Cold Fusion: Ice Cream Flavors and Inclusions

August 1, 2001

21 Min Read
Cold Fusion:           Ice Cream Flavors and Inclusions

August 2001

Cold Fusion: Ice Cream Flavors and Inclusions

By John SpizzirriContributing Editor

Argue it all you want, but there is irrefutable proof that evolution does occur. Witness the human taste buds adaptation to the fast and distinct changes that have occurred in what many consider one of our primary food sources ice cream. While the process started some 50 years ago, the last decade or so has seen the most dramatic changes in the ice cream tableau, creating punctuated alterations to our oral sensory mechanisms and, more dramatically perhaps, intensifying primal urge awareness. And what has served as the major catalyst for such immediate (50 years, after all, is a drop in the bucket on the geologic time scale) and astonishing change, you ask? No doubt, the radical introduction of stuff into the humdrum world of plain, single-flavor ice cream.

Oh, it started quite simply with bits of fresh fruit, small chocolate chips, perhaps the odd baked product but soon there began a proliferation of stuff so great that no ice cream company in its right mind would keep from producing some devilish indulgence that over-stimulated every sensory organ associated with the ice cream eating experience.

Soon, strange and exotic ice creams sprang into being, choked with flavor combinations rarely dared, if ever imagined, before peanut brittle and caramel peanut-butter sauce, banana puree with walnuts and dark chocolate chunks, each competing with other ad hoc mixtures of fruits and nuts and baked products, and swirls and ribbons of every imaginable color and flavor.

But once ice cream manufacturers started on this course, inclusions and flavors had to become bigger and bolder and more diverse than anything their competition could concoct. And so too, the technical challenges of introducing these foreign objects into ice cream began to mount.

Marketing causes (r)evolution Perhaps if were to blame anyone for starting us on this most bizarre but exhilarating evolutionary path, we should point the finger at Chicago-based Guernsey Bel Inc., specialty manufacturer of frozen-dessert flavors and inclusions. On its website, the company promotes itself as having invented the ice cream mix-in business in 1952, and the first to make real baked cheesecake pieces and decadent chocolate truffles for ice cream.

Kim Premo, vice president of research and development at Guernsey, explains, The company originally was a candy company. When they had product left over they would sell it to various vendors and people started putting them (candy pieces) into ice cream and other products, and thats how they started getting into that area of the business.

Today, Premo estimates that some 75% of the companys business revolves around providing inclusion-type ingredients for ice creams, in addition to creating different ice cream flavors that include Flan Tastic, a mixture of the Latin custard in ice cream form accessorized with blended burnt-sugar variegate; and CocoNutty Candy Bar, coconut ice cream and almond chocolate candy bark swirled with thick caramel variegate.

While baked products, such as cheesecake and brownies, capture a nice chunk of the market, it is the raw base for one baked product that presently is among Guernsey Bels top sellers cookie dough. And if any company has a major investment of time and taste into cookie dough, it is Ben & Jerrys Homemade Inc., South Burlington, VA, that bastion of extra sensory endowment that goes to great lengths to develop an inclusion worth its saltor in this case, chocolate or peanut butter, etc.

While Guernsey Bel may have started the trend, Ben & Jerrys took it to a whole new level with standards like Phish Food® and Cherry Garcia®, and new benchmarks in decadence like Concession Obsession, which introduces nonpareils, fudge-covered crisped-rice candy, peanuts dipped in fudge, and a caramel candy swirl into vanilla-bean ice cream.

Over the years, I think what we have done as an ice cream company is raise the bar on what the rest of the industry looks at in terms of innovation. Its no longer acceptable just to come out with new flavors like a different version of butterscotch ripple, or something like that, says Arnold Carbone, Ben & Jerrys director of research and development. And its not just the new flavoring, youre also looking for a new name. So the combination of Ben & Jerrys success with positioning their product with fun names, and also backing that up with incredible flavors, I think has raised the level for our type of ice cream, which is pretty much super premium.

