Considering the popularity of keto, paleo and other low-carb diets in recent years, one might expect a doom-and-gloom situation for the refrigerated and frozen dairy and dairy-alternative dessert segment. Thankfully, that’s not the case. Although frozen dairy desserts such as whipped toppings and cheesecakes did see some declines in dollar and unit sales over the past year, refrigerated dairy desserts such as puddings, mousse and cheesecake actually posted gains.

And looking to the near future, both the frozen and refrigerated segments have ample opportunity to grow by meeting the evolving needs of today’s non-carb-loathing consumers. (Note: This article excludes traditional ice cream pints/sqrounds, which were covered in our March issue’s Outlook Report.)


Think small

On-trend within this space — for now and the foreseeable future — are petite sweet treats made for snacking.

“People are looking for smaller, indulgent experiences throughout the day instead of only at traditional dessert times,” explained Dena Wimette, senior innovation manager for Ben & Jerry’s, Burlington, Vt.

Ben & Jerry’s recently introduced Cookie Dough Chunks. The ice cream-less treats feature the dough found in the company’s Cookie Dough ice cream flavors. They are sold in half-pound bags in varieties that include Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. Ben & Jerry’s said the dough is safe to eat raw because it contains pasteurized eggs and heat-treated flour.

Wimette noted that the offerings fit directly into the snacking space.

“They are bite-sized and offer something sweet and indulgent without having to commit to a full ice cream moment,” she said. “We are hearing stories from fans who love snacking on a handful after work or while making dinner.”

Wholly Rollies frozen protein balls — introduced earlier this year by Dublin, Ohio-based Crazy Richard’s Peanut Butter Co. in partnership with the National Peanut Board — also fit into the bite-sized frozen dessert space. Made with only five or six ingredients, the plant-based nondairy morsels come in PB & Cacao, PB & Strawberry and Cinnamon Oatmeal varieties. They retail in 6-ounce packages containing 10 bite-sized treats.

Rick Schaffer, CEO of Bubbies Homemade Ice Cream & Desserts Inc., Aiea, Hawaii, said that in addition to smaller formats, his company is seeing new textures driving growth in the frozen desserts category, as the snacking trend spills over into more segments. The new Bubbies Cookie Dough Ice Cream Bites are designed with this reality in mind.

“We’ve combined two very familiar favorites, cookie dough and ice cream, in a new format that allows consumers to enjoy what they love while keeping themselves in check,” Schaffer said. “Our new line features superpremium ice cream on the inside, covered with decadent cookie dough on the outside for a great-tasting treat in a snackable size that complements a lifestyle of moderation. We keep our focus on taste and texture while staying at 130 calories or less per serving.”

The offerings come in four flavors: Chocolate Chip, Brownie Batter, Sugar Cookie and Birthday Cake.

For its part, Yasso Frozen Greek Yogurt, Quincy, Mass., brought frozen Greek yogurt to the snacking occasion with the March launch of Yasso Snack Buddies. The reduced-size bars have 45 to 50 calories apiece and also contain live and active cultures, the company said. They come eight to a box in four flavors: Mint Cookie Chums (mint chocolate frozen Greek yogurt with chocolate cookie pieces), Strawberry Lemonade (strawberry lemonade frozen Greek yogurt), Fudge Space Ship (fudge chocolate frozen Green yogurt with chocolate chips) and Party Animal (cake-flavored frozen Greek yogurt with rainbow sprinkles).

Even ice cream “cakes” are getting in on the snacking action. Back in February, Dallas-based Dean Foods Co. announced the debut of Friendly’s Cake Singles, which aim to deliver the same indulgence as traditional Friendly’s ice cream cakes — in a smaller, convenient format. The products come in four flavors: Strawberry Krunch, featuring layers of strawberry and vanilla ice cream separated by strawberry éclair crunchies and topped with strawberry sauce, whipped topping and more strawberry éclair crunchies; Birthday Cake, delivering layers of vanilla and chocolate ice cream separated by chocolate crunchies and topped with blue icing, whipped topping and confetti; Chocolate Krunch, featuring layers of vanilla and chocolate ice cream separated by chocolate éclair crunchies and topped with Friendly’s fudge sauce, whipped topping and more chocolate éclair crunchies; and Strawberry Cheesecake, showcasing layers of cheesecake-flavored and strawberry ice cream separated by graham crunchies, topped with thick graham cracker crust, whipped topping and more graham crunchies.

