Warmer Ice Cream?

What if you could tweak the recipe on ice cream to keep it frozen at higher temperatures? The idea comes from massive conglomerate Unilever. Among other things, the brand owns a wide variety of ice cream brands, from Ben & Jerry’s to the Magnum and Cornetto lines. Instead of running freezers at the industry standard of -18 °C (0°F), the company is experimenting with upping the temperature to -12 °C (10 °F) instead.

First off, you’d save a lot of electricity. Thanks to the way the industry works, the company actually owns the vast majority of the three million or so display freezers that are used to sell its stock to customers. Running at a higher temperature could slash the freezer’s energy use by 20% to 30%, according to the company’s calculations. The company also estimates that the energy used by these freezers makes up around 10% of its total greenhouse gas footprint, so it’s better for the environment too.

Of course, there’s savvy commercial reasons behind the idea. Unilever had noticed its ice cream sales dropping in 2022. The company believes this was in part due to retailers unplugging their freezers earlier than usual as winter approached, due to high energy bills. If the company’s freezers aren’t humming, they’re doing less business. If shaving down the freezer’s energy use helps retailers keep them plugged in and the lights on, that’s a net bonus to the company’s bottom line. It could also make their freezers unhospitable places for rival products, giving them an edge in the marketplace.

But this is all business intrigue. Let’s instead take a deeper look at ice cream.

Oh, Sugar, Sugar

If you know anything about ice cream, you’ll know that this idea is fraught with challenges. Conventional ice cream starts to get soft and liquid around -14 °C (6.8 °F). Warm pre-packaged ice creams are no fun. They tend to fall apart, slide off their sticks, or just generally form a gooey mess in the wrapper.

Thus, Unilever couldn’t just change the set point on its freezers and call the job done. Instead, it has had to modify its products to stay frozen, solid, and stable at higher temperatures. It’s a food technology and a chemical engineering challenge. The company wishes to save energy without compromising on the taste, quality, and mouthfeel of its products.

From a structural perspective, ice cream is made up of air cells, ice crystals, and fat globules. The relative compositions of these components and the ice cream as a whole influences the melting temperature and the rate. Current publicly available research shows that ice cream with high air content tends to melt slower, a useful attribute for ice cream that is served closer to room temperature. As per a paper from Goff & Hartel (2013), smaller air cells are also correlated with a slower melt rate. However, the very techniques that create smaller air cells can also create larger ice crystals, which have a negative effect on texture on mouthfeel. Meanwhile, higher fat content can slow melt rates, but can affect the flavor profile of the ice cream.

At the industrial level, playing around with ice crystal size and fat content is mere child’s play, the mainstay of the undergraduates in Ice Cream Fabrication 101. Cutting-edge food technologists have far fancier tools to play with, from advanced binding agents to useful emulsifiers like polysorbate 80 or diglycerides. These components can do all manner of wonderful things to a food’s structure. They play a serious role in finessing a product for the ultimate customer satisfaction and ease of manufacturability.

Thus far, Unilever is tight-lipped on the cost of this exercise, and the manner in which it achieved its goal of developing so-called near-room-temperature ice cream technology. It cites recent developments concerning sugar as key to its success. It bears noting that Junior and Lannes (2011) found that choosing different sweeteners could drastically alter an ice cream’s freezing point. If you’re working at Nestle, and the bosses upstairs have just yelled at you to figure out how to make warmer ice creams, it might be worth starting there.

Melting Like An Ice Cream

The company has managed to bankroll the effort as part of its usual expenditure on ice cream research and development (ICR&D, in industry parlance). According to the company’s head of ICR&D, Andrew Sztehlo, the effort has been a decade in the making, with the full project expected to take 15 years in total.

Initial pilots were pursued in Germany, where Unilever aimed to discover which of its products could live at -12 °C (10 °F) without reformulation. The next stage will take place in Indonesia, where reformulated lines will be put through rigorous testing. This will involve blind taste tests to ensure quality isn’t compromised, as well as investigation around melting behavior and sensory responses to the new ice cream.

The company hasn’t yet committed to warming up the majority of its freezers just yet. If it does, it could give the company a surprise competitive advantage. Many shop owners will use freezers provided by Unilever to also stock goods from the company’s competitors. If those items aren’t designed to live at the new higher temperature, they could suffer in quality, pushing customers towards Unilever’s reengineered lines. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Sztehlo says the company plans to share its findings with competitors in the event it succeeds in its quest. That’s easy to say in a press release, but something an astute adult might expect Unilever executives to balk at.

