Where is ice cream headed – and where’s the growth?

Trends presented in this article has been recognized and described by Mintel Mintel

Ice cream has always been about fun, surprises and excitement, even when the past few years have seen consumer expectations shaped and magnified by global crises. Bring on new plant-based frozen desserts, as well as new branding trends, and the whole ice cream world gets very interesting. As tastes and habits continue to evolve, we look at five global ice cream trends from a recent Mintel report, and show how you can keep pace with your market – by meeting your consumers with creativity and technology over the next few years.

man enjoying ice cream

No one can ignore how we have been living our lives for the past few years. Consumers around the globe are fraught with stress from the Covid-19 pandemic and resultant social isolation, the effects and uncertainty of climate change, and the cost of living crisis with threats of recession. Ice cream and other frozen desserts represent the perfect retreat from that stress combination, and ice cream indulgence has bloomed into a major consumer fact of life.

While the Covid-19 pandemic showcased the importance of maintaining a healthy diet, it also bolstered an indulgent relationship with food. In one sample of UK consumers, 48% said Covid-19 made it easier to justify eating indulgent food or drink. The proportion was even higher among younger adults.

This global pandemic changed people's lifestyles, routines and habits, hatching a new normal. From bite-sized pieces to mini cones, cups and bars, snackable treat formats have become a staple of category innovation in recent years.

Indulgence, flavour innovation and exciting snacking formats are dominating the global ice cream landscape. Opportunities to “premiumize” ice cream through texture, processing method, ingredients or provenance are abundant.

The stress of economic uncertainty leads to an uptake in eating comfort foods such as ice cream. Global crises will increase consumers' appetite for fun, excitement and escapism through ice cream, while emerging technologies will enhance ice cream consumption. At the same time, it is even more crucial to offer consumers value for money.

Size and texture are trending

Almost a quarter (23%) of US ice cream consumers are buying ice cream more frequently because they are at home more often, treating themselves and snacking on it more; but the trend to buy smaller packs remains. Miniature snackable treats must deliver pleasure and good value, as low price is the second most important influence on purchase – after flavour – in the US. If we look at Thailand during the pandemic, 21% of consumers purchased smaller pack sizes of ice cream more often.

While ice cream is inherently indulgent, brands have been experimenting with indulgent mix-ins and toppings to make their products seem more premium, and thus more of a treat for comfort-seeking shoppers. One strategy used by non-dairy desserts is to better mimic the texture of dairy ice cream, which appeals to younger consumers. Trader Joe's Coffee and Boba Coconut Non-Dairy option incorporates chewy tapioca pearls. In China, the 18-24 age group is more interested than older consumers in ice cream containing pieces, such as tapioca balls.

2. Plant-based frozen desserts rising in status – and variety

Avocado ice cream, plant-based ice cream

There is no doubt that plant-based frozen desserts – also known informally as plant-based ice cream – represent a significant and growing trend in the ice cream world.

Plant-based frozen desserts support vegan, flexitarian, and healthy indulgence trends, as well as the need to address the large portion of the population that is lactose-intolerant. They also harmonize with environmental and sustainability issues – particularly around animal welfare and ethics.

Moreover, the list of raw ingredients – the new protein sources – is becoming longer and longer. Today frozen desserts are made of avocado, coconut, white bean, cashew, hazelnut, soya bean, rice, wheat, peanut, almond… with much more to come.

Plant-based frozen desserts are booming and becoming mainstream products. Consumers today expect a quality product that compares well to dairy-based ice creams, so they must compete on taste, texture, and mouthfeel. The trend is global, but developed markets are currently dominating plant-based frozen dessert launches.

According to Future Market Insights, the global plant-based ice cream market valuation was forecast to surpass US$ 1,492.5 million in 2021. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but CAGR forecasts for plant-based frozen desserts range from about 5% to just over 30%.

Regardless of where the exact figures are pointing, there is clearly an accelerating trend towards plant-based innovation . The top ten countries together introduced 182 new plant-based frozen desserts between May 2018 and April 2019. According to another estimate, nearly 8% of global ice cream launches plant-based in 2021 (doubling the figure of 4% just four years earlier).

