From better-for-you to ethnic to non-standardized frozen dairy desserts, ingredient suppliers show us how anything goes when it comes to creating America’s favorite desserts..

For many consumers, ice cream is an indulgence that they simply cannot give up, recession or not. When people find money is tight, they spend more on little luxuries, as they feel the need for some self-gratification. Ice cream seems to do the trick.

Frozen dessert manufacturers have not let the current recession slow product development. Innovation is alive and thriving, and shows no signs of abating, as suppliers are rolling out all types of creative tools to keep innovations rolling into freezer cases.

Emotional fulfillment

For some consumers, ice cream provides emotional fulfillment, as certain flavors or brands bring back memories of better times. Some new ice cream products tell a story, thus appealing to personal sentiments.

For example, Velvet Ice Cream Co., Utica, Ohio, introduced a real “winner” earlier this year: Chocolate Covered Strawberries. This flavor was the creation of 10-year-old Ohioan Rachel Hankinson, winner of Velvet’s 2008 Create-A-Flavor competition, which had more than 850 entries. Rachel’s photo, featured on the ice cream carton, provides emotional appeal.

Rachel’s creation includes chunks of chocolate and pieces of strawberry in a strawberry base. More recently, the company introduced Chocolate Lovers Trio, which is three types of chocolate ice cream - Dark Belgian, Rich Dutch and Indulgent Swiss - packaged Neapolitan-style. Velvet has seen increased sales in chocolate ice cream in the past year, due in part to the recognized antioxidant properties of chocolate.

Velvet has also entered into a co-branding partnership with Max & Erma’s Restaurants to produce Chocolate Chip Cookie and Cookie Dough Ice Cream - one product, two classic flavors. The teaming with Max & Erma’s combines Central Ohio’s famous ice cream manufacturer with Columbus, Ohio’s original casual dining restaurant. The ice cream was created in the Max & Erma’s test kitchen by executive chef Bob Davis. It contains chocolate chips, pieces of chocolate chip cookies and bits of cookie dough.

Connecting with Ohioans continues to be invaluable to Velvet, which has been a supplier to the Ohio State Fair for years. This year, Columbus, Ohio-based Concessions by Cox Inc., which manages concessions for the fair, asked Velvet to develop a new flavor specifically for the 2009 event. The result - Kettle Korn - is a unique combination of vanilla ice cream with caramel-covered pieces of sweet popcorn. Kettle Korn is not in retail stores…yet, but in addition to being sold at the fair, it is available at the company’s ice cream-themed restaurant located in its headquarters building, which is a mill that was built in 1817.

“It also wasn’t the only option considered,” says Luconda Dager, vice president. “Caramel apple and elephant ear flavors were tested. Cotton candy, which we had produced before, was also considered. Even hot dog ice cream was suggested by a fair representative. That one never made it past the discussion stage.”

Keeping things local

Kleinpeter Farms Dairy LLC., Baton Rouge, La. - the state’s only ice cream manufacturing plant - is all about using local ingredients, partnering with local companies and supporting local families and industry. The family-owned dairy has been producing milk products for southern Louisiana families for nearly 100 years, but has only been churning America’s favorite dessert for less than two. Its new $4 million, 7,500-square-foot ice cream plant was built with state-of-the-art, energy-efficient features designed to protect the environment while producing quality ice cream made with as much locally produced ingredients as possible.

“We love our cows. We love our community. We love our customers,” says Jeff Kleinpeter, president, who together with his sister Sue Anne Kleinpeter Cox, the company’s chief financial officer, are fourth-generation owners. “We have fifth generation working for the company, too!”

Kleinpeter Farms emphasizes the use of Louisiana products in its ice cream. In addition to milk from Kleinpeter’s own dairy farm in St. Helena Parish - the only dairy farm in Louisiana certified by the American Humane Association - the ice cream plant uses milk from 20 other Louisiana dairies, all from cows that have never received artificial growth hormones.

“Our ice cream is locally flavored, through and through. The sugar is Louisiana cane sugar. The strawberries are Ponchatoula strawberries,” says Kleinpeter. “To make Bananas Foster Praline we use Aunt Sally’s Pralines of New Orleans and for Café au Lait we use none other than local coffee brewed from Community Coffee.”

The idea is to co-brand with other Louisiana food companies and to develop flavors that are distinctly Louisiana in flavor and concept. One of the company’s most recent innovations is Sweet Potato Pie. “The sweet potato ice cream, mixed in with bits of pie crust, tastes just like sweet potato pie,” says Kleinpeter. The idea stemmed from an old family recipe from nearby sweet potato supplier Bruce Foods, New Iberia, La., which grows produce such as yams and makes hot sauce.

“Our goal is to produce four or five new flavors about every three months,” Kleinpeter says. “It takes a lot of time and a lot of trial and error. We have to get it to where it’s absolutely perfect.” Some possibilities include using Steen’s syrup (Abbeville, La.), Abita root beer (Abita Springs, La.), McIlhenny’s Tabasco (Avery Island, La.) and even a dill-flavored ice cream using Zapp’s Potato Chips (Gramercy, La.).

