Keeping it natural

According to the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), while vanilla still remains the most popular ice cream flavour (with 27.8% market share in the US), the demand for chocolate ice cream is on the increase, moving from 10.4% in popularly in 2008 to 14.3% in 2009. Interest in natural and Fairtrade products also continues to increase, so many companies incorporating these elements into their products are seeing growth despite fierce competition and the economic climate.

"His best-selling flavours are chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, which make up 70% of sales, but the shops sell a range of 24 different flavours."

Consumer demand for ice cream made from natural ingredients could be one of the reasons why Nigel Langstone, co-founder of Joe Delucci’s, is seeing an increase in sales – despite initially struggling to impact a market that has traditionally been dominated by big established brands.

In 2008, a Business Insights study stated that 81.4% of respondents believed "flavours from natural ingredients" would be the most important trend from 2008 to 2012.

"We didn’t start by thinking we’ll do a natural product, gelato has always been made like this in Italy," said Langstone. "We’re fresh and natural, and I can’t say if that’s the reason behind our increasing our sales, but they certainly are increasing because we keep opening more shops."

His best-selling flavours are chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, which make up 70% of sales, but the shops sell a range of 24 different flavours, "all of which sell really well".

Once consumers are persuaded to try gelato (some consumers used to be suspicious of its contents, thinking it contained gelatine), they are "very surprised" at how natural it tastes.

"We often have to convince people and wholesalers to try it, but once they do they are amazed and say they wish they’d known about it before," said Langstone. The company’s tagline is ‘Remarkable Italian Ice Cream’, just to make it clear to those who are not familiar with the term gelato.

The secret behind top chocolate flavours

Langstone has found there is a trend, among smaller companies, towards using premade pastes that are mixed with both artificial and natural flavours.

"To my palate it tastes a bit too industrial, so we prefer to use natural ingredients wherever possible," he said. "In our chocolate ice cream we prefer to use cocoa mass from Ecuador (South American chocolate has a more distinct taste) and unlike a lot of gelato we use milk in our milk chocolate ice cream."

The milk chocolate flavour from Joe Delucci’s contains 9-10% chocolate. The dark chocolate variety uses 23-24% chocolate, which is made with water, so it does not contain any dairy at all. "This gives it a really intense chocolate taste," said Langstone.

So what about the ‘chocky-hazelnutty deliciousness’ flavour, what kind of ingredients can consumers expect to find in this product? "This contains exactly the same as the chocolate gelato, but it is mixed with the hazelnut gelato, which includes milk, sugar, cream and natural hazelnut paste – by paste I just mean hazelnuts ground down and mixed with their own oil. Ingredients-wise it is as natural as you can get."

The all natural debate

One company which famously lost out on keeping its ‘all natural’ claim with regard to their ice creams is Ben & Jerry’s.

"In February 2010 Ben & Jerry’s announced its commitment to incorporate Fairtrade ingredients across its whole flavour portfolio."

As reported in The Guardian, the company was accused of not being ‘all natura’" by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in Washington, for using ingredients such as alkalised cocoa, corn syrup and partially hydrogenated soya bean oil.

According to the article Jostein Solheim, the company’s chief executive, said in a letter to the CSPI "that although he believed ‘reasonable customers’ would still consider Ben & Jerry’s food to be natural, he did not want any further questions over the issue".

He is also reported to have written that the company intended to "focus more strongly on other core values such as Fairtrade suppliers, cage-free eggs and milk from dairy farms that to do not use bovine growth hormones".

"The Fairtrade model is one that helps us and help farmers in third world countries," said Sean Greenwood of Ben & Jerry’s. "We’ve been trying for three decades now to incorporate these values throughout our business practice."

In February 2010 Ben & Jerry’s announced its commitment to incorporate Fairtrade ingredients across its whole flavour portfolio by the end of 2013. Consumer demand for Fairtrade products is on the increase across the globe, but particularly in the UK.

Earlier in 2011 the Fairtrade Foundation announced sales of Fairtrade products increased by 40% in 2010 to an estimated retail value of £1.17bn, compared with £836m in 2009.

Taste trips of a lifetime – staying on top of consumer demand

When it comes to creating chocolate flavours for its ice cream range, Ben & Jerry’s taste team ensure that when they are on ‘taste trips’ and come across appealing chocolate flavours that they talk to the suppliers about where their chocolate comes from. This happened recently when Peter Lind, the primal ice cream therapist for Ben & Jerry’s R&D department, sampled chocolate ice cream on a taste trip to San Francisco.

"In San Francisco we went to a chocolate supplier and tried a number of their chocolates that might work in ice cream," said Lind.

"We talked to them about how they got this chocolate and how they work with their growers." He added: "There’s a lot of education involved in how to get a uniform product. Good suppliers work with growers and if they get good beans from a particular farmer they then share the best practices with the other farmers."

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream products are renowned for their unusual flavour names and combinations. The company is also known for pulling flavours from its range, making way for new ones to hit the flavour zeitgeist of consumer demand. The R&D team regularly take taste trips and earlier in 2011 they had planned to visit San Francisco and then LA, but after three days in San Francisco they had found so many new flavours they didn’t need to search any further.

"We tasted about 50 different ice cream, gelato or frozen yoghurt flavours each day in San Francisco," said Lind.

"The milk chocolate flavour from Joe Delucci’s contains 9-10% chocolate. The dark chocolate variety uses 23-24% chocolate."

"Sometimes it was very quick and we’d go into a shop and order maybe ten flavours, but a number of times we stayed longer. There was one place where we tried 40 different frozen desserts in two hours."

Another way the team stay on top of consumer demand is by evaluating consumer suggestions. "We compile a list of 25-30 ideas and then divide them between the five of us in R&D and then try them out for taste." The process takes about six weeks and at the end about ten flavours are carried forward for more detailed research.

A new flavour ice cream would finally be decided upon by a consumer test itself. "From the 200 initial ideas from the taste trip and consumer suggestions, we gradually work these down to two or three flavours, following an in-house evaluation, which are then tested by about 200 consumers for feedback."

So what are Lind’s suggestions for upcoming chocolate ice cream flavour trends? "In San Francisco we tried a lot of ice cream containing herbs: sage with blackberry, rosemary, lime with basil, and I think we’ll see more accents of this type coming up," he said.

"Also, we already have tea in chocolate, but we will see more of that, as well as spicy ingredients, such as chilli chocolate and ginger chocolate."