Once upon a time, an ice cream inclusion was a chocolate flake so tiny you had to hunt through the pint just to find it. Then Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield — otherwise known as Ben & Jerry — flipped the frozen dairy world on its head by parlaying a tip left on their Burlington, Vt., scoop shop’s suggestion board into the inspiration for their now-famous cookie dough ice cream. And the dairy-dessert space hasn’t been the same since.

Except, perhaps, in the sense that inclusions still are — as they always were — compelling purchase drivers for dairy fans.

“Inclusions add excitement through bursts of flavor and texture contrasts,” said Kevin W. Holland, Ph.D., product developer, Tree Top, Selah, Wash. “Inclusions can even determine whether an ice cream or yogurt becomes a perennial favorite or a forgettable flavor. Imagine Rocky Road ice cream without inclusions.”

We’d rather not. Yet we do keep imagining — for imagination, when you get down to it, is the foundation for today’s inclusion innovation. Coupled with ingenious ingredient technologies and a savvy grasp of which tastes and trends keep consumers coming back for more, the collective imagination of the dairy industry may be making this a golden age for inclusions.


Origin story

John Pimpo, sales manager – East for Gertrude Hawk Ingredients (a division of Barry Callebaut), Dunmore, Pa., is no stranger to inclusions. And he, too, tips his hat to Vermont’s “princes of particulates” for getting the (cookie dough) ball rolling.

“I think we can all agree that cookies & cream and cookie dough inclusions were the groundbreakers,” Pimpo observed. “From there, the development of MooseTracks, sea salt caramel truffle and others ... developed this space even more.”

As it happens, his company had no small part in that second wave of development — thanks to what was essentially a seasonal lull in business.

“We decided to take our retail truffle molds and shrink them to accommodate the ice cream industry,” Pimpo said. “After significant trial and error, we were able to create a low-melt confectionary product that not only would melt indulgently as soon as it hit the mouth, but could be filled with fudge, peanut butter, caramel or any center you could imagine.”

Even better, that low-melt coating could be panned around porous particulates such as pretzels, cookies and nuts, keeping them crunchy in the ice cream.


Over the top

The advance set the stage for the many extravagant inclusions we see both in retail and at foodservice today.

“Fashion today is all about being ‘over the top,’ and current trends in food dictate the same: More is better,” noted Keera Perumbala, marketing associate — sweet beverage flavors, Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Ill.

She pointed to a “crazy milkshake” she noticed at a New York restaurant that sports a chocolate frosted rim and features chocolate gems and peanut butter cups, pretzel rods, whipped cream, gummy poppers and chocolate drizzle.

“This creates a multisensory experience for the consumer, and many of these crazy shakes are shared on social media for their exaggerated creativity,” she said.

Which is worth noting — product visuals and their suitability to social media are influential in inclusion development today.

“I have to say that the obsession with ice cream sundaes using ‘mashup’ styling that we saw seven or so years ago has been fun to watch and ever better to eat,” noted Jamie Wilson, director, marketing and culinary, Parker Products, Fort Worth, Texas.

And Instagram helped inspire it.

“Indulgent brands absolutely must be thinking about how their products appear on Instagram,” Wilson said. “Though clean labeling and nutrition remain important, younger consumers are looking for products that’ll show up well in a photo: Colorful foods and unusual concepts like ‘freak shakes’ reign supreme on social media.”

Emily Brau, senior marketing communications specialist, Cargill Cocoa and Chocolate, Wayzata, Minn., also acknowledges social media’s sway.

“People eat with their eyes, and platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram have made food an even more visual experience as consumers share images of beautiful or interesting foods,” she said. “For manufacturers and suppliers, this means we aren’t just thinking about taste. We’re thinking about size, shape, colors, textures and more.”


Let’s talk texture

Texture also is critical to the eating experience.

“Ice cream with a swirly layer of sauce covered in almond pieces is only the most basic textural play in the category,” Perumbala noted. “Inclusion makers are using exciting ingredients, from explosive pop rocks to gelatinous jellies right down to delicate ingredients such as rose petals and tea leaves, to create a wave of sensory experience in different products.”

Jeff Smith, director of marketing, Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, Calif., has watched texture’s profile rise through the lens of almonds.

“The ‘crunch factor’ has definitely become a hot button, and consumers love the mouthfeel of a crunchy almond inclusion juxtaposed against creamier textures,” he noted. “As an inclusion in yogurt, almonds provide a delicious crunch and add a crisp, rich texture to granola-type blend-ins. This can be a satisfying contrast to the creamy mouthfeel of the yogurt.”

Another trick up texture’s sleeve is that it can be “health-neutral,” Wilson said.

“Great texture can come from products without high percentages of sugar or salt,” she said, “and some of the best contributors to texture are traditionally healthy ingredients like nuts and seeds. Puffed quinoa, granola or fruit and nut clusters are all good options here.”

Pimpo said he and his colleagues have seen a number of healthy particulates that could be successfully panned and put into ice cream. For example, sorghum could be panned with caramel, and crisp rice could be panned with milk chocolate.

Such inclusions carry the whiff of “good for you,” but consumers generally appreciate their taste, too.

“We find granola to be a classic inclusion that allows for lots of experimentation while appealing to contemporary tastes,” Wilson added. “Our team has created granolas with clean-label sweeteners like agave nectar and maple sugar, nutritionally desirable nuts like cashews and almonds and seasonings more commonly associated with savory dishes.”


