“I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice cream.”
There is plenty of good news to scream about. According to Fortune Business Insights, the global ice cream market will reach $97.85 billion in 2027, a 37% jump compared to 2021.
The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) digs into the data further, revealing the average American eats 20 pounds of ice cream per year, and the most popular flavors in the United States are Chocolate, Cookies ‘N Cream, Vanilla, Strawberry, Chocolate Chip, Cookie Dough, Butter Pecan, French Vanilla, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, and Caramel/Salted Caramel.
Nearly three-quarters (73%) of consumers consume ice cream at least once per week, while two-thirds eat ice cream in the evening, IDFA data states.
In this feature, we will take a look at the future of the ice cream category in terms of innovations in flavorings, colors, and toppings. We will also dig into how ice cream ingredient suppliers are balancing consumer desire to indulge versus their healthy product demands.
Three prominent ice cream processors reveal insights on the state of the market, industry trends, and more. Even as we move to a post-pandemic period, ice cream sales remain strong, reports Jinny Lam, director of Category Growth, Ice Cream & Cultured at Tillamook, Ore.-based Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA). In 2022, Tillamook’s ice cream sales grew by 30%.
“Consumers are seeking high-quality products, ones that are both an experience and an indulgence. Tillamook ice cream delivers on that need and we’re excited to bring it to more fans across the country,” Lam told Dairy Foods. “Until recently, consumers could only find Tillamook ice cream in the western United States, but our national expansion in the last several years means that millions of new fans can now enjoy our ice cream.”
Zeroing in on trends, London-based Mintel notes that today’s ice cream consumers are seeking fun and escapism. The research firm recommends ice cream processors team up with technology companies to attract gamers and early metaverse adopters.
Swedish-based N!CK’S has been one of the first to do so. In September 2022, it launched a limited-edition collection of light ice creams in collaboration with video gaming platform, Minecraft.
While merging new technologies with ice cream is one trend, several processors have gone the opposite route, enjoying tremendous success with nostalgic products. For instance, Syracuse, N.Y.-based Byrne Dairy Inc. is currently celebrating its 90th anniversary with a limited-edition “Party Like It’s 1933” ice cream flavor.
“Each half-gallon carton of ‘Party Like It’s 1933’ will contain cookie dough-flavored ice cream with a chocolate cookie swirl and rainbow candy-coated chocolate mini-morsels. It will be sold exclusively in Byrne Dairy & Deli stores later this year,” notes Ashley Casey, sales and marketing specialist for Byrne Dairy.
Tillamook also recognizes nostalgia as a big part of consumers’ ice cream experience. It released a new, classic Neapolitan ice cream with a mix of classic Old-Fashioned Vanilla, its top-selling Oregon Strawberry, and a creamy Chocolate with rich chocolate ripple.
“We’re also seeing a focus on premium ingredients and re-centering the ice cream experience on indulgence. As a result, consumers are seeking high-quality products that deliver classic flavors without compromising on the quality of the ingredients,” Lam mentions, adding that TCCA will soon release limited-time, seasonal Tillamook ice cream flavors.
And while ice cream processors are keeping a close eye on the health and wellness desires of today’s consumers, they explain that consumers are still enjoying the creamy indulgence of ice cream. For instance, at 520 calories per Cookiewich, Byrne Dairy’s ice cream chocolate chip cookie sandwiches have flown off of Central New York shelves for decades.
In 2021, the dairy processor launched its Vanilla Bigwich, which has three times the amount of ice cream as the traditional Cookiewich. Last year, Byrne Dairy added two more flavors to the Bigwich lineup: Cocoa-Nilla which balances the richness of the chocolate with vanilla soft-serve; and Raspberry, which features black raspberry soft-serve.
When it comes to meeting the needs of both health-conscious and indulgent customers, Unilever has expanded its non-dairy and plant-based options.
“An increased consumer interest in a more balanced, nutritious lifestyle seems to be a driver behind the non-dairy and carb-conscious products to meet consumer wants,” relays Bentley King, head of US Ice Cream Operations for Unilever, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
Examples of Unilever Ice Cream products that feature better-for-you trends include the January introduction of Breyers Non-Dairy Vanilla, as well as dairy-free offerings from Talenti Gelato. The new dairy-free Talenti flavors include Talenti Dairy-Free Chocolate Fudge Brownie Gelato Layers, Talenti Dairy-Free Blueberry Crumble Gelato Layers, Talenti Dairy-Free Caramel Toffee Crunch Gelato, and Talenti Dairy-Free Double Cookie Crunch Gelato.
