February 2012/Prepared Foods -- The frozen dessert industry has never been hotter, as consumers reach for treats both indulgent and comforting, keeping business churning for the big guys, such as Edy’s, Häagen Dazs, Ben & Jerry’s and Dreyer’s. Meanwhile, sweet offerings from the boutique makers, like Laloo’s, Ciao Bella, Sambozon and Molly Moon’s, are eagerly scooped up.  And, while good ol’ plain vanilla and chocolate are enjoying a surge of popularity (comprising more than a third of frozen dessert flavors sold), so too are their polar opposites: those frozen dessert products loaded with stir-ins, swirl-ins and celebrity-driven concoctions, including nuts, fruits, cookies and even bits of ice cream cone. Some constants will always drive frozen dessert flavors. Vanilla and chocolate will likely always be the top two flavors. But, now and again, some surprises arise. For instance, a 2011 survey by market researchers at the NPD Group revealed butter pecan edged out strawberry as the third most popular flavor in the U.S., based on annual sales. And, while strawberry was knocked to fourth, the group found chocolate chip mint had landed in the last spot of the top five.

Meanwhile, global research group Euromonitor International Ltd. has noted the demand for health-directed indulgences is increasing in the frozen dessert category and changing the flavors for which consumers are clamoring. As stated in its August 2011 “Flavors in Dairy and Ice Cream in the US” report, “The dairy and ice cream market looks for opportunities to make products better for you. ‘Permissible indulgence’ is a new market driver, as indulgence is offered in healthier versions.” In contrasting this with the flavor trends, Euromonitor points out, “While exotic appeals to high-end consumers, feel-good flavors strike a chord with the mainstream. Traditional flavors dominate, but shifting demographics could signal a new path toward exotic and ethnically influenced flavors.”

Another common trend has been flavoring the perennially popular vanilla and chocolate bases with familiar and comforting stir-ins. Generic, non-branded comfort treats, such as brownies, cookie dough, cheesecake and even ice cream cone inclusions continue to be big with consumers. Even the Southern favorite, red velvet cake, has enjoyed a big revival as an enhancement to dairy desserts. But, manufacturers also recognize that, while “cookies and cream” is a favorite flavor, it is inextricably linked with the white cream-filled chocolate sandwich cookie, and that often spells “Oreo” for the consumer.
So, now the move is to cross-brand frozen treats with trademarked candies, such as M&Ms, Reese’s, Nestlé’s Crunch, Heath bars and Butterfinger. These, plus many more, have found their way into successful ice creams.
However, when creating a frozen confection comprised of different textures, combinations and components, it has to work on levels beyond flavor. After all, the goodies within are no treat if the whole becomes a slippery mess seconds after being removed from the freezer, or if ice crystals form like glass shards in the base matrix. For this reason, using the right stabilizers is a must. They need to be tailor-made to the base, whether dairy, dairy analog or fruit juice.

“In order to create the perfect texture and consistency for our sorbettos—which are all vegan—we also use all-natural cane sugar, filtered water, fresh fruit and pectin,” says Nicole Hermes, director of marketing for Angelo Gelato Italiano Inc. “When Angelo Quercia, the president and owner of Angelo’s, established the company, he knew that to make an authentic sorbetto he would need to omit dairy from the recipe. His initial attempt to create the perfect recipe included the use of guar gum. But, after several attempts and trials, he decided to omit guar gum and exchange it for pectin. The result was excellent, providing a much smoother and creamier texture. The pectin provides the stabilizing effect needed to ensure the product has the right consistency we desire for our sorbetto and is an all-natural ingredient that still produces the level of stabilization necessary for a non-dairy, vegan frozen dessert.” 

Dealing with even higher percentages of fruits in flavors calls for careful balancing of sweeteners. “Due to the low percentage of solids in the finished Sambazon sorbet product compared to traditional ice cream, we had problems achieving consistent freezing and ‘scoopable’ texture,” says Sarah Nelson, director of product development at Sambazon Inc., makers of açai-based products, including a full line of Italian gelato-style sorbets. “We found that, by using a low-dextrose equivalent (DE) sugar source, we were able to increase the total solids, decrease the main sugar source and still maintain the targeted sweetness.” One highly suitable ingredient solution for this is tapioca syrup. Tapioca syrup is a low-priced option with a neutral flavor and is also readily available in a naturally produced, organic solution for clean-label application.