Rolling out this month is Ruston Peach. “Ruston peaches are extremely popular in the south, for their sweet taste,” says Kleinpeter. “Ruston is a little town in north Louisiana, and the peaches grown there are spectacular and recognized as a delicacy in the region.” Other state fruits such as blueberries and mayhaw will also likely show up in Kleinpeter Ice Cream sooner than later.

“When it comes from out of state, you can be sure that the product is not affecting families here,” says Kleinpeter.

Culinary creations

In foodservice ice cream, local is also popular, as is fresh. The chefs of Kitchen Table Cooking School in Greenwood Village, Colo., have started making and selling at the in-store café a line of all-natural, handmade, low-fat frozen desserts, including specialties such as Strawberry Basil sorbet, Coconut Lime sorbet, Banana Malt ice cream, Espresso Fudge Brownie ice cream, Mexican Chocolate ice cream and Macadamia Nut Brittle ice cream. 

The chefs have also started a seasonal flavor program to highlight the ripeness of seasonal ingredients. Upcoming innovations include peaches, caramel apple, pumpkin and stout beer for the autumn and peppermint and gingerbread in the winter.

Culinary creations are not limited to foodservice. Supervalu Inc., Minneapolis, one of the largest retail chains in the U.S. grocery channel, recently introduced an innovative private label collection of Culinary Circle-branded ice cream desserts. The Culinary Circle brand, which encompasses many food and beverage categories, is described as retail products that allow for a restaurant-quality experience at home for a fraction of the cost.

Each Culinary Circle ice cream dessert contains four unique layers: a bottom layer of premium ice cream, topped by a layer of rich mousse, topped by a decadent sauce and finished off with a layer of confectionary pieces. Culinary Circle ice cream desserts are currently available in six flavors: Caramel Pecan Praline, Cherry Chocolate Amore, Chocolate Truffle Gooey Fudge Brownie, Midnight Mint, Peanut Butter Passion and Tiramisu.

The desserts feature a first-of-its-kind packaging system that provides for easy serving. Each package contains two desserts or the equivalent of four servings.

“With its new ice cream desserts, Culinary Circle remains at the forefront of several trends influenced by consumers’ desire for speed, empowerment, choice, simplicity and practicality,” says Chad Terrell, Culinary Circle brand manager. “Consumers today are seeking new at-home dining solutions to fit shrinking budgets and busy lifestyles, yet they are not willing to give up the innovative new flavors and ingredient combinations that they have learned to enjoy while dining out.”

Supervalu is also jumping on the tart fro-yo trend with another private label line: Stone Ridge Creamery Tart Frozen Yogurt. The quart-sized product comes in four flavors - peach, pomegranate, strawberry and vanilla.

“Stone Ridge Creamery tart frozen yogurt is not only refreshingly sweet and subtly tart, but it maintains its true yogurt flavor and texture, unlike many traditional frozen yogurts,” says Adam Graham, Stone Ridge Creamery brand manager. “If you’re looking for a better-for-you treat, tart frozen yogurt is fat-free, is made with real fruit and contains live and active cultures, which have inherent benefits for digestive health.”

Wells’ Dairy, LeMars, Iowa, has introduced a line of novelties based on frozen yogurt and granola. There are two flavors under the Aspen and Sedona sub-brands. Both lines are touted as being a good source fiber, as well as containing probiotics that “may help support immune and digestive health.”

The Aspen bars are either strawberry low-fat frozen yogurt with a layer of strawberry fruit filling or raspberry low-fat frozen yogurt with a layer of raspberry fruit filling. Both are topped with crunchy granola crumbles covered in a vanilla yogurt coating.

The Sedona line includes Double Chocolate Sedona Frozen Yogurt Granola Sandwiches (creamy chocolate low-fat frozen yogurt with thick swirls of fudge sandwiched between two chewy honey oat granola wafers) and Double Strawberry Sedona Frozen Yogurt Granola Sandwiches (creamy strawberry low-fat frozen yogurt with thick swirls of strawberry fruit filling sandwiched between two chewy honey oat granola wafers).

Live and active

Adding live and active cultures to frozen desserts, not just frozen yogurt but traditional ice cream formulations, is predicted to be the trend for 2010. Specifically, adding probiotics cultures - to either the mix or topically via an inclusion or coating - is something being entertained by many frozen dessert manufacturers. (See this month’s Lab Talk on p. 66.)

In a study published in the International Journal of Dairy Technology (62:444-451), scientists investigated using probiotic bacteria in the production of ice cream. Different cream levels (5% and 10%) and different strains of probiotic bacteria (Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum) were used in ice cream production to determine their effects on the quality of the ice creams in each group.

