By Rachel Murkett, PreScouter Project Architect

It’s National Ice Cream Month, first defined by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. But what’s the scoop in ice cream innovation today? What will be the hot new flavors to keep us cool?

First, let’s cover the big names. Vanilla is the long-standing title holder for the most popular ice cream flavor, with 29% of the vote. Chocolate is lagging behind with 8.9% of the vote, followed by butter pecan and strawberry, which both have 5.3%. These positions don’t look set to change for the masses, with some sources even stating that vanilla may increase in popularity this year, particularly as a base for addition of other flavors.

The demand for 'natural' and 'clean' foods

In the consumer products industry, there is a trend towards natural and “clean” ingredients. This is particularly noticeable in the food and beverage industry, as consumers become more conscious of what is in their food and where it has come from.

Ice cream is no exception to this trend. We are expecting to see more descriptive words used on ice cream flavor labels. For instance, the addition of cooking methods; toasted almonds or caramelized apple etc. For the consumer, this delivers enticing visions of a carefully and thoughtfully prepared product.

Big bad sugar

Sugar is a challenge for many sweet food and beverage producers. Economic factors such as proposed sugar taxes, combined with the consumer perception of sugar as an addictive, unnatural and unhealthy substance, makes it more difficult for suppliers to justify their sweetness.

Expect to see an increase in the declaration of natural sugars. Think honey, agave, brown sugar; in fact, look for any sweetener that sounds “natural” and has a guilt-free ring to it.

Nondairy ‘ice cream’

Last year, Ben & Jerry’s launched four new flavors of nondairy ice cream. By using plant-based milks, cereals and fruits, a consumer can get a sweet treat with only 100 to 200 calories per serving. Such nondairy flavors of ice cream include Ben and Jerry’s caramel almond brittle, Luna & Larry’s Coconut Bliss and Nada moo!’s Gotta do chocolate.

Cookie dough appeals to the child in every consumer

Sliding to the other end of the spectrum, and the reason we all really love ice cream is indulgence. Forget calories, forget carbs, just pick up a spoon and splurge. I’m talking chips, chunks, toppings, sprinkles, and everything in between, including my favorite: cookie dough.

While it isn’t new, cookie dough is rising in popularity. Furthermore, this year is about nostalgia. What better childhood memory to lose yourself in than the indulgent treat of eating raw cookie dough from the spoon? This is a guilt-free guilty pleasure.

Cookie dough is becoming a stand-alone dessert. Cookie Dough parlors, such as DÕ which opened this year in New York City, have proven highly popular. According to web analytics, cookie dough is also the most-talked-about ice cream flavor on Twitter. Demand for this cool classic looks set to soar.

A peek at pekmez, the vitamin-rich grape syrup

That covers the main consumer-driven trends for ice cream flavors, but what about the disruptors? My work at PreScouter includes looking beyond to see the unforeseen iPhones of ice cream flavors.

Have you heard of pekmez? Pekmez is a sweet, natural and molasses-like vitamin-rich syrup made from condensed grape. It has been used in Turkish cuisine for centuries. It is known for its sweet taste and rich vitamin, mineral and antioxidant content. But it is not well-known as an ice cream flavor.

One group at the Ondokuz Mayis University in Turkey have been experimenting with pekmez ice cream. It ticks a lot of boxes; natural, check, sweet, check, healthy, check. Could this be the next local ice cream trend to go global, much like the Thai ice cream rolls.

How about using artificial neural networks to predict consumer acceptance of ice cream flavors? One study published in the Journal of Food Processing and Preservation investigated just this. The researchers developed a computational model that predicted total flavor acceptance with a mean absolute error of 0.27 and correlation coefficients of 0.96. Could this be a snapshot into the future of flavor optimization and development?

For the near-term, ice cream flavor trends are leaning towards the familiar. Vanilla is set to strengthen its hold on the top spot and cookie dough reaffirms its popularity among consumers. For the long-term, could we soon be enjoying pekmez ice cream with probiotics chosen and developed for us by artificial neural network technology?

Let’s wait and see. 

About the author

Rachel Murkett is a Project Architect at PreScouter, an innovation consulting firm. She works on client projects as a personal research assistant to help them quickly get-up-to-speed on what they need to know. She has worked on a number of projects in dairy and in food and beverage. She received a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Cambridge and a bachelor (Honors) degree in biochemistry at the University of East Anglia.