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‘Free From’ Driving Innovation in $28 Billion Ice Cream Market

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by Judie Bizzozero -

It seems every time I write a blog, the topic revolves around clean label. Whether it’s bakery or dairy, nutrition bars or prepared foods, consumers are looking for products made with simple, recognizable ingredients. Now, the clean label trend is hitting the frozen food aisle, and free-from ice cream is churning up a lot of innovation, according to a new report from Packaged Facts.

Ice cream has a reputation for being a sugar-heavy, nutrition void calorie bomb, but today’s ice cream has the potential offer a better-for-you experience with less sugar, less fat and organic or natural dairy ingredients. Food manufacturers are churning out a variety of healthier, yet still decadent, frozen treats to please modern American consumers, according to the new report.

“Ice cream and frozen novelties remain among the top 10 food categories in supermarkets. More than 85 percent of U.S. household use ice cream or sherbet," said David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts. “And despite the maturity of the ice cream market, a lot is happening in terms of new product trends and corporate development."

Ice cream and other frozen dessert products have long been included in the ongoing development of the market for free-from foods. Dairy-free frozen desserts, usually water ice but also using vegetable oil of one kind or another, have been a common alternative to ice cream for centuries. For some favored these alternatives as a matter of taste, but for others it had to do with their being lactose intolerant, and so avoiding dairy-based products. In the last century, in response to dieter demands, ice cream makers added reduced- and free-from fat and/or sugar products. They also made products that were free of milk from cows given the bovine growth hormone rBST, which was considered by substantial numbers of consumers to be a potential health threat.

In the current market, ice creams and frozen desserts have added more items to the list of food components from which they are free. These include soy, gluten, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and genetically modified ingredients.

According to the report, factors currently shaping the ice cream market will, for the most part, continue to be the same ones that will determine its direction through the next several years. These include the introduction of products that fit in with the trend to free-from products in the food and beverage industry in general; increases in gelato, frozen custard and super-premium ice cream introductions and sales; reduced sales of packaged frozen yogurts; and more variations on already popular flavors. What’s more, the market will continue to see new packaged ice cream and frozen dessert products emerging that feature successful local or regional foodservice brands.

While ice cream and frozen desserts usage rates have seen some decline over the last several years in terms of the percentage of total households using them, one category showing a marked increase has been that of non-dairy frozen desserts. These include plant-based products that use milk from coconuts, almonds, cashews, bananas, avocados, etc., as an alternative to dairy milk. Of course, there have been soy and rice-based frozen desserts on the market for years. But just as in the fluid milk market, these have lost ground to the newer arrivals.

Invariably this avalanche of new, free-from introductions will help the market overcome some of the lukewarm sales growth of recent years. Packaged Facts estimates that in 2016 the market for all ice cream and frozen dessert sales, including packaged ice cream and frozen novelties sold through retail channels and ice cream purchased at foodservice outlets, was just shy of $28 billion. Foodservice sales outpaced the retail channel by slightly more than $3 billion. Both segments are expected to see gains looking ahead to 2020.

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