Hard evidence shows taste and appearance are still foremost in the mind of the consumer. Sacrificing creamy moistness and intense flavor for the sake of lower calories or antioxidants alone is just not an option.


Formulation Benefits and ConsiderationsInclusions can make or break a frozen dessert. In a time when consumers are open to new and exciting options, there is more opportunity than ever for manufacturers to experiment with inclusion selections and pairings that may have been deemed too risky in the past. The traditional use of caramels and chocolates has paved the way to turn up the intensity a notch, with sea salt caramels and citrus-flavored chocolate variegates, as well as making room for the emergence of many bold citrus inclusions. Combinations such as blood orange variegate and dark, bitter chocolate bits have gained popularity, and the use of nuts featuring spice, such as cayenne pepper, are certainly making their way towards center stage.

Appearance
Initially, it is the appearance of inclusions that tweak consumers’ interest. The eye is drawn to products with bright and contrasting colors. When chocolate chips and a bright red stripe of strawberry variegate are paired with a pale-colored ice cream, the eye is drawn to these bold color differences, as well as the varying dimension, shape and design of the inclusions. Up against an item without this differentiation, the winner in appearance is clear.

Though typically beneficial, the temptation to choose inclusions with bold colors may actually have the reverse effect, if the colors do not appear warm and inviting. Yellows, reds and browns seem to have the most appeal to consumers, with the benefits of being naturally tempting hues, but without a “synthetic” look.

Some products offer thick stripes of variegates and large chunks of particulates, whereas others may contain only a small ribbon of variegate and tiny particulates. Consumer sensory panels indicate that bolder contrasts carry favor with consumers across the board, though sometimes a more delicate balance is necessary. In the case of a highly indulgent, bourbon vanilla ice cream, one may want to provide only a thin ribbon of caramel and small fines of black vanilla bean, as opposed to large chocolate chunks and a thick, gooey caramel stripe. The latter may pair better with a milder, milky vanilla flavor, for the sake of both appearance and taste.

Though appearance provides the biggest array of opportunity to differentiate between competitors’ products, it also provides the biggest challenge in terms of formulation and product manufacturing. Products that melt easily, stick together or get caught in inclusion feeders can pose processing difficulties. This is why inclusions are kept at low temperatures quite close or lower to that of the ice cream itself. Less difference in temperature decreases the chance of clusters of inclusions getting caught in machinery and also provides a narrower opportunity for ice crystal formation. Additionally, the low temperatures can stop the mixing and breaking down of the inclusions into the body of the ice cream itself, so they may keep their separate identity.

It is essential to choose inclusions that are compatible with the particular processing equipment available. Being sure the physical characteristics of the inclusion match up with the equipment and manufacturing capabilities will ensure optimum final product quality.

Taste
Once the consumer gets past the initial urge to choose a product merely for its appeal to the eye, taste comes into the equation. Inclusions with contrasting tastes, such as salty cashew bits and a sweet stripe of chocolate fudge, can complement the flavor of the ice cream in a magnificent manner and conjure up an exhilarating taste comparison for consumers. These contrasts may also enhance the underlying flavor in the ice cream itself and bring more subtle flavors to the forefront. With such a range of inclusions available, the options are boundless. Soft, chewy brownies and crunchy peanut brittle pieces or soft, creamy nougat and cookie bits can also create the equivalent effect.

The quality and number of inclusions can certainly differentiate one product from the next. Though some favor an abundance of taste and texture contrast with the creaminess of ice cream in the background, most consumers are looking for a product where they can truly appreciate the flavor of the ice cream, enhanced by the inclusions. In this case, overloading the consumer with inclusions is certainly a detriment instead of a benefit.

Additionally, when focusing on taste, manufacturers should also be aware that many of the currently popular inclusions, such as almonds and dark chocolate, contain a high degree of unsaturated fat and may have a shorter shelflife, during which the taste of the product is at its peak. This aspect should be considered after assessing the maximum length of time between production and consumption.

Healthiness
With inclusions like açai berry making waves and increased interest in nuts due to their protein, fiber and antioxidant components, healthiness has risen as a marketing consideration for products with inclusions. As the popularity of items like baobab fruit, persimmon, star fruit and cactus hit their peak later this year, some developers may worry how to best apply these trends. By applying elementary contrasts, such as salty vs. sweet and crunchy vs. smooth, manufacturers cannot go wrong, when pairing up these more novel ingredients with those that are typically more traditional.