For the Carb-Conscious, Breyers CarbSmart line offers low-carb options in 10 different varieties with Vanilla Chocolate Strawberry the newest flavor to hit freezer aisles nationwide in January.
Talenti Gelato and Sorbetto also caters to the health-conscious consumer with such products as the 80-calorie Talenti Vanilla Caramel Mini Gelato Bar; Talenti Dark Chocolate Mini Gelato Bar, also at 80 calories per bar; Talenti Roman Raspberry Mini Sorbetto Bar at 50 calories per bar; and the 45-calorie Talenti Alphonso Mango Mini Sorbetto Bar.
“We have seen the rise in consumer demand for better-for-you products and are meeting the needs of ice cream lovers with our existing vegan product line from Magnum ice cream, fan-favorite CarbSmart line from Breyers, and dairy-free treats from Talenti. However in January, we expanded our better-for-you offerings even further with new creations from Breyers and Talenti that provide something for every kind of dairy-free ice cream lover.” King explains.
On the “indulgent” side, Unilever has a plethora of recent new product offerings. New from the Magnum brand are the Caramel Duet Bars, and the Double Gold Caramel ice cream bars, while Reese’s added a Peanut Butter Sandwich.
Experts also “dig deep” into everything that makes ice cream products staples on retail shelves — ingredients, flavorings, toppings, and colors.
According to Christine Addington, principal technical account manager for Dairy at Minneapolis-based Cargill, the desire for indulgent ice creams that provide nutritional value is today’s biggest trend in ice cream formulations.
“What’s exciting is that ingredient advances are enabling us to deliver on these duel — and seemingly divergent — demands,” she says. “For example, we continue to see interest in high-protein ice creams. The latest addition to our pea protein line-up, PURIS 2.0, allows us to achieve higher levels of protein thanks to its enhanced solubility and improved flavor profile. The resulting plant-based frozen desserts deliver on consumers' sensory and nutritional expectations, with improved textures, creamier mouthfeels, and great taste.”
Phil A’Becket, senior consumer insights manager for Kalamazoo, Mich.-based FlavorSum, has seen an uptick in people wanting to manage stress or balance moods. Some turn to physical activities or supplements, but for others, food (even traditionally indulgent treats) becomes “medicine,” he states.
“According to Mintel, more than half of Americans believe that indulgent foods can benefit overall well-being by improving mental health. Ice cream, a classic indulgent treat, fills the mood-boosting role exceptionally well,” A’Becket explains. “Additional data from Innova Market Insights supports the trend, with Americans stating that they consume ice cream for a variety of reasons, including ‘to indulge/treat myself’ (45%) and ‘to make me happy’ (40%). Through the use of specific indulgent ingredients, like flavors or inclusions, the mood-boosting ability of ice cream elevates further, enabling a level of ‘permissible indulgence.’”
Sugar reduction is another area where dairy ingredient suppliers have made a lot of gains in recent years. (See Ingredient Technologies article in this issue).
“More and more brands have specific sugar-reduction goals they’re trying to meet, but to deliver finished products that live up to consumer expectations, they need to replicate sugar’s sweet taste, as well as its contributions to things like indulgence texture and freezing point depression,” Addington notes, adding stevia products can help brands reduce sugar, while erythritol can address bulking and freezing point depression. Fiber is another important ice cream ingredient. About two in 10 launches last year focused on removing negatives, an uptick of plus-15%, with reducing sugar at the top of the list, A’Becket relays. “Adding positives or functional ingredients occurred in less than 5% of launches, but ‘plus-positive’ claims increased plus-13% led by protein. Use of active functional ingredients grew by 43%, with probiotics gaining traction.”
People are also seeking indulgences that fit with their diet plan and philosophies, the Flavorsum executive continues. Ketogenic or keto-friendly ice creams have shown a strong growth since 2019, while overall ice cream launches have declined slightly.