Using your vanilla bean Before examining some of ice creams more exotic flavors and inclusions, lets get back to the basics, as in basic vanilla. Thomas Jefferson may have been the first to introduce vanilla ice cream to the United States in the late 1700s, but its popularity hasnt waned. According to ACNielsens Scan Trak, vanilla was the top-selling ice-cream flavor based on supermarket sales in 1999, with a 29% market share. The next five categories were nut (11%), fruit (9%), chocolate (10%), Neapolitan (8%) and candy mix-in (5%). No telling how many of these also included a dollop of vanilla in the base.

In fact, vanilla is anything but plain. Choices range from artificial vanillin for the budget-minded to rich Madagascar Bourbon pure vanilla for products with a gourmet turn. Vanilla virtuosos know that choosing the right vanilla for a particular ice cream depends on the application and the components of the product in which it is being used. In ice cream, factors such as butterfat percentage, overrun, stabilizers, egg yolks, whey, etc. will all determine which variety of vanilla works best, says Craig Nielsen, vice president, Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Inc., Waukegan, IL. For example, stabilizers and emulsifiers may mask some of the vanilla flavor.

Fat content is one key factor. For higher-fat ice creams, 13% and above, where the fat has a tendency to mask the vanilla notes on the front end of the tasting process, a blend of Madagascar Bourbon and Indonesian vanilla is usually recommended, says Nielsen. Indonesian vanilla is described as having a woody and harsher note than the smooth, creamy Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. These attributes allow the Indonesian vanilla to cut through the masking effects of the butterfat while carrying the Madagascar Bourbon flavor characteristics without allowing the vanilla to be tasted at the front of the mouth as well carrying all the way through to the back of the mouth. With lower-fat ice creams, Madagascar Bourbon vanilla is usually recommended for its deep, rich, smooth flavor characteristics. Typically, a French vanilla will use a blend of Bourbon-Tahitian vanilla.

But if youre creating something other than vanilla ice cream, remember that vanilla is a great enhancer of other flavors, also. According to Nielsen, it enriches the flavor depth and profile of fruit, chocolate and nut flavors. It also cuts some of the acidic bite of citrus flavors. For fruit, nut and citrus flavors, a Madagascar Bourbon vanilla is typically used. However, with fruit flavors, a blend of Madagascar Bourbon and Tahitian vanilla works exceptionally well due to the fruity flavor characteristics of the Tahitian vanilla, he says. With chocolate flavors, an Indonesian vanilla is usually recommended since it has many of the same pyrazine characteristics that chocolate exhibits. Additionally, since it is has a harsher flavor profile than the Madagascar Bourbon, it does not get lost in the sweetness of the chocolate.

And what about those ice creams that add a bit of ground up vanilla bean do they really taste better? I think the concept of vanilla bean specks was first introduced to imply that ice cream was produced using all-natural vanilla, says Nielsen. Today, that may or may not be the case. The specks are strictly used as a visual effect and have no flavor impact on the ice cream.

Chocolate, food of the gods Certainly, there are many of us who are vanilla ice cream fans and strawberry ice cream fans and, as Nelson Algren might have said, you might conceivably however clandestinely be a pistachio ice cream fan. But lets face it, chocolate is the goods, and without it the word decadent never would have been applied to desserts. Chocolate fulfills all the sensory duties required of an ingredient, plus a few that we probably cant pinpoint.

According to Steve Laning, product service and development manager for ADM Cocoa, Decatur, IL, the diversity of cocoa in the manufacturing process presents to ice cream makers something like a big palette of flavors and colors from which to choose. While chocolate is available in various forms and combinations of forms, from chips and chunks to ribbon and liqui-flake, it is in the cocoa processing that manufacturers set out to achieve a specific flavor system.

Cocoa powder is very important in delivering both cocoa flavor and color. And consumers consider the color a lot when theyre tasting the ice cream, so certain types of color create certain types of flavor expectations, Laning explains.

The three basic types of cocoa powder used in chocolate are natural powder, lightly alkalized powder and strongly alkalized powder. And then there are hundreds of variations in between. Alkalized, or dutched, cocoa powders not only deepen the chocolate color whether ice cream or inclusion but they also provide different flavor notes of varying degrees. Lightly alkalized powders have a darker color and they lose the astringency or sourness associated with natural cocoas. Strongly alkalized powders deliver the most chocolate or cocoa impact from a flavor standpoint, notes Laning. They would also deliver the deepest color notes per equivalent weight when you compare the three different types of powder.