Though some sources say consumers are leaning toward healthier frozen novelties for their benefits alone, the evidence seems shaky at best. Hard evidence shows that taste and appearance are still foremost in the mind of the consumer. Sacrificing creamy moistness and intense flavor for the sake of lower calories or antioxidants alone is just not an option. Inclusions are meant to be rich, decadent, gooey or crunchy—not tough, dry or flavorless. Inclusions bring one back to childhood, sitting outside in the summer sunshine, while happily eating a rich, decadent, frozen treat.

Those fond childhood memories bring to mind the enjoyment of rich ice cream with warm, gooey, chocolate fudge and salty, crunchy peanuts, and these tastes can never be replaced simply due to health claims. So, manufacturers should be wary. Though healthy inclusions provide ample marketing points for manufacturers that enhance products’ appeal, it is best to choose inclusions based on their sensory appeal, and then appreciate their inherent healthiness, instead of just choosing an ingredient based on health claims alone.

Since the need for fat as a carrier of the flavor for the inclusions and the ice cream itself is necessary, consumers are beginning to take more stock in the approach of consuming truly indulgent frozen desserts in limited or predetermined portion sizes. This approach certainly appears to be a way of increasing consumers’ options for products they can consume, while staying within their particular eating plan. It also increases the benefits to producers, since inclusions that contain sensible amounts of fat, sugar and carbohydrate respond best to manufacturing conditions, maintain texture best and are able to carry bold flavors with more intensity.

Considerations
It is important to note that many inclusions need a bit of assistance in maintaining their identity, in addition to temperature. To keep inclusions fresh, they often are given a lipid- or wax-based coating. In the case of candy-type pieces, this is most often achieved by coating the pieces with a thin layer of chocolate, but for cake pieces and more delicate ingredients, a thin, clear coating is typically applied. This form of preservation not only protects the inclusions, but the ice cream as well.

When formulating with inclusions, manufacturers should also be aware of how the percentage overrun of the ice cream will affect the appeal of the inclusion. Denser, more indulgent products with lower overrun may be best paired with an inclusion that gives a warm taste and a less dense texture--since the lower overrun will give the perception of a colder ice cream and is physically harder. Conversely, an ice cream with a higher overrun will give the perception of warmth and may often be paired best with an inclusion that is denser and gives a colder sensation, such as mint particulates.

Boundless Options
Inclusions truly have the ability to turn a run-of-the-mill product into something fresh and stimulating. With so many high-quality inclusions in the form of variegates and particulates, manufacturers have a good opportunity to distinguish themselves from competitors to create a unique, superb product that appeals to the eyes, taste buds and provides added healthiness. These delicious additions to frozen desserts also provide the versatility to meet changing consumer tastes with ease.

Even with the cost of milk continually rising and the prices of ice cream reflecting these changes, consumers are still willing to pay for the comfort and decadent taste ice creams filled with inclusions give. Really, what would ice cream be without inclusions? Though ice cream can stand alone as creamy smooth and velvety, inclusions provide the contrasts that keep the taste buds guessing. There is something to be said, when even the lactose intolerant are willing to sacrifice for the combination of a frozen dessert filled with the ooey, gooey goodness of a thick, fudgy variegate and crunchy chocolatey bits. pf

Marie Rittweger is a food science analyst for Nerac Inc., a global research and advisory services firm. Prior to joining Nerac, she worked at Carvel Corp. in new product formulations, existing product reformulations, line trials, regulatory affairs, standard operating procedure implementation, shelflife testing and product abuse studies. She has a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences from the University of Connecticut, is a certified professional food safety manager and is certified in hazardous waste operations and emergency response. She is a member of the IFT and ADA. Call 860-872-7000 or visit www.nerac.com.


Website Resources:
www.PreparedFoods.com  -- Type in “Gelato & Other Gourmet Ice Creams” for an in-depth look at the difference between gelato and ice cream
www.PreparedFoods.com -- To look for other articles on these topics, including articles written by Bruce Tharp and Steven Young, trends in frozen dairy desserts and stabilizer systems, see Prepared Foods’ searchable website for thousands of archived articles
www.gayot.com/restaurants/bestof/icecream/main.html -- A list of the best ice cream parlors in the U.S.