“One final potential health-focused aspect that is making a large impact in the ice cream space is dairy alternatives. Whether a person is lactose restricted, vegan, or just feels good by reducing their reliance on animal products, plant-based ice creams fit the bill,” A’Becket reveals. “Just over 20% of all new ice creams launched in 2022 were plant-based, providing plenty of choice at the shelf. Depending on the base used, off-notes may be present, but fortunately, flavor systems can help deliver delicious results.”
Greek yogurt ice cream novelties is a growing trend, Addington suggests. “They still taste really indulgent, but they’re made with Greek yogurt, which consumers associate as a ‘better for you’ choice,” she says. “With a consumer base that’s hungry for the best of both worlds, I think we’ll continue to see brands blur the lines between healthy and indulgent, and I can’t wait to taste the result.”
Don’t forget the power of fruit, with all types of blend requests continue to grow in popularity with a most recent tropical/berry/citrus combination, notes Tyler Poats, quality CI specialist for Nampa, Idaho-based MicroDried.
“Demand for nutritional, organic and non-GMO ingredients has created the innovation of mixed berry fragments and fruit/hidden vegetable powder blends that not only give the flavor and color, but all our fruits and vegetables are ready-to-eat and contain much of the nutritional value of the original fruit or vegetable,” Poats maintains.
Recently, the push for more dairy manufacturing companies experimenting with indulgent mix-ins or toppings, means they are looking for premium products, he continues. “Since MicroDried offers minimally processed ingredients and simple functional ready-to-eat ingredients, it’s just like adding a real fruit or vegetable into your recipe along with providing a clean label.”
What’s hot in ice cream flavors?
What are the hottest ice cream flavor trends? Think spicy, savory and ethnic, responds Sydney Byrne, marketing specialist for Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based Sensient Flavors & Extracts.
“Consumers are on the hunt for experience and uniqueness when having ice cream, and when they see these on the shelves they think ‘I have never seen this before, I have to try this,’” Byrne maintains. “They are curious to find out how unique flavor combinations taste and are continuously searching for their next favorite flavor. The market is flooded with familiar and classic ice cream flavors, so unique flavors are differentiating.”
Cross-category influences from bakery and beverages also are making their way into the ice cream category.
“Boozy or cocktail-inspired flavors are crossing over and bakery flavors like cereal, breakfast cakes, cornbread, muffins, etc., are ramping up in launches,” Byrne reveals. “Many times, these concepts not only offer new flavor, but also new texture, which is currently the No. 1 desire for consumers when looking to purchase ice cream.”
Global demand for pure vanilla also is rising as consumers have become far more discerning about the ingredients contained in the food they eat or prepare. They are looking for products that use all-natural and sustainably sourced ingredients, suggests Adam Hobler, senior marketing director at Nielsen-Massey, Waukegan, Ill., which sources vanillas. “With the rise of plant-based beverages and other food items such as dairy-free milks and ice creams, vanilla is being used more to help mask off-flavors that may come as a result. It also enhances or rounds out the other ingredients to bring out their full flavor potential,” he says.
Regarding ice cream flavor innovation, taste and demands tend to differ depending on the season. For example, almond and coffee extracts are very popular in in the fall and winter, while citrus flavors are very popular in the spring, Hobler states. This seasonality, along with demand and trend research, is what drives innovation in new flavors.
“Universally, all-natural, familiar flavors are being paired with new elements, driving consumer interest right now. Emerging flavors like lavender, cardamom and rosé could all be areas of innovation for dairy producers,” he adds.
In the future, Sensient’s Byrne expects more unique flavors to be unveiled, including flavors mimicking popular desserts and snacks and flavors that are indulgent with various textures, flavors, swirls, etc. “Though health and wellness are becoming more prominent in consumers’ lives, [they] would still rather have a small serving of super indulgent ice cream than a larger serving of better-for-you ice cream. Consumers are making healthier lifestyle changes, but they don’t want to sacrifice their ice cream,” she asserts.
Color brings the fun
There is an old saying, coined by Apicius, “We eat with our eyes first.” How ice cream looks provides a perfect sensory vision overload, making it even more attractive to consumers.
The combination of unique flavors and fun colors are essential in enticing consumers to choose a brand, stresses Tammi Geiger, marketing manager for Danish-based Oterra. “According to Innova research, when looking at what influences consumers to purchase ice cream, indulgence is first, and using natural ingredients along with no artificial flavor and colors is third and fourth. It’s important to put these types of claims on pack to be able to stand out from the other brands.”