Cocoa powders also can impact mouthfeel. In addition to the alkalized categories, cocoa can be broken down further into subcategories associated with fat content. For instance, low-fat cocoa powders have approximately 10% to 12% cocoa butter, while high-fat powders contain between 22% and 24%. The higher the cocoa-butter content, the greater the overall mouthfeel so that the high-fat powders are associated with more indulgent, high-fat ice cream products.

When all is said and done, it is the cocoa that defines a chocolate item. As we have seen, there are few items that manufacturers wont use as inclusions or flavors. But the process is not as simple as dumping a product into the ice cream mix.

Cocoa butter, the most predominant fat in chocolate, melts at around 90º to 92ºF. While this gives an ideal mouthfeel in a chocolate bar, consumers may perceive inclusions as hard when this fat is incorporated into premium ice cream as part of the inclusion. Sometimes dealt with by using smaller-sized inclusions, some manufacturers prefer another category of inclusions that are not true standard of identity chocolates, but are considered compounds. Compounds incorporate a fat system with a much lower melting point, which can range from 60º to 70ºF. Those products would be softer upon consumption, and therefore the release might be a little quicker at freezer temperatures or the temperature your mouth is at when youre eating ice cream, adds Laning.

Inclusion intrusions Baked goods have made a huge impact in the development of inclusion-packed ice-cream flavors, notes Premo. But the typically soft, chewy treats present their own specific set of issues that need to be addressed at the baking stage.

Because ice cream is eaten at 0º to 10ºF, both the manufacturing and handling processes must be altered to assure its integrity at temperatures far below those to which it is normally exposed. Otherwise, the product can develop a hard, waxy texture within the ice cream. So a lot of the products that weve developed, in order to get the right eating characteristics in ice cream, have lower melt-point characteristics themselves, says Premo.

Food product designers can adjust the finished characteristics of an inclusion to account for such problems as moisture migration. The porous nature of baked products make them prone to sogginess, and once subjected to a product comprised of partially frozen liquid particles, problems are bound to arise. If they get too soft, they could completely dissolve and then disappear in the ice cream, Premo warns.

To address this issue, brownies, for example, might be baked a little drier and firmer than those sold in the retail market. Then, after the brownie piece has been introduced into the ice cream, moisture from the ice cream rehydrates the baked good to create the desired texture characteristic.

The challenges of moisture migration also are met by applying different types of coatings. To provide that extra bit of indulgence, chocolate is sometimes used to coat an inclusion with a low moisture tolerance, like cookie pieces. Ben & Jerrys prefers to use chocolate coating on pieces such as peanut butter pretzels and waffle cones to help them maintain an all-natural claim. But for much of the industry, vegetable oil is a standard coating that serves as an excellent moisture barrier and does not interfere with flavor.

We have a couple of customers who have asked us to actually take an Oreo-type cookie and then oil-coat that product for them. That protects it as it goes through distribution, from the finished product manufacturer of the ice cream to the stores, so you have a crunchy cookie texture remaining when the consumer finally eats the ice cream, says Premo.

Aversion to dispersion Companies also must address some of the complexities faced by their customers when introducing these ingredients into the ice cream product.

In order for these products to be injected into the ice cream effectively, they must meet the requirements of a 0° to -10°F process, otherwise they begin to clump up in equipment and cause operational problems. For example, when producing cheesecake pieces for its customers, Guernsey Bel freezes the finished baked product and then handles it frozen, from cutting it down to the specified size through distribution to the customer.

Problems also can occur when the ice cream mix and the inclusion and not just baked goods have different specific gravities. Such variations make it more difficult to achieve an even blend because the heavier products tend to sink to the bottom or, conversely, the lighter pieces rise to the top.

