July 11, 2023
Tetra Pak’s ice cream footprint is big – in fact, if you buy two ice creams somewhere in the world, chances are that one of them will have been produced with Tetra Pak equipment. And it’s also highly likely that the ice cream passed through the Tetra Pak Product Development Centre (PDC) in Aarhus during the development stage.
“This little area in Denmark is really the centre of the world for ice cream innovation within base mix and processing equipment. Many of the biggest producers of ice cream equipment and functional ingredients are located within 50-60 kilometres. I like to call it the Silicon Valley of ice cream. And it’s nice to know we’re a big part of this,” says Torben Vilsgaard, Tetra Pak’s Ice Cream Academy Manager.
Torben is one of the world’s leading ice cream ingredient experts, and his job is to make sure ice cream ingredients are mixed perfectly to get the right process and product properties. In the last decade, he has been dedicated to innovating plant-based frozen desserts.
“At Tetra Pak, we have a unique role, especially when it comes to supporting customers in developing new plant-based frozen desserts. Our knowledge extends all the way from raw materials to the final product.”
The Tetra Pak PDC is where ice cream dreams become reality. It’s a small ice cream factory where ice-cold new ideas are tested to see if they have the potential for commercial distribution.
“Plant-based frozen desserts are still relatively new to the industry. And it’s an industry that is sometimes quite set in its ways. There is a lot of tradition about how to make ice cream, and I think that’s one of the main challenges we need to overcome as an industry,” says Torben.
At the most basic level, ice cream consists of dairy and sugar. The sugar typically comes from sugarcane or sugar beet, which means it’s all plant-based. The dairy, however, is not – but it provides vital protein and fat.
“The big challenge – and opportunity – is that plant-based means moving away from dairy proteins. I think dairy proteins, with their well-known functionalities, have limited what we could do with ice cream in the past. So far, the industry hasn’t really experienced full disruption because most plant-based frozen desserts try to imitate dairy ice cream. But I think plant-based has potential for more,” says Torben.
The wide variety of vegetable sources and proteins means exciting new opportunities and functionalities. Some vegetable proteins are good at foaming, for example, which means they can be used to generate new textures and structures that we don’t usually associate with ice cream.
One reason Torben is excited about plant-based ingredients is that plant-based proteins could have more water-binding capabilities.
“The water-binding effect is quite unique with plant-based proteins. If we just take pea proteins, for example, some have very limited binding and some have massive water-binding. Even with just one ingredient, there are so many possibilities,” says Torben.
The more water-binding a protein is, the more viscosity it will provide – and controlling viscosity is a crucial part of ice cream production as it determines things like sensory experience and process adaptability to ensure product performance.
Torben and his team also scout the market for new ingredients. It’s all about finding new raw materials that suit the ice cream industry.
“Lately, we’ve put a lot of focus on fava beans. Fava beans will be very interesting in plant-based frozen desserts because they have a very low off flavour. Most plant-based ingredients come with some flavour profile, but the fava bean is quite neutral in flavour and very active,” says Torben.
Fava beans are also highly nutritious, containing protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals – as well as antioxidants. That’s also why Torben feels they could kick-start a trend in healthier ice cream – just one way that the industry could start thinking in new ways about plant-based frozen dessert.
Many customers come to the PDC for the final tests of their ice cream. Often, they’ve made smaller batches, but when they go from the innovation stage to the commercial stage, the PDC is vital.
“It’s exactly because of things like foaming and water binding that customers come to us. Too much foaming can be overlooked in the pilot plant, but we see it when we run it through our equipment.”
“Once they’re ready to scale up, ice cream producers come here to play around. Pilot equipment is easy to work with, but you need a final step to ensure that everything works and reacts well in real commercial equipment. With plant-based proteins, you can sometimes get fibre and starches that can interfere with mixing and freezing,” says Torben.
The Tetra Pak PDC has all the equipment, processes and testing procedures needed in the commercial industry. That’s also why Tetra Pak can support both larger players in the ice cream industry as well as start-ups and companies that are new to the industry.
“We work with so many different customers. Some just want to confirm that their recipes will work at the commercial level – others want to make a certain product, and we can help calculate recipes. I think that makes it a bit of a lighthouse in the industry – and we’re excited to continue supporting innovation in plant-based frozen desserts in the future,” says Torben.
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