Dallas, N.C.-based GNT USA LLC is seeing a lot of bold, eye-catching colors like fuchsia pink with strawberries or dragon fruit popping up in ice cream.
“We’re also seeing trends for subdued to violet purples and deep yellows in sophisticated flavor profiles like Earl Grey and lavender or cardamon-spiced mango. In these examples, the fruits, spices, or botanicals are being applied in new ways to deliver fun and adventure,” notes Alice Lee, GNT’s technical marketing manager.
Using plant-based colors assures consumers that natural doesn’t have to mean compromising on taste or appearance, Lee adds.
“We create EXBERRY colors from edible fruits, vegetables, and plants using physical processing methods, so they’re actually food concentrates that can be eaten by the spoonful. They can deliver a broad spectrum of shades in both dairy and plant-based dairy products while supporting clean and clear labels,” Lee states.
“Colors are really consumers’ first sensory experience. When innovating with natural colors, the main goal is to create a sensory experience that matches the overall perception of the product,” states Braden Hocking, Oterra’s technical account representative.
He notes that natural colors are constantly being formulated to provide unique shades and experiences that match current trends in the market. “As we look ahead, the future of natural colors in this space, you can expect to see a wider array of vibrant colors that continues to evolve in the natural color industry,” Hocking says
Ice cream has become a multi-sensory experience, continues Meghan Skidmore, marketing specialist at St. Louis-based Sensient Food Colors.
“’Enjoyment Everywhere’” caters to those consumers seeking joyful products that allow them to explore and indulge. Sensational, elevated, mashed-up products appeal to shoppers who may feel constrained or bored with their everyday and want ice cream products to help them live in the moment,” she says. “Seasonal launches evoke ‘powerful transformations’ through color, texture, and flavor. Multi-sensory experiences, mood-boosting options, and limited-edition seasonal flavors and favorites offer consumers an opportunity to explore provocative product experiences.”
Beyond the actual colors itself, GNT’s Lee suggests that sustainability will remain a huge topic for the dairy industry.
“Our sustainability goals for 2030 are high priority. We’re aiming to become the leader in the food coloring industry on sustainability. Developing more concentrated colors, upcycling side streams into functional food ingredients, and converting to more green energy sources are just a few initiatives in the ambitious and comprehensive sustainability strategy.”
Cherry (and more) on top
In addition to enticing flavors and attractive colors, toppings like whipped cream and cherries on top of a sundae also are designed to add the perfect finishing touch. Dallas-based Pecan Deluxe Candy Co. provides all the “nuts and bolts” — pun intended — for the ice cream toppings category.
What toppings are consumers seeking on their ice cream? “With the current economic climate, people want something that is comfortable with a twist; components like clusters and candy pieces that add visual texture and mouthfeel seem to add the most value,” says Smokey Waters, Pecan Deluxe’s director of culinary. “For example, you could add a salted honeycomb toffee piece to a butter pecan ice cream that will enhance the look and flavor of the product without going too far in the consumers’ eyes.”
Cookie, mango, and coconut are some of the fastest-growing toppings, adds Tara Gonzales, the company’s director of marketing.
Hot Honey is another growing ice cream topping. “Our honeycomb candy continues to be a popular inclusion in delivering honey profiles,” states Paula Simons, Pecan Deluxe’s manager of research and development.
Pecan Deluxe also continues to innovate what could be the next great toppings. “We stay ahead of the curve by implementing the latest in flavor trends in unexpected inclusions like matcha fizzy clusters or yuzu popping boba. As international flavors continue gain popularity, expect to see more unique fusion inclusions,” says Amanda Cardinal, marketing coordinator for the company.
Just like in ice cream ingredients, topping producers are currently focused on meeting the needs of consumers’ desires of both indulgence and health. Many choose health and well-being, while others seek to “reward” themselves with a pint of their favorite indulgent mixture, notes Kami R. Smith, Pecan Deluxe director of culinary showcasing.
She adds that nuts/nutmeats always come to mind when preparing a better-for-you build. “These little nibbles pack of punch of protein, low carbs, and lots of fiber that is setting anyone’s system up for high operating status,” Smith concludes. “We also seek to use different pulses, grains, and fruits to bring a new level of fiber and proteins, but don’t worry, we won’t allow it to taste like an earthen vessel.”