If the project goes ahead with a public rollout, expect Unilever to remain quiet on the reformulation angle. Instead, it will have to find a way to thread the needle: simultaneously espousing its green values to customers while avoiding the negative perception of warmer ice creams. It’s an interesting path to take, given that much of the energy savings will be enjoyed by individual shop owners, rather than Unilever itself. Regardless, if the gambit works, expect rivals to rush to match the company’s work. If not, expect your local store’s freezer to stay locked at a cold and frosty -18 °C (0 °F).


52 thoughts on “Warmer Ice Cream?

  1. More ‘greener’ processes for manufacturing and storing and serving a food product may also result in the product containing more chemicals that may create health hazards – not addressed in this article.

    The Law of Unintended Effects.

          1. People think oil and water are a tough mix, but just try to get neutrinos to stick in your ice cream! Maybe eggs would do it? Or cheese? Cheese is binding, so they say

    1. Adding to Dans reply (which is true, everything is a “chemical” in some way) I’ll add: Unilever, Nestle and all those greedy super-corps won’t do ANYTHING “unintended”.

      They’re fully aware of what is allowed to put into what food for every market worldwide. And they’ll use every loophole they can find to put stuff in food we are not even aware of exisiting. Hope you get what I mean, English is just a second language for me…

      1. That makes for a nice conspiracy theory, but it simply isn’t true.

        They are not going to risk compromising quality control, or add something not permitted, to save a few quid when a single scaremongering news article can cost them hundreds of millions in lost revenue.

        1. ” something not permitted” . That´s the point. What is permitted or not changes from country to country. See the whole range of herbicides that are not allowed in Europe but are happily sold worldwide by ( gasp !! ) European companies.

        2. That’s why I wrote “what is allowed to put into what food for every market worldwide”.
          I’m very! far from being a tin foil hat guy, but “allowed” doesn’t imply “good for your health” in any way.

          1. JanW: “Organic” also doesn’t imply ‘good for your health’ in any way. But marketing.

            I’m with you on less processed.

            FYI all frozen food containing cooked meat or bread of any sort is sprayed with a chemical to prevent freezer burn (everywhere, it’s an economic deal breaker on frozen pizza, required for it to exist). It’s basically silicone sex lube. Vegan!

            Double plus good!

  2. Nothing could go wrong…

    Google ‘Chinese ice cream doesn’t thaw’.
    Double plus good!

    All praise emperor pooh bear and his mighty, laws of thermodynamics defying, thoughts.

  3. oh oh,the dairy industry’s double didgit growth is in trouble
    again,and just in time to save the hay,someone has a
    “byproduct” that they can let go cheap,cause the disposal
    costs are realy outrageous.

    1. “One of the reasons ice cream has to be keep hard as a rock, ”
      …is that warmer ice cream is less self regulated in its consumption.
      Lower risk of brain freezes means eating too much, too quickly. 😅

    2. Melting partially for a little while isn’t really a problem. Just pop the container into your freezer when you get home. Let the ice cream go soft for several hours and the various ingredients separate, with sugar settling to the bottom. For most people the resulting taste is inferior.

      The terms of purchase of the Ben and Jerry’s brand by Unilever specified that some of the profits go to leftist causes. I hope that this experiment destroys the brand in an expensive and embarrassing manner.

  4. How about not buying ice cream at all and instead spending this money on dev boards, better keyboard or calculus textbook. IMO self improvement comes before pleasure if you want to win at life and not become incel.

    1. Dev boards, better keyboard or calculus textbook will definitely get you laid!

      Suggested lines:
      Hey we both love calculus, lets integrate.
      I rock slow and steady like a 555.
      We click like a cherry keyswitch.
      I want you more than a Raspberry Pi 5.

      Use any of these lines and your chosen woman is sure to be standing in the middle of a slippery puddle, trembling with anticipation.

    2. One cannot win at something that has no win condition. If you forgo pleasure in order to “win” at life, what’s the point of living that life?

      Honestly, I’d say that both you and incels are different sides of the same coin – taking things to unnecessary extremes because your view of reality is warped.

  5. i love the idea! now small ice cream shops that make fresh basic ice cream can charge more for having “safer’ ice cream and I can get rich making and selling said ice cream!

  6. So… It’s ice cream that frozen at higher temperatures? Are we talking about the quest for a superconductive dairy product ? Maybe sprinkled with quantum Dippin’ Dots ?

