  

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