Vegan Ice Cream Hits the Spot for Consumers

August 16, 2019 at 04:05pm

Veganism is not new, but the category is having a resurgence in food scenes today with increased interest in plant-based products. It’s not just entrees, vegan options are found in every section of the grocery store, including the freezer aisle. While the percentage of people that are committed vegans is still small, the larger consumer group are those looking to limit meat and other animal products in their diets for a multitude of reasons. For these consumers, a compromise on flavor, texture, and complexity because the product is vegan won’t be made. This is as true for vegan “ice cream” as any other product and this is where Rhino comes in to support our customers.

Dale Conoscenti, our R&D Manager and Certified Research Chef has a lot to say on the subject. As a product developer for 30 years, Dale knows his way around the kitchen. By trade, he’s a classically trained chef, so the flavor and texture are key when it comes to creating new pieces. He isn’t new to vegan food, either. He studied macrobiotics for nine years back in the ‘70s, a specialty that has a lot of overlap with veganism.

“Back then, veganism was very focused on health foods and natural foods. Now, it’s driven toward what’s new and exciting to eat,” says Dale. “For the past four or five years, or even longer, veganism has been big in the dessert world. Back then, some of the first coconut-based ice cream options didn’t have many inclusions and textures, they were smooth.” This was because the combination of multiple ingredients in a non-dairy base came with some challenges.

“Because everything is trans-fat free now, we’re really limited to two fats: palm and coconut. For many U.S. customers and almost all European customers, palm is an issue because of concerns about the environmental impact and sustainability. Coconut is what we primarily use, and it has a much different melting point than other fats in our inclusions, so that has been tricky.”

With coconut oil’s higher melting point, the process must be precise. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature and needs to be heated to become a liquid. “It can take two or three days to turn a drum of coconut oil into a liquid state,” Dale explains. “You can’t heat it too much because if you add it too warm to a batter, it will change your texture and can melt other ingredients, like chocolate chips. To keep everything intact, we can’t really get it warmer than 100 degrees. Its use requires many stages at our facility and took a lot of learning at the beginning.”

“Many options we tested didn’t translate into a commercial product that’s affordable. For example, with hemp, we would need really specialized equipment to translate it into different flavors.” These tight parameters and desired price point mean fewer options for our R&D crew to work with.

Then, there’s the issue of how the vegan ingredients come together to impact the inclusion’s texture and quality. “We have to make sure that the finished piece is hard enough to stay hard when it’s frozen, or if it gets a little warm, that it doesn’t get too soft and start sticking the pieces together which will cause issues for our customers’ manufacturing process.” Beyond process functionality, everything from the experience of the first bite, to how it holds up on the way home from the grocery store, are factors for the customer. That means they are all equal concerns to our product development.

Just look at cookie dough. “There are so many sensations you have when you bite into cookie dough,” Dale explains. “It’s soft, but then you hear crunching in the back of your mouth from a crystal of sugar. Then you bite into a chocolate chip that has some firmness, but it’s also forgiving. How do you repeat that in a product with different ingredients?” It’s an open-ended question, but Dale has found some answers with the right ingredients, processes, and bases. “I have made a really good cookie dough and brownie with garbanzo beans,” he says. “They produce a very good flour.”

In the end, vegan flavor development is not all about trendiness and jumping on the bandwagon. “Part of what really interests me about plant-based products is that it’s a road to help feed billions of people,” says Dale. “If you think about the population explosion and what’s projected, there’s no way we can sustain everyone on just animal protein. I think it’s going to be a way for us to move forward to feed more and more people.”

It’s an interesting and challenging space to be in, and while we’re in production mode with vegan inclusions for some of our customers, there is so much room to grow. According to Dale, “The big secret is going to be if there’s a way to scale vegan foods without ever sacrificing flavor and texture.” We’ll keep you posted if we find the answer.