Ice cream scientists discuss how food trends, innovations and flavors influence new offerings

(Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for YouTube and Catch'n Ice Cream )
(Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for YouTube and Catch'n Ice Cream ) /

For many people, a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with chocolate sauce might be the simple, satisfying treat that never goes out of style. In contrast, food social media accounts tout unusual ingredient combinations and flavor creations that have some people scratching their heads. In both cases, people cannot resist grabbing that pint and taking a scoop. Although the freezer might be overflowing with options, Unilever ice cream scientists are always looking, learning, and leveraging all the food topics on the table. And, that culinary curiosity has everyone hungry for another spoonful.

Discussing food is wrought with opinion. How one bite tastes to a person might be totally different to another. Even those people with impeccable palates can struggle to find the words to describe the hows, whats, and whys one dish has intricate flavors and is infinitely better than another offering.

While food is subjective, many people cannot wait to dig into the latest food trend. Whether it is hype, curiosity, or that need to be included, that sentiment can have people stepping out of the comfort zone just to say they ate a particular item.

For major food brands, new products do not arrive on the shelf in just a whim. The time, research, and testing involved is vast. Even if everyone is talking about a ice cream wrapped in a fruit roll-up, it does not mean that concept will find its way to the freezer in a month. There might be a flavor adaptation down the line, but the spike in curiosity can influence the path ice cream scientists take in the creation lab.

Although many people do not contemplate the science behind the food that is eaten, there are many talented men and women who have helped bring that perfectly luscious vanilla ice cream to the bowl or found the balance in the spicy snack that is always in the pantry. Putting aside the measurements and complicated connotations, these food scientists are as talented as many celebrated chefs. Unfortunately, their names are not highlighted in the Michelin book.

Recently, FoodSided spoke to Derrick Fondaco, Senior Scientist Ice Cream R&D for Breyers and Evan Cheng, Senior Scientist Ice Cream R&D for Magnum ice cream and Talenti Gelato & Sorbetto. After the food-tok moment that had everyone trying a new ice cream creation, it was time to get the real scoop on ice cream trends, innovations, and why certain flavors are just so satisfying.

While the Unilever food scientists explained the concept behind Glass transition effect, which why fruit leather changes texture, becomes brittle, when exposed to cold ice cream, those concepts might be a little too complex for some. Even though it is a fun science experiment to attempt with the kids, the reality is that the concept is not new or earth shattering. It just found a new platform due to social media.

What is more exciting for people who appreciate great food is the hows, whats and whys these ice cream scientists approach their craft. Just like chefs travel the world, talk to other culinarians, and find inspiration almost anywhere, so do food scientists. There is a reason why chicken and waffles ice cream was attempted or biscuits were swirled into a creamy base. Consumers want to be excited but there needs to be some connection to the familiar.

When asked about the impact of food trends and the ability to transform ice cream with different flavors Fondaco said, “With the speed at which information spreads on social media, we’ve seen so many new ways our fans consume ice cream that stray from the classic scoop or cone. It is incredible to see the creativity behind how people enjoy ice cream beyond what we could have imagined and really shows the variety of ways we enjoy food. Ice cream has always been a versatile treat – seen in milkshakes, cakes, bars, bowls, and more, and social media continues to bring forward new recipes and formats to enjoy ice cream.”

In addition, Fondaco shared, “Part of our fun as ice cream scientists is getting to draw inspiration from social media and trends – whether it’s related to flavors, fun combinations and pairings, or unexpected textures – and bringing them to life in different products and applications for our consumers. Sometimes it just takes the right concept to bring new excitement and energy to a trend!”

Specifically for Unilever, Fondaco believes, “As the largest ice cream company in the world, Unilever Ice Cream is always looking at trends and innovations to bring new offerings to frozen treat lovers. There’s a variety of elements that go into consideration as we determine which brands will unveil new products, formats and flavors for our fans to enjoy and social media is a great source for inspiration.”

Referencing a particular Unilever brand that captured the social media zeitgeist, Evan Cheng recalled, “The Talenti Layers product line is a prime example of how a social media moment can translate into a new product! In 2015, Talenti posted a layered jar inspired by the salad jar trend where consumers layered salad components in a Mason jar. The posts did so well that the team was inspired to launch Talenti Layers, which has now become a large part of their business with 17 different offerings and a range they continue to innovate against.”

While flavor is often a driver, sentiments can have consumers choosing one pint over another. Over the past several years, nostalgia has been a commercial driver. Beyond capturing that flavors from childhood, it is a feeling of whimsy, indulgence, or even a willingness to just enjoy a great food.

The combination of fruity and creamy seems to hit those nostalgic qualities. Speaking to fruit and ice cream combinations, Fondaco said, “this particular flavor combination is something we have continued to see rise to the top as a fan favorite over the years. In fact, earlier this year we released a new Breyers CarbSmart flavor in Vanilla Chocolate Strawberry, bringing the nostalgic Neapolitan taste people love to a better-for-you product.”

Although these ice cream scientists might spend plenty of time in that food lab, they are regular people. Whether or not they want to debunk that questionable trend or just need to take a taste of the hype, they are not opposed to trying it. After all, life is too short not to enjoy and have fun.

But, Fondaco does have an ice cream preference. He said, “When it comes to eating ice cream for my own personal enjoyment, I’m simplistic – no toppings (and usually no bowl)! But since joining Unilever my taste preferences have become much more diverse. I never want the same ice cream two nights in a row! I love trying new products with new flavor combinations and finding an unexpected favorite.”

If that freezer looks a little empty, it might be time to head to the store and explore both the new and classic offerings on the shelf. Ice cream might not solve the world’s problems, but it does make life sweeter.