On the other hand, some manufacturers suggest that larger inclusions are visibly the better choice from a dispersion standpoint larger pieces cohabitating in a smaller area do not look as crowded as a lot of smaller pieces clumped together in an area of the same size. But for a company like Ben & Jerrys, which built its reputation on ice cream flavors bursting with visual and textural appeal, when the complexities are on a grander scale, the control process must be, as well.

When youre producing ice creams the way that we do, the main technical challenges tend to get into line speeds how to make sure that each pint that is delivered to the consumer meets the product design, says Carbone. We dont start at the beginning of the day and say, You know, we have to get 10,000 lbs. of peanuts in this run, and then at the end of the day say, Oh, well, we used up 10,000 lbs. so the product must be good.

And the products used by Ben & Jerrys arent typically industry standards, either, making the challenge that much more difficult. Ben & Jerrys Cookie Dough ice cream has proven an incredible challenge for the company. Considered No.1 in the market, it is softer than any other dough inclusion, due in part to the margarine used in its manufacture. But this overall texture, in addition to size, initially led to problems with dispersion.

We have a process that enables us to get in and control the delivery of that cookie dough, so when a consumer picks it up theyre going to be sure that theyre getting enough dough in there, says Carbone. (That process is proprietary, but if you take the two-dollar tour of Ben & Jerrys and look through the production window, you might just see how they do it, he adds.)

To assure the consumer is getting his or her fair share of cookie dough or phish bits, employees adhere to the statistical process control, wherein six pints of product are selected every half hour and melted down to verify targeted ingredient specs. When you have a product like Confection Obsession, which has a caramel variegate and three add-ins, you know its a lot of work, and youve got to do it fast because that other half-an-hour sneaks up on you pretty quick, says Carbone. So I think one of the key things is that were just constantly monitoring. We dont take anything for granted in terms of product quality.

A tale of chunks and ribbons Another volume ingredient seller from the flavor and mix-in manufacturers point of view is the variegates the swirls and ribbons. And in that category, the oil-based variegates like a Moose Tracks-type product represent a large portion of the market.

Where water-based variegates tend to set hard, unless a formulator performs some trickery with added carbohydrates, an oil-based variegate produces a soft-texture chocolate chunk. The oil allows for a smooth injection process that can swirl in a flavor typically chocolate in the case of the oil-based system to imitate a variegate pattern, yet still provide some of the chunk mouthfeel. It has a much heavier pattern than you typically would find, notes Premo, so it makes it more indulgent from a flavor and texture point of view.

And along with innovation comes another set of problems. The oil variegates are more difficult to handle from an operations point of view because they have a tendency to separate out more easily. Depending on the customers equipment and pumps, the variegate might either have to be refrigerated or brought to room temperature to evenly distribute the product during the injection process.

The viscosity of variegates, whether in oil- or water-based systems, is among the toughest of the technical challenges inclusion manufacturers face. Develop a variegate with too heavy a viscosity, and most customers cant run it properly because their pumps arent strong enough. A product produced too thin will plague the customer with overflow problems.

Viscosity control typically is handled with stabilizers like modified food starches and gums, says Premo. For customers who want to stay within the confines of natural ingredients, pectin is among those products that remain acceptable from the natural-ingredient-label perspective.

Probably the least expensive stabilizers are the modified food starches, so you tend to find a lot of products on the market using them to build body and viscosity, he says. But sometimes you get what you pay for, and modified food starches can mask the distinct flavor notes of essential inclusion ingredients like chocolates or caramels. Gums, some of which adhere to natural-ingredient labeling, are excellent stabilizers, and specific gums like carrageenan have the added benefit of enabling customers to develop or enhance specific flavor profiles.

Flavor development The ability to understand flavors, to know them so well as to choose disparate aromas and nuances and wed them in culinary bliss, certainly is an art. The ability to combine cocoas and salts and odd bits of pretzel and cookie and fruit to create the perfect frozen confectionery concoction, too, is an art. And working with some of the strange inclusions that find their way into ice cream these days, sometimes its simply a crapshoot.

