• It took 70 different formulations before Unilever’s ice cream team agreed on the new oat base for Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy range. With the 20 flavours in the range accounting for 25 per cent of Ben & Jerry’s global product portfolio, the decision was not made lightly.
    It took 70 different formulations before Unilever’s ice cream team agreed on the new oat base for Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy range. With the 20 flavours in the range accounting for 25 per cent of Ben & Jerry’s global product portfolio, the decision was not made lightly.
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It took 70 different formulations before Ben & Jerry’s ice cream team agreed on the new oat base for its non-dairy range. With the 20 flavours in the range accounting for 25 per cent of Ben & Jerry’s global product portfolio, the decision was not made lightly.

Ben & Jerry’s launched its first non-dairy ice creams in 2016 and their popularity has only kept growing. In the eight years since, there are now 20 non-dairy flavours, and they account for one quarter of the company’s global portfolio.

Straits Research’s report on vegan ice cream valued the global market at US$623.63 million in 2022 and predicted it would grow by 5.2 per cent by 2031.

But while Ben & Jerry’s portfolio has grown and popularity increased, the company was cognisant of the fact consumers’ tastes and flavour preferences evolve.

The formulation team initially experimented with almond and sunflower bases, but senior product developer, João Piva, they needed a more subtly flavoured base.

“With almond you can experience a nutty aftertaste. And as chunks and sauces are a signature of Ben & Jerry’s flavoured ice creams, we were keen to find a base that let our hero ingredients shine more,” Piva said.

The formulation team spent 12 months in Unilever’s ice cream pilot plant working with the science and technology teams to work out what ingredients could bring body and texture to a new non-dairy base.

They also surveyed consumers. Piva said, “Their main flag was texture. They told us non-dairy products could sometimes feel thinner or watery, which meant they didn’t enjoy the same mouthfeel you get from the creamy base of Ben & Jerry’s dairy ice cream. We wanted to find an ingredient that would close that texture gap.”

In what is potentially one of the best jobs in the world, the team of ice cream testers would come together and start tastings at 9am. No coffee or other strong drinks were allowed, and after five or six ice creams (Ed - FIVE OR SIX), palates were refreshed with salty crackers and water so the team could start again.

Piva said, “To turn flavour ideas into reality, you need chemistry. Ice cream is a technical product, and you need to understand the part each ingredient plays, otherwise you can end up mixing good ingredients without making a good ice cream.

“But you also need curiosity. The best innovations happen when we ask: ‘what if’ questions. What if I mix this flavour with these ingredients and see how it goes.”

Piva said they knew they had a winning recipe as soon as they started scooping the oat-based version.

“The ice cream experience doesn’t start with your first bite. You start eating with your eyes. The oat base was smoother and richer, which meant we expected a better texture, even before we took a spoonful.

“It’s been a long journey, we’ve trialled and tasted up to 70 different flavour combinations. But we’re confident we’ve created the best-tasting non-dairy base for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream yet.”

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