Moving beyond the basics

Plant-based and vegan frozen desserts are moving beyond basic flavours to offer indulgent options, and expanding into new areas with exotic tastes and inclusions, such as nuts and fruits. Many brands are demonstrating that vegan offerings can be premium with an array of luxury flavour combinations, textures and packaging, developing new ways to deliver indulgence to consumers.

“The good news is that ice cream producers don’t have to immediately invest in new machinery,” says Torben Vilsgaard, Manager Knowledge & Certification at Tetra Pak’s Ice Cream Solutions. ”Usually just a few small upgrades and adaptations to existing ice cream lines will get you underway with plant-based production. But there are challenges.”

The challenges arise because it’s not a simple matter of replacing dairy milk proteins with plant-based proteins. You have to adjust four parameters – structure, body, eating properties and creaminess – to create the ideal mouthfeel for your product. But plant-based proteins in non-fat solids don’t behave like dairy proteins, and don’t deliver the same functionality. They differ on three major characteristics:

  • Water holding capacity, which affects viscosity, mechanical shear and freezing rate.
  • Fat stabilization during initial mixing process
  • Destabilization (displacement) of proteins from the fat surface membrane, which can affect the ageing process.

“Luckily, there is now an established knowledge base about how to adjust processing parameters and compensate for these effects,” adds Vilsgaard. “We’ve learned how to deal with ingredient solubility and whippability in high-viscosity mixes, as well as dealing with excess foaming, and greater wear on equipment generated by plant-based ingredients.”

3. Sustainability is changing form

While environmental concerns are low on the list of ice cream purchase drivers, consumers will expect brands to adopt sustainable practices as a basic operating condition. And environmental concerns will lead to supply chain innovation and water reduction. The environmental impact of the frozen distribution chain will be scrutinized over the coming years.

US-based brand Cosmik offers a novel solution with its freeze-dried ice cream. They claim that the process removes all the water, resulting in a light and crispy texture requiring no refrigeration. Another example of energy reduction comes from Unilever, which is launching pilots of freezers at temperatures moving from -18°C to -12°C.

The environmental advantages of plant-based brands will continue to make waves, but they will have to work harder to appeal to the youngest consumers, Generation Z. In the US, only 9% of Gen Z ice cream consumers think it’s important to buy ice cream that is environmentally friendly. In the UK, 42% of Gen Z consumers disagree that any food/drink can truly be indulgent, healthy and planet-friendly at the same time, vs 30% of all adults

Make sustainability trendy through upcycling and co-branding

According to Mintel, brands should engage younger consumers with sustainability in a way that is fun and positive. One option is the upcycling movement, which has gained traction in fashion, a strong precursor of food and drink trends.

Part of the upcycling appeal to consumers is eliminating food waste, which can be done by incorporating foods that would have otherwise been discarded. Banana Vanilla Ice Cream from Denmark is made with surplus bananas to minimize food waste – “less waste, more taste”. Similarly, the American Salt & Straw brand partnered with Renewal Mill to create a vegan ice cream incorporating Renewal’s upcycled dark chocolate brownie mix.

4. Flavours travelling in time and space

Ice cream flavours are moving in two directions at once. They’re getting spicier – pulling in tastes from around the world – and also tapping into nostalgia and memories of older flavours in times past.

During times of recession, consumers seek simpler flavours, but at the same time, brands that innovate are the ones that succeed. So brands can either pursue nostalgic, simple flavours or, at the other extreme, dial up the spice.

Given that consumers associate ice cream with childhood, ice cream is poised to tap into nostalgia during this unsettling decade. In China, 34% of consumers associate ice cream and cake with nostalgia. In Brazil, 30% of ice cream consumers would pay more for ice cream that appeals to the senses.

Ice cream brands seeking to conjure up feelings of nostalgia could bring back delisted ice cream products, or use messaging that links to nostalgic occasions. For example, Willisch Original Cream Ice Cream in Poland incorporates a childhood flavour in a new ice cream product and describes it as a “classic taste from childhood”. Mr Kipling Ice Cream Classics French Fancy Ice Cream in the UK borrows flavours from their classic cakes category.

In the US, Ben & Jerry's Topped Chocolate Milk & Cookies Ice Cream taps into feelings of nostalgia about the traditional American afterschool snack of milk and cookies. Taking cues from another mealtime, another American producer, Salt & Straw, has launched a range of ice creams based on nostalgic breakfast foods.

