Warmer ice cream? | Hackaday

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

First of all, you would save a lot of electricity. Thanks to the way the industry works, the company actually owns the vast majority of the approximately three million display freezers that are used to sell its stock to customers. Operating at a higher temperature could reduce the freezer’s energy consumption by 20 to 30 percent, according to the company’s calculations. The company also estimates that the energy used by these freezers represents around 10% of its total greenhouse gas footprint, so it’s also better for the environment.

Of course, there are savvy business reasons behind this idea. Unilever had noticed a decline in its ice cream sales in 2022. The company believes this was partly 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, it does less business. If reducing freezer energy consumption helps retailers keep them plugged in and the lights on, that’s a net benefit to the company’s bottom line. It could also make their freezers unwelcoming to competing products, giving them an advantage in the market.

But this is all just a business intrigue. Instead, let’s take a closer look at ice cream.

Oh, sugar, sugar

If you know anything about ice cream, you’ll know that this idea comes with many challenges. Conventional ice cream starts to become soft and runny around -14°C (6.8°F). Pre-packaged hot ice cream is no fun. They tend to fall apart, slip off their sticks, or just form a gooey mess in the package.

So Unilever couldn’t just change the set point on its freezers and declare the job done. Instead, it had to modify its products to remain frozen, solid and stable at higher temperatures. This is a food technology and chemical engineering challenge. The company wants to save energy without compromising on the taste, quality and mouthfeel of its products.

Structurally, 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 influence the temperature and speed of melting. Current publicly available research shows that ice creams with higher air content tend to melt more slowly, a useful attribute for ice creams served closer to room temperature. According to an article by Goff & Hartel (2013), smaller air cells also correlate with a slower fusion rate. However, the same techniques that create smaller air cells can also create larger ice crystals, which has a negative effect on texture and mouthfeel. Meanwhile, higher fat content can slow melting rates, but can affect the flavor profile of ice cream.

At the industrial level, playing with ice crystal size and fat content is just child’s play, the mainstay of undergraduate Ice Cream Manufacturing 101. Cutting-edge food technologists have There are much more sophisticated tools to play with, from advanced binders to useful emulsifiers. such as polysorbate 80 or diglycerides. These components can do all kinds of wonderful things to the structure of a food. They play an important role in fine-tuning a product for ultimate customer satisfaction and ease of manufacturing.

So far, Unilever is remaining tight-lipped about the cost of this exercise and how it achieved its goal of developing so-called room temperature ice cream technology. He cites recent developments in sugar as key to his success. It is worth noting that Junior and Lannes (2011) found that choosing different sweeteners could significantly change the freezing point of an ice cream. If you work at Nestlé and the bosses upstairs have just been yelling at you about how to make ice cream warmer, it might be worth starting there.

Melt like ice cream

The company managed to fund this effort as part of its usual ice cream research and development (ICR&D, in industry parlance) spending. According to Andrew Sztehlo, the company’s director of ICR&D, the effort spanned a decade and the entire project is expected to take 15 years in total.

The first pilot projects were carried out in Germany, where Unilever aimed to discover which of its products could live at -12°C (10°F) without reformulation. The next step will take place in Indonesia, where the reformulated lines will undergo rigorous testing. This will involve blind taste testing to ensure quality is not compromised, as well as investigations into melting behavior and sensory responses to the new ice cream.

The company has not yet committed to warming the majority of its freezers. If so, it could give the company a surprise competitive advantage. Many retailers will use the freezers supplied by Unilever to also store the company’s competitors’ products. If these items are not designed to withstand the new higher temperature, their quality could suffer, pushing customers towards Unilever’s redesigned ranges. Addressing the The Wall Street Journal, Sztehlo says the company plans to share its findings with competitors if it succeeds in its quest. It’s easy to say in a press release, but a wise adult might expect Unilever executives to balk.

If the project continues with a public rollout, we can expect Unilever to remain quiet on the reformulation angle. Instead, it will need to find a way to thread the needle: simultaneously promoting its green values ​​to customers while avoiding the negative perception of warmer ice cream. This is an interesting route to take, given that much of the energy savings will benefit individual store owners, rather than Unilever itself. Either way, if the gamble works out, expect competitors to rush to match the company’s work. Otherwise, expect your local store’s freezer to remain locked at a freezing cold -18°C (0°F).

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