Plant-based frozen dessert (no, don’t call it ice cream) has been around longer than you think. According to the SoyInfo Center, Tuskegee Institute Professor George Washington Carver made his first batch of peanut-based ice cream over 100 years ago, calling it the finest he ever tasted. In 1922, the first patent was issued for a “frozen confection” made from tofu, flavoring, and a sweetener. Many iterations followed, with commercially made soy protein desserts gaining steadily in popularity by the late 1960’s.
Soy or rice-based products, the only options in the beginning, have been well established for decades. Then came a migration to almond and coconut. “For a while, coconut was almost the whole category,” says UNFI Senior Category Manager for Grocery, Frozen, & Dairy, Sean Fitzpatrick. “In addition to being dairy-free, coconut doesn’t contain an allergen like soy and almond. And in terms of replicating a high-fat dairy product, coconut has advantage over other bases: it naturally has more fat so doesn’t need more added.”
The evolution is continuing. “Soy and rice are still out there but are fairly insignificant,” says Fitzpatrick. “Almond is #2 and oat has emerged in the last 18 -24 months along with avocado and pea protein-bases. The latest thing we’re seeing is fruit-based products, such as banana puree as a base instead of a protein.”
The USDA’s underlying requirement for defining a product as ice cream is that it must contain at least 10% butter fat, though there is a threshold where it can be called a “light” ice cream. But all plant-based products are labeled a “frozen dessert”. Those made by Ben & Jerry’s®, which have done exceptionally well in the conventional channel, are primarily almond based. Häagen Dazs® largely contains water and tapioca starch. And Arctic Zero® (originally a light ice cream alternative competing with Halo Top®) has now removed all the whey from their formula to become completely plant based. Other top sellers include Coconut Bliss®, Oatly®, So Delicious®, Cado®, and NadaMoo!®.
If you’re just introducing plant-based frozen desserts in your store, Fitzpatrick recommends offering several bases in a single brand, such as So Delicious. “When merchandising, you can create seven pints across the shelf in coconut, almond based, and more, and provide that variety across a small amount of freezer space,” he suggests.
Another tip? Merchandise your plant-based products together. You could display fruit-based frozen desserts next to sorbets but don’t, for example, put Ben & Jerry’s plant-based next to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, even though the brand has high name recognition. People are firmly in their camps, says Fitzpatrick. “Not too many dairy ice cream consumers are picking up a plant-based product and vice versa,” he notes. “Their primary decision when looking for frozen dessert is, ‘Am I a dairy consumer or am I not a diary consumer?’ Trying to incorporate a mainstream brand’s plant-based product by leading with the dairy-based in hopes of transferable sales really does it a disservice. You’ll make a much bigger statement with a smaller freezer footprint. And the plant-based consumer would rather see all their choices together.”