Plant-based mimicking regular dairy ice cream

All lines of work have their perks and it just so happens that one of ours is tasting ice cream. A few months ago, Givaudan scientists began collecting over 70 plant-based ice creams to understand more about their taste, texture, mouthfeel, and flavor. It doesn’t take someone in the flavor industry to know that if just one of these levers is off, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. 

Gif of a woman making an uh-oh face

In the past year we have seen a surge in consumer’s expectations of plant-based dairy to mimic traditional dairy across applications. They are looking for the smooth mouthfeel, maybe some cheesy notes, perhaps that lactony taste, and probably a creamy texture.

Nearly 80% of consumers expect their plant-based ice cream product to taste just like dairy.

Source: Givaudan Primary Research

Some plant-based ice creams maybe after defining their own sensory experience but our goal with this blind tasting was two-fold. 1) We wanted to see what is out there in the market for plant-based ice creams. 2) We want to know how it compares to regular dairy ice cream. At this point, you might be asking yourself “Why would they consume plant-based ‘ice cream’ if it’s going to taste just like regular ice cream?” 

Great question, but before we get there we have to mention one thing:

Technically speaking, plant-based “ice creams” can’t be called ice cream because it must fit a standard of identity as defined by the FDA. Essentially, it must contain a specific amount of milk fats and milk solids in order to be called ice cream and that isn’t possible for plant-based. For the sake of simplicity (and regulatory), we will call this “frozen dessert” throughout the rest of the post. 

Why go plant-based if it’s going to taste like dairy?

Mintel says, “Less than 10% of consumers in many global markets define their diets as vegan.” Therefore more opportunity lies with appealing to the other 90% of consumers. This group isn’t necessarily avoiding or eliminating their intake of dairy products but are likely looking to reduce it. In the same breath, they are looking for ways to incorporate more plant ingredients. But why? It all comes down to the overall topics of sustainability and health with an undertone of seeking variety and convenience.

Specifically for plant-based frozen desserts, consumers are interested in trying it because they associate it with being natural and healthy.1 But that doesn’t mean they are willing to compromise on taste. In fact, three of the most extremely important attributes when it comes to consuming non-dairy frozen desserts are:

  1. Flavor
  2. Good quality
  3. Leaves no aftertaste1

Chart showing that Ice cream and frozen dessert consumers are not willing to sacrifice taste for a healthier option.
Source: Lightspeed/Mintel

What consumers taste and measuring it

You can get a pretty good feel about what consumers think about a product based on their ratings and reviews online. At the same time though, taste is subjective. It is a perception; so how is it measurable? In order to truly understand what they mean, there needs to be some science behind it.

Givaudan’s Sensory team is dedicated to this complex scientific method that goes beyond just taste. They measure, analyze and interpret reactions to products as perceived through the senses. 

During this tasting, we utilized Givaudan’s Sense It® Sensory Descriptors developed for plant-based dairy. There are around 30 descriptors with definitions that we used to illustrate the frozen dessert products. These attributes were broken down into two buckets mouthfeel and texture; and flavor and taste. Mouthfeel and texture are associated with how a product coats or films the palate, tongue, and lips. It can also be about the size of particulates in the product if it is gritty or what happens to your mouth when you eat something powdery or waxy. Then we have flavor and taste which is associated with basic taste or sensations in the mouth and aromas. 

Mouthfeel and Texture

Although ‘creamy mouthfeel’ was a top attribute amongst the frozen desserts; mouth-drying, filmy, waxy, gritty, chalky, gummy, and fatty were up there too. Non-dairy frozen desserts utilize various ingredients to make up for the lack of dairy but sometimes these ingredients come with their own set of challenges like strange textures and off-notes.

For example, plant-based proteins used for emulsification, structure, and texture in frozen desserts can have a gritty, chalky mouthfeel and have off-notes. Givaudan scientists are able to “reach in their toolbox” for masking and mouthfeel flavor solutions to get the plant-based protein to give the same mouth experience as regular dairy.  When Givaudan Flavorist Merielyn Clemente is working with a plant protein base she compares it to the market product the customer proposes and provides tools that would bridge that gap. 

Chart of common frozen dessert ingredients, their use and what potential mouthfeel they cause
Frozen dessert ingredients, use & their potential mouthfeel attribute.

Flavor & Taste

Words like ‘creamy’ and ‘pasteurized milk’ (like fresh milk) should pop up when tasting ice cream. But with our tasting, we saw words like cardboard, nutty, beany, metallic, rancid, skin nuts, starch, and green appear on this list. Plant-based ingredients have much more flavor variability. The challenge to make it taste like dairy is an ever-changing target because plant-based frozen desserts will taste like the plant-based “milk” or other ingredients used in the base.

In other words, every base is different but we can still use the same “toolbox” with masking, mouthfeel, and flavor capabilities. Typically we try to neutralize the base first using maskers then start adding the dairy notes, and then the characterizing flavor. (This same neutralization technique happens with plant-based savory products too!)

When you think of Vanilla ice-cream what comes to mind – vanilla, beany, sweet, creamy? What about animalic, dairy sulfury notes, fatty or potato? These may not be screaming in the vanilla profile but they help build the full-experience and add to the nuances that might be missing in a plant-based vanilla flavored ice-cream product.

Lauren Morris, Givaudan Flavorist

When we enter the ideation process for developing a new product flavor past vanilla, our inspiration comes from market analyses, identifying inputs from primary consumer insights, and cross-functional collaboration. Givaudan’s scientists extensively study plant-based bases to understand the flavors that compliment the bases to make a great tasting product. For example, pineapple works well in a coconut milk base and would be a great pairing. On the other hand, a delicate flavor like vanilla would not have the ability to overpower the coconut or off-notes of the base so we would need to work on neutralizing the base or call it “vanilla coconut”.

Complimentary flavors for common non-dairy ingredients

Coconut milk, oilOat milkNut milk (almond, cashew etc)Soy milk, proteinPea proteinUnrefined oils (hemp, avocado etc)
Tropical fruits,
caramel,
vanilla,
chocolate
Berries,
chocolate,
nut flavors,
sweet browns, warm spices,
vanilla
Berries,
chocolate,
florals,
nut flavors,
sweet browns,
warm spices,
vanilla
Chocolate,
sweet browns,
warm spices,
vanilla
Chocolate,
sweet browns,
some tropical fruits,
warm spices
Chocolate,
sweet browns,
some fruits,
warm spices

Frozen Dessert Expertise

Plant-based is never as straightforward as regular dairy products. Dairy ice cream is predictable. It has a clean flavor. It is creamy with a creamy mouthfeel. All of this comes from the milk and milk fat that sets a standard of identity for ice cream. Unfortunately, that isn’t the reality for plant-based frozen desserts bases. On the other hand, the options and combinations with plant-based are limitless due to not having a standard.

Givaudan has analyzed various dairy-based products. This expertise is used to help create our flavors and develop a toolbox of solutions to bridge the gap between dairy and non-dairy. “This toolbox includes off-note maskers, dairy-free dairy volatiles, modifiers, mouthfeel tools, and even a bit of ‘flavorist magic’” said Givaudan Flavorist Merielyn Clemente. 

Are you looking for non-dairy or plant-based frozen dessert solutions to mimic dairy? Or are  you wanting to add flavors to your frozen dessert product line? Reach out to your Account Manager to partner with us.

Written in partnership with:
Kayla Blanding

Application Scientist

  1. Givaudan Primary Research

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