According to Mark Schneider, marketing director, ice cream for Dean Foods, variety and convenience are among the biggest trends the company is seeing in the frozen dessert space.

“We’re also seeing the trend of ensuring portion control is top of mind,” he noted. “Creating products that are packaged in a single-serving cup, like our Friendly’s Cake Singles, can give consumers that perfect amount of indulgence.”


Make it decadent

Speaking of indulgence, it continues to be a purchase driver for many U.S. frozen and refrigerated dessert consumers. And some dairy brands are aiming for “over the top” here.

One of those brands is Talenti, part of Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based Unilever USA. This spring, it released Talenti Gelato Layers, a new line of Talenti jars featuring “indulgent, hand-crafted recipes.” Each jar contains five layers consisting of gelato, cookie and/or candy pieces and various sauces. The line comes in seven varieties, including Vanilla Fudge Cookie, Salted Caramel Truffle, Chocolate Cherry Cheesecake, Black Raspberry Vanilla Parfait, Peanut Butter Vanilla Fudge, Mint Fudge Cookie and Dark Chocolate Cherry.

“Talenti Gelato Layers truly bring our commitment to craftsmanship to life,” said Josh Hochschuler, founder of Talenti. “Each Talenti Layers recipe is hand-crafted to include quality ingredients sourced from around the world. Talenti Layers promises a new eating experience for fans as they indulge in each layer.”

And Rich Products, Buffalo, N.Y., took indulgence to a new level by adding rich chocolate candy to ice cream cake — via its Heath ice cream cake introduction. The premium ice cream cake, released this summer, features crushed pieces of Heath milk chocolate English toffee bars layered between vanilla ice cream. The cake is finished with chocolate whipped icing and a Hershey’s chocolate syrup drizzle.

“The Heath ice cream cake combines two items that consumers love: the Heath candy bar and ice cream,” said Lauren Lopez, vice president of Rich Products’ Desserts Category Business Unit. “Leveraging a beloved household brand like Heath brings credibility with consumers. It’s a brand they know and trust, and because of that equity, they’re more willing to indulge and give it a try.”

Earlier this year, Rich Products debuted its Reese’s ice cream cake, she noted. It features the decadent combination of chocolate ice cream, chunks of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, a layer of Reese’s peanut butter, whipped icing and a Hershey’s chocolate drizzle.

On the refrigerated side, meanwhile, Bedford Park, Ill.-based Raymundo’s added a bit of indulgence (and an ethnic spin) to pudding with the debut of Raymundo’s Pudding Toppers — refrigerated puddings with a separate container of mix-ins. Varieties include Vanilla + Brownie, Rice + Granola, Chocolate + Churro, Key Lime + White Graham and Flan + Caramel.


Offer an alternative

The San Francisco-headquartered Plant Based Foods Association noted that U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods and beverages (which include dairy alternatives) grew 20% in 2018, citing data the association commissioned from Nielsen. So it’s fair to say that a growing number of U.S. consumers are seeking out plant-based alternatives to refrigerated and frozen dairy desserts.

Processors inside and outside the dairy space have been responding by introducing plant-based desserts. And many of the latest offerings within this space feature trendy oats, instead of the more familiar soy or almonds, in the base.

One of the latest introductions here is the Oats Cream pint line from Perry’s Ice Cream, Akron, N.Y. The dairy-free assortment is based on oat “milk” and comes in seven flavors: Apple Strudel, Blueberry Pancake, Coconut Caramel, Oat Latte, Peanut Butter Coffee Cake, Peanut Butter & Cookies and Snickerdoodle.

“For more than 100 years, we have brought innovative flavors to our ice cream line using only fresh cream and milk,” said Robert Denning, president and CEO of Perry’s Ice Cream. “However, we recognized today’s consumers have a growing desire for great-tasting plant-based frozen desserts.”

Perry’s Ice Cream sources the Milked Oats oat “milk” that is used to produce the new product line from Elma, N.Y.-based Elmhurst 1925.