As a specialty manufacturer of inclusions, Guernsey Bel has handled its share of the more eccentric requests, including the development of a sweet-potato puree. The hardest part, says Premo, is dealing with a raw material that is an unknown entity in terms of ice cream flavor development. Just trying to find the raw material commercially available in the market, a sweet potato puree in this case, proved a unique experience in itself, he adds.

Eventually, they ended up with a baked inclusion-type piece of sweet potato. The challenge, then, was to cook the piece in such a way as to create the right texture that both they could handle in-house while creating the final product, and that the customer could keep free-flowing during the injection process.

They (sweet potatoes) have a lot of moisture coming in, in the puree itself. So you have to balance that with the other ingredients to get the right body and texture, says Premo.

As ice cream manufacturers, Ben & Jerrys develops new flavors based on whether an inclusion, or the whole flavor package, is something that could be eaten as a separate entity alongside ice cream. Chocolate fudge brownies are a natural, says Carbone, because you would put ice cream on a brownie. The same with a flavor like apple pie a la mode you would put ice cream on a piece of pie. So ice cream as a complement, as opposed to creating the dessert to be ice cream, says Carbone.

Some ideas, like old movies, have already been done and should be left alone. Desserts like tiramisu pitched as an ice cream concept by both customers and flavor houses have specific characteristics that make them classic desserts, characteristics that cant be reproduced in ice cream: different textures, the subtle dryness of the cocoa and the liqueur.

But Ben & Jerrys will not shy away from well-known confectionery classics as long as they can meet their tough criteria. For example, one of its more recent flavors, Peanut Turtle, is based on the popular Snickers bar. Yes, there are other manufacturers who produce an ice cream with real Snickers® candy chunked into it. Copycats? Not by a long shot, suggests Carbone. For Ben & Jerrys to take Snickers candy and put it in vanilla ice cream is not our style.

So how do they do it? Easy. They eat the candy bar, then ask and answer a battery of questions: What are the characteristics of the Snickers bar? How do you get those attributes in an ice cream product? What is the aftertaste of this product? The challenge to the flavor developer, then, was to create the flavor profile milk chocolate, caramel, salty peanuts, nougat center in an ice cream product without actually incorporating chunks of Snickers-type candy.

The result? We didnt use any artificial flavors, boasts Carbone. In terms of the chocolate mix, we flavored it in certain ways to give it a little bit more of a nuttier, creamier texture. We added salted peanuts and we added caramel swirl and we added milk-chocolate swirl, and tiny little chocolate chips to carry the chocolate flavor. Its been interesting. Some of the consumer response we got back is, This tastes just like a Snickers. So its a success, you know?

When is too much enough? Did we change the consumers tastes in terms of making it acceptable to have strange things in ice cream? Maybe you could say, yes, we did. We followed Cherry Garcia with chocolate-covered peanut-butter-filled pretzels in ice cream, and so you raise the bar as you go along, says Carbone.

And while many of the flavors are fun and daring, even if only temporarily, how high can the bar go before excess and the overly-bizarre become too much? In order to meet the challenge of outdoing the competition or, perhaps, just to attract true inclusion junkies, ice cream vendors have stepped beyond the bounds of true ice cream, argues Carbone. Beer-flavored ice cream and lobster ice cream with actual chunks of lobster (it is the product of a sweet shop in Maine, naturally) are just a little over the edge, even for the purveyors of flavors like The Full VerMonty and Pulp Addiction.Its ice cream and its kind of fun and its kind of cool to say I have it and maybe some people like that, but is it a standard? asks Carbone. My feeling is, you get to a point where youre really getting away from what ice cream is I wouldnt even call it ice cream and youre getting more into a whole different frozen-dessert category.

While the inclusions add different dimensions to the ice cream, the point, says Carbone, is to be able to taste the ice cream itself, to taste the sugar and the cream, not to overpower it.

But is it too late? Is it possible to evolve too far? Has our desire for greater portions of chunks and ribbons and chips and flakes and flavors-not-yet-discovered set us on a path from which there is no return? Perhaps. For now, well have to keep an eye on that small shop in Maine, and warn the lobsters, beware.

John Spizzirri is a Chicago-based freelance science and technical writer specializing in the food and food-packaging industries.

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