  7. So IIRC some 30 or 40 (more) years ago someone did this by adding (more) alginates or agar (gellatin) and the chemicals to make that not seem to be jello, claiming it would be better to eat because it wouldn’t fall apart/melt so fast. Probably ended up wherever the “Olestria” potato chips are.
    Everything old is new again….

  8. “Many shop owners will use freezers provided by Unilever to also stock goods from the company’s competitors. If those items aren’t designed to live at the new higher temperature, they could suffer in quality, pushing customers towards Unilever’s reengineered lines.”

    I smell lawsuits from Unilever’s competitors.

    I have never, ever, seen any store that sells ice cream products not have them during winter, nor have I ever seen any that turn off any of their freezers in winter. They don’t have freezers exclusively for ice cream and other frozen dairy products.

    Google ice cream sells better in winter and you’ll find there are many places around the world, with various winter climates, where ice cream sells from barely less than summer time, the same, or even more during the cooler/cold/freezing part of the year.

    Freezers cut energy loss far more by switching fluorescent lighting to LED, and upgrading to newer, more efficient compressors than raising the temperature a couple of degrees.

    Without the warmth introduced by fluorescent lighting, the compressors have to run less to maintain the set temperature, so even if the compressors aren’t upgraded, the LED lighting upgrade provides a “double scoop” of efficiency improvement.

    A recent innovation in refrigerated and freezer storage in stores is the video door. Instead of windows the doors each have a full coverage video display, showing the product behind the door, including adjusting the number of containers or packages shown to match how many are on the shelf. Customers don’t need to open the door to handle the products to read the labels, they just touch the display and it shows all the information.

    With customers only opening the doors to remove product they’re actually purchasing, and without the loss through the glass, that’s an even larger energy savings than LED lights and up to date compressors. In addition to completely cutting loss through huge windows, the video doors save even more by only turning the lights on when a door is opened.

    So even with the energy used by the large displays, the energy savings are a net positive.

    My prediction is Unilever is going to waste a ton of money on this project. It will be a massive failure, and they’ll have to spend a ton more money fighting lawsuits from competitors over damage to their products in warmer freezers or getting pushed out of side by side shelf space with Unilever products. Can you say “restraint of trade”?

    1. Depending on legislation, it’s a whole lawsuits for Unilever. In France, if one were to rise up the temperature of a freezers above -18°C and get caught by an health inspector, the food selling license will be revoked immediately. No seller is going to take the risk here.

  9. Great. Creating frankenicecream because energy prices are too high. Why not make energy cheaper and keep making real food? Let’s just hope they won’t come up with soylent green flavor.

      1. TBF NIMBYs hate all power generating things – they’ll object just as strongly to a wind turbine or solar farm as a nuclear plant or coal-fired power station and thereby ruin it for everyone.

        Then again they’ll also object to traffic through their village but strongly object to the building of a road to bypass the village… the classic is Stone Henge where traffic runs right past the thing but every attempt to build a tunnel below it has been thwarted because you can’t dig a tunnel without, you know, digging.

  10. Make no mistake. This is simply a cost cutting, profit improving measure. “Premium” ice cream has higher fat content etc, the garbage that is unsatisfying had tons of air whipped into it and since it is sold by volume, not weight, it is not obvious. It is zero to do with improving flavors or anything else. It is about disguising inferior ingredients or process just enough to get people to keep buying it. Alton Brown did and episode where he melted down various ice creams and it’s like twice as much “stuff” for better ice cream. The other stuff isn’t even worth eating. The extreme is, like, fast food shakes which barely are (or totally aren’t” ice cream at all.

  11. Ah, the quest for room temperature ice cream! Who needs cold fusion, what we need is warm ice cream. Maybe sufficient pressure, say 100 gigapascal or some such, could achieve the temperature goal, then we could work on bringing the pressure down ..

  12. Yuck, this is why I don’t eat factory made processed and prepared meals anymore. Whole foods only, prepared by professional cooks or with my own two hands.

    Ice cream is one of the easiest things to make at home, by the way. If you want to really cut down on emissions, stop buying goop that needs additives and refrigeration to survive the trip from factory to grocery store. Home made is cheaper, tastier, and healthier, and you’ll eat less of it because it’s more satisfying and you won’t want to put in the effort to make it every single day.

    America is dangerously overweight because of over consumption of artificial foods like this. I’d much rather see conglomerates like these figure out a way to stand up small ice cream shops across the nation where the custards can be made fresh with local ingredients. Engineering for shelf life so you can keep all production at a central location leads to an inferior product and is definitely not what consumers want.

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