Healthy indulgence

It all plays into consumers’ evolving concepts of just what “healthy” means — and where it belongs in the context of inclusions.

“There’s a tremendous shift in consumers’ desire for more natural ingredients, and a growing disdain for overprocessed foods and inclusions,” said Jennifer Haberman, dairy business development, Sensient Natural Ingredients, Turlock, Calif.

Consumers are scanning label claims and ingredient lists before making a purchase, added Kristie Hung, a marketing specialist at Sensient Natural Ingredients.

“However, it’s hard to make a short-ingredient-list, heavy-inclusion ice cream,” she said. “Hence, developers are looking for new ways to accommodate consumers’ needs for shorter ingredient lists with ‘real’ or recognizable healthy ingredients.”

Rick Stunek, marketing and sales, Forbes Chocolate, Broadview Heights, Ohio, agreed, adding that’s the task is not so easy.

“Technological advances in ingredients will be crucial,” he said. “Clean-label emulsifiers, sweeteners, flavors and colors are all constantly being developed and redeveloped. Of course, ‘clean’ label is often a moving target, but that only adds to the challenge.”


Get real

Consumers also want transparency.

“We work directly with local growers to produce premium natural ingredients, from planting to harvesting, production and culinary research,” noted Sensient’s Hung. “We have full transparency in our process and can trace ingredients all the way back to the farm. As consumer demand shifts towards clean labels, using high-quality ingredients that are functional, flavorful and traceable is key to a successful product.”

That’s intensified the focus on “real” ingredients such as nuts as well as fruits.

“Fruit continues to be a perennial favorite inclusion,” Holland said. “Fruit is fairly easy to incorporate into an indulgent flavor by combining it with other desert flavors or inclusions, too. But the key is finding the right form for the product you’re designing and the functionality you need.”

Tom Payne, industry specialist, U. S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC), San Mateo, Calif., knows this firsthand. He said consumers view fruit as an “almost guiltless right choice,” and fruit appeals to a wide range of consumers.

“Blueberries especially enjoy a health identity that makes them a natural for inclusions,” he said.

And dairy developers already accept them as viable inclusions to work with.

“In fact, wise innovators specify real fruit over simulated bits containing no fruit,” Payne noted. “The USHBC even provides product designers with the Real Blueberries seal to help consumers instantly recognize all-natural blueberries and blueberry products without the need for elaborate explanations.”


Pure pleasure

There’s no getting around the fact that “real” inclusions and “natural” ingredients matter today. But particularly in the field of dairy inclusions, it’s the pure pleasure of sensory excitement that really wins.

Updated classics are reliable hits, and adventurous developers are rebooting old favorites in ways that weren’t even possible just a decade or so ago. Pimpo pointed to cookie butter ice cream featuring milk-panned cookie dough pieces and a textured cookie variegate as an example.

Inclusion technology is critical to achieving the desired flavor profile within any updated classic, Pimpo noted.

“Deconstructed cheesecake speaks well to this concept in that you take a cheesecake ice cream, pair it with a textured graham variegate and a milk chocolate-filled turtle inclusion for a caramel turtle cheesecake ice cream that mirrors the traditional dessert,” he said. “The cheesecake ice cream alone is great, but to truly capitalize on the concept, you need the textural elements to drive it home.”

Brau also noted the trend toward reboots of old favorites.

“Some of the nostalgic, delicious desserts that your mother or grandmother used to bake are inspiring ice cream inclusions,” she said. “We’re seeing old familiar desserts such as seven-layer bars and snickerdoodles make their way into ice cream.”

Perumbala noted that her company’s R&D team stirred up a pistachio cannoli concept “using a fashionable flavor — pistachio — for the base, and pairing it with a savory ricotta cheese variegate topped with indulgent cannoli pieces.”

Blau also noted the pull of “premium,” citing a September 2017 Innova Market Insights report titled “Ice Cream Single Serve” that states “indulgence/premium” was the leading positioning for North American ice cream during the first half of 2017.

“Inclusions, in particular, play a major role in the premiumization of ice cream,” she emphasized. “For example, truffle inclusions are trending.”


Classic flavors

Some classic flavors are trending, too. For instance, caramel is trending both in and out of dairy, Blau said.

“We’re seeing different takes on it within ice cream,” she noted. “For example, sea salt caramel provides a more premium experience, while caramel delight may create a more sentimental perception for consumers.”

Another classic flavor to watch is maple, which Pimpo called “the biggest trend we see for late 2018 and 2019.” As a natural sugar from trees, it makes consumers feel comfortable. And the fact that it’s a nostalgic, sweet brown note that gets along well with creamy dairy doesn’t hurt, either.

Gertrude Hawk’s contribution to the maple boom is a maple panned sugar that replicates the taste of caramelized maple syrup, but remains crunchy in ice cream.

“We’ve also created a maple panned waffle cone piece that can be used to make a Belgian waffle-style ice cream,” Pimpo said.

And the R&D team at the Blue Diamond Almond Innovation Center recently introduced a Non-GMO Project Verified maple slice that Smith said works very well within dairy products such as ice cream and yogurt.

“The maple introduction, as well as our continued R&D efforts across various product categories, has us excited for the future of almond inclusions featuring new flavors,” he said.

And there’s a lot of excitement for the future of the larger inclusion industry. Inclusion experts agree: We’re nowhere near the end of the line in terms of creativity or innovation.

“I suspect that between technological advances and the ever-changing tastes of consumers, we have a lot left in the tank as far as inclusions go,” Stunek offered.