And in early 2019, So Delicious Dairy Free, a brand of Danone North America (based in Broomfield, Colo., and White Plains, N.Y.), also added oats to the frozen dessert case. Its new line  comes in three varieties that feature an oatmilk base, including Peanut Butter & Raspberry, which blends peanut butter and black raspberries; Oatmeal Cookie, which incorporates oatmeal cookie dough with brown sugar and a hint of cinnamon; and Caramel Apple Crumble, which combines apple, cinnamon and brown sugar with a caramel swirl.

“Oatmilk is a great base for frozen desserts because of its creamy texture and neutral taste, which allows our flavors to shine,” said Jennifer Michuda, senior brand manager, So Delicious Dairy Free. “We are first to market when it comes to a nationally available oatmilk frozen desserts, and we hope consumers enjoy the newest offerings!”

Outside of the oats space, So Delicious Dairy Free launched a line of dairy-free frozen mousse in late 2018. The dairy-alternative products have 300-330 calories per pint (110 or less per serving) and feature ingredients such as pea protein and coconut oil. They are also Non-GMO Project Verified, certified gluten-free and vegan. The line comes in seven flavors: Salted Caramel Swirl, Peanut Butter Swirl, Mango Swirl, Strawberry Swirl, Chocolate Chip, Lemon Swirl and Cranberry Cherry Swirl.

“We focused on creating the right balance of texture and flavor, all while keeping the calorie count lower than traditional ice cream,” Michuda said.

The Enlightened brand of New York-based Beyond Better Foods LLC also has been busy in the dairy-alternative space. The brand recently added five dairy-free varieties of lower-calorie frozen dessert bars. The line joined an existing line of lower-calorie ice cream bars.

The bars rely on an almond “milk” base to create a creamy texture and rich flavor, the company said. The five flavors, each with 100 or fewer calories, include Salted Caramel, Mint Chip, Mocha Chocolate Chip, Monkey Business and Peanut Butter & Jelly.


Plan well to grow

Despite consumers’ desire for small indulgences, the overall segment does face a few challenges. For example, frozen desserts already enjoy a very high household penetration, Schaffer noted. But the opportunity for growth has been limited of late as consumers become increasingly concerned about their overall health “and the impact of overindulging.” That’s a potential problem when you’re talking about a category associated with indulgence.

“Some brands have taken the angle of ‘giving permission’ to indulge with lower-calorie, sugar-substituted solutions, although taste and texture may be compromised,” he said. “The other angle, which we’ve taken, is creating products that deliver a ‘mindful indulgence’ through superpremium ingredients in a portion-controlled format that above all have great taste and texture.”

Schneider agreed that the frozen dessert category is crowded.

“To stay current in the ever-changing landscape, Friendly’s has stayed true to their roots by continuing to deliver great-tasting and quality ice cream families have come to love and expect,” he said. “We continue to find ways to bring new offerings to the freezer aisles ... and ensure [they’re] checking off the boxes of what consumers are looking for, including convenience, quality and innovation.”

Frozen treats do not lend themselves to all snacking occasions, either.

“People are often eating on the go or in afternoon settings, which are disconnected from the frozen space,” Wimette noted. “There is an opportunity to develop options for consumers looking for a treat that goes beyond the classic ice cream occasion.”

On the plant-based side of refrigerated and frozen desserts, two of the biggest barriers are texture and taste, Michuda said. So Delicious Dairy Free had these barriers in mind when it selected creamy oatmilk as the base for its new frozen desserts. But company/brand values also factor into the consumer purchasing decision, she noted, adding that parent company Danone North America is a Certified B Corporation. According to certifying agency B Lab, such businesses “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”  


Capture the consumer online

Today’s consumers expect to be able to buy anything, anywhere, at any time — and refrigerated and frozen desserts are no exception, said Lauren Lopez, vice president of the Desserts Category Business Unit for Rich Products,
Buffalo, N.Y.

“Today, they can open an app and have what they need delivered to their home, within a few hours. Our ability to be present and compete in this real-time reality is critical,” she stressed.

Because dessert sales often are tied to impulse purchases, capturing those impulse purchases online could spell opportunity for dessert brands.

“Creating partnerships with retailers to ensure we have the right products featured on their websites is key; we also need to improve the searchability of our products,” Lopez said.