Target millennials with innovative flavours – and add reassurances

Ice cream and chili

Spicy flavour launches are growing globally. A safe bet for seeking growth through food product innovation is to target millennials (born 1980-1996), who tend to be adventurous. In Spain, 43% of millennials try new flavours all the time, versus 31% of all Spanish consumers. Moreover, millennials are more likely than other adults to break the rules and combine unexpected flavours.

Spicy ice creams generally refer to those containing hot spices, such as chilli or wasabi. These hot spice inclusions are often short-lived novelties, but there is an opportunity to combine sweetness with hot spice. This appeals to millennials, who have more interest in chilli flavours in desserts/confectionery than other age groups. 34% of German Millennials who consume ice cream are interested in ice cream with spicy flavours (vs 27% of all ice cream consumers).

But brands must reassure consumers that adding hot spices will enhance the ice cream taste, rather than overwhelm it. Some brands have introduced spice ratings, and others add descriptions such as “both spicy and cool”.

On the sweet spice side, using cinnamon in ice cream has remained steady at around 2% of global launches for the past five years. And now cloves, nutmeg and cardamom are on the rise, particularly in the Middle East, but also in Germany, where younger people enjoy Middle Eastern food.

“Regardless of what direction you take in flavour innovation, it will likely put demands on your ingredient suppliers, your equipment, and your process control,” advises Vilsgaard. “You should be prepared to manage requirements for flavour control, CIP and allergens, and more frequent product changeovers for small batches.”

5. Synching up with technology

While technology has always been very important to ice cream production, it may surprise you to know it’s beginning to have a major role in consumption as well. And the future may hold many surprises, because emerging technologies are beginning to add excitement to ice cream marketing initiatives – as well as support at-home indulgence and personalization of ice cream.

Consumers around the globe are fraught with stress from Covid-19, climate change and the cost of living crisis. So brands should pair emerging technologies with ice cream to offer consumers entertainment and escapism. Gaming, early versions of the metaverse and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) will all prove popular choices.

Consumers are looking for an escape; for example, in Canada, 37% of video gamers play video games to escape from daily life. Ice cream and video game brands should collaborate to offer consumers a way to escape. Consumers perceive emerging technology to be exciting and fun, and these attributes pair perfectly with ice cream.

Like gaming, consumers also deem ice cream to be ideal for dealing with stress. One-quarter of video gamers aged 18-24 are keen on frozen desserts or dairy (e.g. popsicles or ice cream) that collaborate with their favourite video games, vs 19% of all adult gamers.

Escape with the metaverse and ice cream

The metaverse that is emerging from the gaming world is poised to shape the future of society and offer an escape. One in ten US consumers claim to be using the metaverse, with 15% using virtual reality (VR) and 8% using augmented reality (AR). In China, two-thirds (65%) of consumers say that the metaverse provides an important escape from real life.

Brands are beginning to stake claims to the metaverse. For example, Magnum collaborated with Deliveroo to create an ice cream museum in the metaverse.

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are proving popular among brands, but engaging consumers is not simple. Half of US online shoppers are interested in learning more about NFTs; half are not; 30% of those interested in NFTs like the idea of owning something exclusive.

Singapore-based Ice Cream & Cookie Co is due to launch an app that will enables users to mint an ICC NFT “ingredient”. Users can collate multiple ingredients to “make” their own ice cream NFT. NFT holders will receive exclusive real-world rewards such as ice cream cakes.

Consumers are also keen to help shape the future of their favourite brands. In the US, Morgenstern's Finest Ice Cream launched an NFT-based membership community called Morgenstern's Connoisseurs. Members gain the exclusive rights to taste and vote for new 2023 flavours.

53% of Spanish consumers are keen to get involved in new flavour developments of their favourite brand. Gaming also allows consumers to share their views. Colombian lollipop brand Bon Bon Bum invited consumers to build a new world in the video game Fortnite. Several other brands are experimenting with allowing consumers to create new logos and propose new flavours, which will inform future product development.

Additional emerging technologies include ice cream pod machines that enable consumers to personalize their ice cream choices. As metaverse technology evolves, ice cream brands will employ improved virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) solutions to enhance ice cream consumption, as well as sophisticated simulation techniques, such as haptic technology.


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