Navigating Plant-Based Product Formulation

By Jen Lyons, Sensient Flavors & Extracts, Marketing Manager

As published in the January 2022 issue of Perfumer & Flavorist

As consumers continue to take a holistic approach to their well-being, they look for solutions that are all-encompassing rather than focusing on one specific health issue. Plant-based frozen desserts with functional and better-for-you claims continue to trend, because people want those aspects across all their food categories.

While overall plant-based product launches have increased year-over-year (YoY) by 5%a and plant-based frozen desserts exceeding that trend line at 13%b, it can be challenging to incorporate “better-for-you” ingredients while still delivering great taste. That can present a significant problem, because while consumers are taking health and wellness into account when they buy frozen desserts, they are not willing to sacrifice adventurous flavors or engaging inclusions and textures. In fact, 64%c of consumers would pass on a frozen treat altogether if it did not meet their taste expectations.

Flavor and texture remain the key drivers for frozen dessert purchases. How do you make a plant-based frozen dessert taste as rich, creamy, flavorful and textured as traditional ice cream? Let’s take a closer look into how today’s technologies will leave consumers asking, “What, that’s not ice cream?”

Masking Unpleasant Notes

The number of base options continues to expand. Soy once dominated the market, but coconut, almond, cashew, pea, avocado, and nuts have emerged recently. That presented more than one challenge: creating a clean base that meets the nutritional profile, and masking any undesirable off-notes that don’t exist in traditional ice cream. Creating a base that is free of beany, bitter, and earthy notes—which often show with the addition of plant proteins—is key.

Luckily, taste modulation tools can create a solution. Flavor maskers help eliminate unpleasant off-notes like beany, chalky and bitterness, while also naturally enhancing the sweet and dairy aromatics of plant protein, creating a neutral and more acceptable tasting frozen dessert base.

Enhancing Desirable Flavors

But what about the flavors we do want? Natural extracts capture the aromatic top notes, resulting in a full and well-balanced flavor profile that takes a familiar flavor like vanilla from a 6, “it’s decent,” to a 10, “it’s fantastic!”

Enhancement of sweetness is key to keeping a sweet treat indulgent. How do you add sweetness without adding calories? This can be achieved through a sweetness modifier, which helps improve sweetness and mouthfeel, without added calories.

Making it Creamy

We’ve masked the unpleasant notes and boosted the desirable notes, now how do you get that milky and creamy mouthfeel we all desire in a frozen dessert? There are tools for that, too. Dairy-free flavors are one way of mimicking the desired flavors of milk and cream. Ice cream in its most simple form is cream, milk, and sugar and the higher the butterfat, the creamier it is. When looking at fat sources for plant-based frozen desserts, the melt properties are very different from that of milk and can be perceived as oily. Controlling the mouth-coating from feeling oily is key to the product’s success in mimicking dairy.

Can’t Forget About Texture

The base is key, but we can’t forget about the consumer’s desire for textured inclusions. Textured inclusions and variegates in ice cream provide multi-sensory pleasure to the consumption experience. Added textures also partner with and accentuate the core flavor, perhaps adding a more intensely sweet indulgence or a more savory experience—such as a salted pretzel to balance some sweetness. The same tools mentioned above are used when developing these plant-based inclusions and variegates to ensure that overall product taste is not compromised.

Looking to the Future

With the expected 29%d YoY growth in the plant-based product category, we can expect continuous innovation of plant-protein types and technologies. Consumers are projected to keep choosing health, quality, clean label and sustainability, so this growth is likely here to stay. Customers are going to expect more; more flavors, more textures, and more variety. So while plant-based desserts may not completely take over the frozen dessert section at the grocery store or the dipping cabinet at scoops shops anytime soon, don’t be shocked when the next “must try” frozen dessert is plant-based.

a, North America, Q4 2020 – Q3 2021 over Q4 2019 – Q3 2020

b, North America, Q4 2020 – Q3 2021 over Q4 2019 – Q3 2020

c Sensient Primary Research with Suzy,

d, dollars