The conformation of flavor to stability is important to non-traditional, dairy-based frozen products, as well. Goat’s milk, increasingly popular as a traditionally healthful item, is often a good alternative for those who cannot enjoy cow’s milk products. It has a different fatty acid and mineral profile than cow’s milk, so it is necessary to work with a different balance of stabilizers to attain desired texture when incorporating inclusions or even keeping flavor to a single note. “We use unusual ingredients that are typically not on the market,” notes Laura Howard-Gayeton, CEO and founder of Laloo’s Goat Milk Ice Cream Co. “In the beginning, we made all our own ingredients, so the challenge became finding someone to make the same, while meeting our quality and price challenges.” To handle the stabilization and texture changes of a goat’s milk-based product, the Laloo’s R&D team settled on a combination of all-natural carob (locust) bean gum and guar gum.

But, Laloo’s had a big flavor challenge in making a French cherry frozen yogurt product. They originally used a thick, fruit-laced amarena cherry syrup from Italy, but the cost was too prohibitive, and they simply couldn’t source it with consistency. They teamed up with a coprocessor to create an analog from a blend of domestic fruit (Oregon cherries) and cassis.

While fruit bases and fruit swirls are becoming trendier as flavor add-ins (and typically rely on high sugar content and an emulsifier or hydrocolloid, such as a modified starch, to avoid forming ice crystals), caramel and chocolate fudge present unique challenges, especially since they also are the most common flavor swirl and, lately, often appear in tandem.

“When it comes to frozen dessert applications, dealing with flavors within textures and stabilizers can be challenging—what could look good on paper might not end up working in practice,” says Winston Boyd, Ph.D., food chemist. “For instance, if you are building flavor ‘swirls’ for a frozen dairy confection, you need to balance multiple textures across temperature. You might want the caramel to remain slightly fluid and perhaps a bit gooey and stringy within the ice cream medium into which it is swirled. And, you might want the chocolate fudge swirl to be less fluid and [shorter] textured.” The differences, says Boyd, are engineered in part through the “thoughtful choice of hydrocolloids or hydrocolloid blends.”
Boyd cautions that the same formula might not work as well in a non-dairy or no-sugar-added alternative product. “Here, the differing levels and types of ingredients may require at minimum a rebalancing of the hydrocolloid blend to achieve similar results,” he says.

As part of the not-so-glacial merge of flavor, comfort and health, Euromonitor noted increases in the Superfruit category—açai, pomegranate—and exotic flavors taking hold in high-end ice creams, sorbets and frozen yogurts. The group specifically pointed out cutting-edge, comfort-exotic pairings in examples such as Target Corp.’s Archer Farms’ Blueberry Lavender sorbet and Ciao Bella’s dark chocolate and jalapeño pepper sorbet. Acceptance of these boutique flavor expressions is driven, according to the group’s survey, by “shifting demographics leading to a more ethnically diverse population in the U.S.” The report adds that such influences will “continue to grow over the next few years.” For manufacturers, this means greater opportunities to create products that give consumers the ability to have their cake…and ice cream, too.

From Fruit to Nuts
The challenge for processors is in keeping crunchy what should be crunchy, and keeping what should be yummy-sticky-gooey…well, just that. Stabilizers—typically hydrocolloids from plant gums or polysaccharides—play a part in keeping both texture and flavor balanced and consistent in frozen desserts. Usually derived from beans, many of these gums work well in specific combinations customized to a client’s application. Maltodextrins also offer low-dextrose equivalent (DE) sweetening and texturization. Root sources, such as taro, have been popular, but ingredient manufacturers also have turned to other flavor-neutral sources, such as potato starch, which can perform as a fat replacer while providing enhanced creaminess. In some applications, fat can be reduced to zero percent when such starch-based replacers are incorporated. When working from a dairy base, the fat content will add its own measure of stability. Fruit juice-based concoctions have a bigger challenge and must rely more heavily on gums, usually in combination.


The Littlest Stir-Ins
In 2011, when Lifeway Foods Inc. rolled out its line of frozen kefir desserts to a large number of retailers nationwide, the company raised the “stir-in” trend to a higher level…by lowering it to a microscopic level. The manufacturers of the cultured milk product kefir created a frozen kefir dessert loaded with active—read, “live”—probiotic bacteria. However, freezing microbial life, as well as other stresses in the act of processing, markedly decreases viability. “There was a lot of complexity perfecting the formula,” admits Todd West, vice president of operations. “Through research and development we were able to find ways to keep live and active cultures in a frozen format.”
The result was a tangy, 99% lactose-free frozen product, currently in mango, strawberry, pomegranate and plain flavors. The frozen kefir is different from frozen yogurt in more than flavor: It has more than twice the probiotic content of yogurt at fewer than half the calories (90 calories per serving). While microencapsulation provides one method of keeping probiotics active, in a 2010 study published in the International Journal of Dairy Technology, researchers Nousia, Androulakis and Fletouris found inoculating the pasteurized base mix with activated and cultured L. acidophilus at a level above 107cfu/g after cooling at 4°C, was a highly effective way to ensure near-complete viability, without altering flavor and actually increasing positive texture profiles. pf