And that is because the Boise, Idaho-company’s Killer Sammies are far from normal. Instead of bookending traditional sugar sweetened dairy ice cream between high-carb, high-calorie and low nutrition wafers, Killer Creamery’s ice cream sandwiches are made with zero-sugar chocolate and vanilla ice cream that is slabbed between gluten-free and keto-friendly chocolate wafer cookies that are made with pea protein, oat flour and MCT oil for a better-for-you nutritional profile than competing frozen novelties.
Conscious that the alternative ingredients used by many traditional sugar-free ice creams and frozen novelties in the past resulted in products that tasted or behaved “slightly off” from the golden standard of indulgence they sought to replicate, Louis Armstrong didn’t want to compromise between flavor and function and a healthier nutritional profile. He wanted it all – and he worked hard until he got it all.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-to-Nuts podcast, Armstrong explains how he applied his skills as a food scientist and lessons he picked up over the years as a quality assurance auditor for different food manufacturers to navigate the trade-offs of various sweeteners and to create a sugar-free ice cream that could be enjoyed just as easily by care-free children as health-conscious dieters, including avid ketogenic followers like himself. He also shares how he is tackling negative stereotypes of better-for-you products, holding his own against big name competitors and how the pandemic is reshaping the frozen dessert aisle – for good and bad.
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‘Why does this have to be loaded with sugar?’
When Killer Creamery’s zero-sugar Killer Sammies hit retail shelves earlier this summer, Armstrong says it was a dream come true – not only because he did something no one else had done before, but because it fulfilled the original inspiration for launching his business.
“This all started in about 2010 after just being at the gym. I did a workout and then went to a gas station to get an ice cream sandwich and thought as we were eat them, ‘Why does this have to be loaded with sugar? Why doesn’t it have anything functional in it? Like a good source of fat or higher protein or something like that? It can’t be that hard.’ So, that was kind of the seed that was planted and I just kept coming back to it,” he said.
But before Armstrong could create the ultimate zero-sugar ice cream sandwich, he needed to create the ultimate zero-sugar ice cream – a challenge that strikes at the heart of the frozen dessert’s taste, mouthfeel and overall experience. And one which Armstrong says the better-for-you category, including Killer Creamery, can still improve.
“The products that were sugar-free in the past always had some weird artificial taste, probably because they had artificial sweeteners and things in them,” or when you tried to scoop them they were icy instead of soft, Armstrong said.
He acknowledged that the category likely lacked innovation because there wasn’t much demand and the space wasn’t as profitable as other segments. But, he says, today’s consumers increasingly want sugar-free options and large players are entering the space – giving it legitimacy and driving demand for better ingredients.
“The trend is definitely there. We have a business because there is a demand for it and we’re are priding ourselves and hyper-focused on the experience side of it. So, we’re trying to make sure that our products just taste like a regular product,” that provides a nostalgic ice cream experience and can be enjoyed by anyone – whether they are following a diet or not, he said.
Finding the right sweetener
The challenge of replacing sugar without negatively impacting the taste and functional experience of ice cream alone is daunting – but as Armstrong notes it is even more complicated when supply chain challenges are thrown into the mix. In balancing these three competing priorities, Armstrong said he landed on a blend of Allulose, Erythritol and Monk fruit as the ideal combination to meet Killer Creamery’s low-carb yet indulgent target.
He explained that from a functional stand point, allulose is the closest sweetener to mimicking sugar functionally, and it doesn’t impact blood sugar levels, and has fewer calories. But it doesn’t have the same sweetness.
To compensate, Killer Creamery also uses erythritol and monk fruit, which Armstrong landed on after dismissing xylitol for being risky for dogs – with whom many people want to share their frozen desserts.
Armstrong noted, ensuring sufficient supply of key ingredients is a top challenge for any scaling business at any time – but doing so during the pandemic when supply chains have been strained in unpredictable and unusual ways has been particularly difficult.
“It is definitely tough. There is no crystal ball to when supply chain issues might end and frankly, with the new ways of COVID and thinks coming along, there is definitely a fear that maybe we will have to scale back innovation or slow down a bit. But, I think, on benefit for us is that we were an early adopter of allulose at some good volumes, so we have been able to kind of maintain our partnership there,” whereas newer entrants might not be able to, Armstrong said.
Frozen novelties are skyrocketing
While the pandemic has strained supply chains and made it difficult for emerging brands like Killer Creamery to secure shelf space, it also has turbo-charged consumer demand for ice cream and frozen novelties – creating longer term opportunities for fast-thinking, innovative entrepreneurs like Armstrong.
He explained that prior to the pandemic the frozen novelty category was growing close to 5%, “which is great,” but during the pandemic it reached close to 22% growth over the prior year, which is huge.
Armstrong attributed the growth in part to people who were staying at home during the pandemic buying treats at the grocery store that they likely would have purchased pre-pandemic at restaurants, events or shops.
In addition, he said, during the pandemic many consumers wanted more treats than they did pre-pandemic. But as the “pandemic 19” caused scales to tip higher, many people looked for healthier options – helping to drive growth in organic and the better-for-you side of the business.
As pandemic restrictions ease, Armstrong says he is seeing pint sales drop back compared to 2020, but the novelty side is still growing beyond the pandemic numbers.
“That’s kind of crazy. I think the latest I saw was a report of 10% over the last year, which is the elevated pandemic numbers. So, it is just wild. Novelties are definitely where it is at,” he said.
Recognizing the opportunity for novelties and seizing it with the launch this summer of Killer Sammies, Killer Creamery shows how innovation and fast iteration can help emerging brands successfully go up against larger, iconic players.
But winning shelf space is just the first step. The next, and potentially more challenging in the better-for-you space, is overcoming stereotypes to win over not just health-conscious consumers who may be willing to trade taste for nutrition but all consumers – including those who just want to indulge.
“When you put yourself in this better for you category, it is already kind of a negative connotation that anybody coming in is probably thinking inherently … you’re giving up something to be this set,” Armstrong said.
The best way to overcome this is through sampling so that consumers can experience that Killer Creamery’s products “taste just like the real thing,” he said.
With demos restricted in many places, Armstrong added that Killer Creamery is redoing its branding to better communicate the value and taste of its products, and plans to offer more products that can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone without any guilt.