During storage at time intervals up to 90 days, L. acidophilus and B. bifidum counts, and sensory analyses were performed. The results obtained at the end of storage demonstrated that the counts of L. acidophilus and B. bifidum  decreased during frozen storage, but all types of ice cream samples seemed to preserve their probiotic property even after 90 days. The researchers concluded that although sensory scores of probiotic ice cream samples reduced during this time, they rated as “tasty” for both cream levels throughout storage.

Better for you

Probiotics are not the only better-for-you ingredients showing up in frozen desserts. Cloud Top, Pasadena, Calif., recently introduced to the foodservice channel the first certified-organic tart soft-serve frozen yogurt that contains probiotics, as well as added vitamin D, calcium, the prebiotic fiber inulin and the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). In a growing market flooded with generic and low-cost powder-based frozen yogurt soft-serve mixes calling themselves yogurt without meeting the National Yogurt Association’s definition of yogurt, Cloud Top delivers what it promises: an efficacious amount of six live and active cultures including four probiotic strains.

Kathy Kim, Cloud Top founder and mom, shares what fueled her concept for Cloud Top. “My family and I loved the flavor of these new tart frozen yogurt varieties, but always had these nagging doubts about the nutritional value and quality,” she says. “After doing my research and piecing together the facts from the hype, I realized there was a need in the marketplace for a better product. I knew early on what nutritional highlights I wanted to include in our recipe. But with firsthand experience raising two very picky children at home, I never lost sight of how critical it would be to produce a frozen yogurt that didn’t compromise on taste.” Currently, Cloud Top is offering two varieties: Original Organic Tart and Organic Tarty Vanilla.

Philippines-based Picolè Healthy Ice Pops markets a line of frozen novelties - dairy and dairy-free - that the company describes as “foods with functionality.” The company introduced its unique brand of frozen novelties throughout the Philippines about a year ago and is currently expanding into the States.

Picolè’s pops are comprised of five lines: Juicy Pops, Milky Pops, Yogu Pops, Dip Pops and Lite Pops, all of which contain 3 to 5 grams of prebiotic fiber per pop, depending on variety. “Prebiotic fiber takes frozen novelties to the next level. We have people’s health in mind,” says Al Mejia, production and R&D manager. “I wanted to show that healthy food can taste very good.”

The Yogu Pops also contain probiotic cultures and come in five flavors: Mango, Original, Strawberry and recent entries Banana and Blueberry Cheesecake.

The non-dairy Juicy Pops are available in eight flavors: Buko (coconut), Chili Tamarind, Lemon, Mango, Pineapple, Strawberry, Watermelon and the most recent addition: Green Mango. Milky Pops come in nine flavors: Avocado, Cappuccino, Choco-Hazelnut, Cookies and Cream, Corn, Green Tea (100% Japanese matcha), Melon, Strawberry and Ube. In the Dip Pops line, Banana Split and Choco Banana recently joined Cookies Overload and Nutty Blast. The Lite varieties are Almond and Hazelnut Milky, Double Choco Milky, Orange Juicy, Soy Mocha and Strawberry Juicy.

Healthy indulgence

Picolè has identified a niche in what is a very crowded freezer. This is something many marketers are setting out to do. Indeed, realizing the potential of less developed segments of the ice cream market is becoming a priority for many manufacturers. For example, where the concept of “healthy indulgence” was once seen as something of a paradox, food developers are beginning to realize the potential of this market segment, as consumers seek more “health and well-being” treats in these difficult times.

In the frozen dessert category, healthy indulgence can be achieved with the sweet taste of sugar that gives consumers a feeling of satisfaction. The challenge for product developers, therefore, is to reduce the sugar content without a discernible difference in taste, sweetness profile, texture or mouthfeel.

Scientists have learned how to manipulate alternative sweeteners to obtain the taste of sugar without the sugar calories. For example, isomalt, a polyol derived from beet sugar that tastes as natural as sugar yet is totally sugar free, can be used in combination with high-intensity sweeteners such as sucralose, acesulfame K and aspartame to produce a balanced, rounded flavor. Unlike other sugar alcohols, this one causes no cooling effect, but enhances fine and subtle flavors such as mango and peach. Also, it is very similar to sugar, as the white crystalline raw material replaces sugar in a 1:1 mass ratio and is used where not only the sweetness but also the texture and mouthfeel of sugar are required. 

Weis Markets, Sunbury, Pa., recently introduced a private label line of ice cream sandwiches that is free of added sugar. The formulation uses isomalt, as well as other alternative sweeteners including acesulfame potassium, aspartame, maltitol, polydextrose and soribitol. Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, Oakland, Calif., a division of Nestlé USA, Glendale, Calif., relies on isomalt to keep calories low in its Light Slow Churned line.

Interest in healthier variants of traditional products is at an all time high. But to create products with staying power, manufacturers need to be sure that in removing the guilt of consumption they are not removing any of the enjoyment.