Talk about Unilever's warm ice cream gives artisan producers the shivers

Warm ice cream. Sounds oxymoronic, or just plain moronic, right? Not to Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever (UL), which is developing ice cream consumers could buy at room temperature and then freeze at home, according to a report in The Times of London.

There is actually a reason for this potential food faux-pas: the giant marketer behind the Breyers, Klondike, and Ben & Jerry's ice cream brands sees "ambient" ice cream as a way to lower carbon emissions created by transport and storage.
But artisan ice-cream makers say Unilever will face a rocky road in trying to get consumers to switch from the classic cold stuff to the room-temp variety. "From a culinary perspective, it sounds really awful if it were at room temperature," says Ben Van Leeuwen, whose Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream trucks prowl the streets of New York City, dispensing gourmet ice cream made with super-fresh ingredients. "My guess is that there would be so many stabilizers, emulsifiers, fillers and other ingredients that it wouldn't be anything I would call ice cream."

Unilever has denied the report that said it was researching low-carbon ice cream in its labs and with scientists at Cambridge University. "Our ice cream research and development team is fully aware of this idea, but we have no immediate plan to develop this product," says Paul Matthews, a Unilever spokesman. "It is an interesting idea."

But Unilever may have good reason to downplay any such project, as points out. The ice-cream business is famously cutthroat, with Unilever and Nestlé (NSRGY) -- which markets Dreyer's and Häagen-Dazs -- dueling for space on consumers' cones. And Unilever is no slacker in the biz, having posted a 4.9 percent increase in ice-cream sales in the second quarter, to about $3.52 billion, the site says.

Ice cream chemist Douglas Goff says the idea that you could buy a package from a store shelf, take it home, freeze it and then scoop it as normal ice cream has been around for a while. But the challenges are enormous, adds Goff, a professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph in Ontario. Ice cream, Goff says, gets its smooth texture from being frozen while it's stirred, which creates tiny ice crystals, and from having air whipped into the batch during the freezing process, which makes up about half of its volume.

Finding a stable foam that would allow traditional ingredients like real eggs and cream, or their equivalents, to survive time on the shelf is not a problem, says Goff. "There are shelf-stable mousses available now as desserts," he says. "But then we also need to incorporate some type of ingredient that would help to make the small discrete ice crystals in the product that makes it so smooth. That is part of the challenge that as of yet, there is no solution for, at least not that I am aware of."

If Unilever or a rival comes up with a way to produce ambient ice cream, it would probably result in a "substantial energy saving," Goff says. Consider all the freezing equipment, frozen distribution trucks, freezers in grocery stores, as well as freezers in consumers' homes -- all burning energy.

But even with the cachet of eating low-carbon ice cream, would consumers actually want it? Especially if some of the ingredients that make it possible aren't the über-fresh products that a growing number of consumers seek these days?

"I think that from a marketing perspective, it doesn't sound like a good idea," says Van Leeuwen. With summer nearly over, Unilever may have another year in the labs before it's ice cream season again -- that is, if it's working on ambient ice cream at all.
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