Unilever global ice cream leader talks plant-based formulation: First get the protein right…

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Recent additions to Unilever's non-dairy frozen dessert line up include: Colin Kaepernick's Change the Whirled, Tonight Dough starring Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert's Americone Dream, Karamel Sutra, and Phish Food. Picture credit: Ben & Jerry's
Recent additions to Unilever's non-dairy frozen dessert line up include: Colin Kaepernick's Change the Whirled, Tonight Dough starring Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert's Americone Dream, Karamel Sutra, and Phish Food. Picture credit: Ben & Jerry's

Related tags: plant-based dairy, non dairy frozen desserts, Unilever, Future Food Tech, vegan, vegan ice cream

Unilever experienced an “explosion” in the growth of non-dairy ice cream when it introduced products through mainstream brands such as Ben & Jerry's and Magnum, according to global ice cream EVP Matt Close. But getting plant-based proteins to match the unique functionality of dairy in a formulation has been an ongoing challenge, he says.

Speaking at the virtual Future Food Techconference on alternative proteins​on Wednesday, Close said plant-based ice cream is a “$600m market that’s growing* at more than 20% a year,” ​driven by a range of factors, from demand for more sustainable products to lactose intolerance, milk protein allergies, and a desire for novelty.

“It's our job to make sure that we take all those different needs into account as we help to develop this exciting market, not just in the US where two thirds of the businesses is, but also in Europe, which is emerging fast," ​said Close. "We're also seeing a lot of pent up demand in Asia and in Latin America,” ​he told delegates.

Where we started in this market, it was really with specialty brands, offering specific plant-based options and we found that that was exciting for consumers, but perhaps a little bit niche… actually we've seen an explosion in the growth of plant based when we've taken it to our mainstream famous brands, brands like Magnum, brands with the kind of excitement that Ben & Jerry’s can create.”

‘Products that are a little bit hard and icy…’

From a formulation perspective, most non-dairy frozen desserts contain a combination of water, sugars, fats & oils, emulsifiers, stabilizers (gums, hydrocolloids etc), and protein. Replacing dairy fat with plant-based fats (coconut oil, cocoa butter etc) is “pretty easy​,” he claimed, but the protein is more of a challenge.

“Getting the right plant-based protein that will provide the same texture and taste that we're used to with milk protein is the big challenge. A lot of plant proteins lack the functionality to create and stabilize the unique microstructure that ice cream needs… we're looking for a fine stable air structure. That's critical for a smooth, creamy texture.

“And the lack of that structure is a primary reason why so many people have been disappointed in the past with products that are a little bit hard, and icy, so we are working hard with a scientist to get the right type of plant protein, and then optimize the rest of the recipe, so that the microstructure that we deliver is as close and analogous to a creamy dairy structure as possible.”

Eliminating beany notes

On taste, as plant-based proteins can sometimes confer beany notes, formulating products with a lot of indulgent inclusions – as in many Ben & Jerry’s products – can make life slightly easier, he said. “ButMagnum is a little more tricky as it’s much more of a pure ice cream, and ​[also] has the challenge of needing a plant based chocolate.”

In the mainstream market – ​think “big tubs of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry” ​– meanwhile, there are ongoing challenges: “How do we make sure that the subtle flavor of vanilla, and that intense creaminess and texture, carries ​[in a plant-based formulation]? We have to eliminate some of the beany notes in the plant protein, so we are looking at how you develop off note technology and flavor bases designed to match vanilla. We believe that we are pretty close to parity on dairy vanilla versus plant based vanilla.”

He added: “It's our belief that when you get the science of formulation right, get the microstructure from plant protein absolutely right, and when you marry that with great chefmanship for wonderful recipes and when you democratize through big brands, we'll see even more explosive growth in the plant based ice cream market.”

Unilever's Magnum sea salt caramel vegan product was named Best Vegan Ice Cream at PETA’s Vegan Food Awards this year. Picture: Magnum (Unilever)

Unilever’s big bet on plant-based foods

Unilever - which launched Hellmann’s vegan mayo (spread) in the US in 2016​and acquired plant-based meat brand The Vegetarian Butcher​ in 2018 - is targeting annual sales of €1bn​ ($1.19bn - or around five times what it sold in 2020) from plant-based meat and dairy alternatives within five to seven years as part of a plan to make them more accessible, affordable and appetizing, given that consumers won’t switch unless plant-based options are the “easy, obvious choice​.”​​

Several of Unilever's leading ice cream and frozen novelty brands now feature non-dairy options including Breyer’s​ (almondmilk base), Magnum​ (almonds, peas), and Ben & Jerry’s​ (a mix of bases including almonds and sunflower seeds).

*According to SPINS data, US retail sales of plant-based ice cream rose 12.4% in the 52 weeks to October 4, 2020, while sales of plant-based frozen novelties rose 50.8%.

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