What women want

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Health conscious women are driving a newly-established market for low-fat and low-sugar yet indulgent premium ice creams. Stefan Chomka looks at how companies are getting in on the act

Early this year, while other manufacturers were considering the potential market for low-fat ice cream Richmond Foods was already acting, with the launch in January of a range of low-fat products called Skinny Cow, aimed at the female consumer.

With a typical content of less than 2% fat, the strength of Skinny Cow was that, because of its indulgent nature, it was difficult for many consumers to see how the products were low in fat. As a result, products flew of the shelves.

Owing to the success of Skinny Cow, Richmond is now extending the brand, which was previously available in 500ml tubs and sticked formats, into a coned ice cream, to take on the likes of Unilever's Cornetto. The range will consist of flavours including a raspberry sorbet and vanilla ice cream with raspberry sauce, and a caramel and chocolate ice cream with a toffee sauce centre.

Richmond is also adding three new variants to its tubbed ice creams range: Madly Deeply -- dark and white chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce and chocolate-coated malt balls -- Completely Mintal -- a dark chocolate ice cream with mint pieces -- and Funilla -- a vanilla ice cream made with double cream and vanilla pods.

While these may not seem like very innovative combinations, marketing director Kate Needham says that the trend for 2005 is for more traditional flavours. "A few years ago there were a lot of US and Italian flavours," she says. "But more recently we are seeing a growth in popularity of very traditional flavours like lemon meringue pie; apple crumble and custard; and summer fruits."

Her view is supported by Leatherhead Food International (LFI), whose newly launched publication Food & beverage trends in Western Europe states that vanilla is still the most popular flavour in the UK. It is followed by strawberry, then chocolate, mint choc chip, rum and raisin and toffee.

The Skinny Cow products justify their low-fat status by using chicory-derived inulin -- a fructose-based polymer -- as a fat replacer. According to Needham, a benefit of using inulin it that it has texturising properties most other fat replacers don't have. Because of its chemical composition, inulin form as creamy fat-like gel when dissolved in water, which gives it a similar texture to ice cream and enables Skinny Cow products to have a similar mouthfeel and 'chewiness' to conventional ice cream.

This alone, however, is not enough, and to compete with the premium end of the market Richmond had to ensure the products had the same amount of inclusions, whether it be chocolate, nuts or toffee pieces, as its competitors. While consumers like an ice cream that is low in fat, they will sacrifice it for the higher fat versions if it doesn't deliver on taste, says Needham.

Richmond has also spent the past year in the development kitchen finalising its low sugar and 100% dairy-free ice creams, due for launch next year, for consumers suffering from lactose intolerance and for diabetics. The dairy-free products are based on soya protein, while for the low-sugar ice cream Richmond worked with LFI to find a sugar replacer that would retain the texture and stability of the ice creams as well as have no unpleasant side effects.

While the low-sugar ice creams also suit low-carb dieters, Needham, is sceptical about the long-term potential of a low carb ice cream. "I really do believe the jury's out [on low carb]," she says. "It does not have the same hold over here as it does in the states. I don't think we will launch a low carb ice cream."

Low carb product manufacturer Go Lower disagrees, however. It has just launched a premium-priced tubbed ice cream aimed primarily at female Atkins dieters who still need an ice cream fix.

The ice creams, which contain 3.5g of carbohydrates per 100g, have been launched in strawberry, chocolate and vanilla variants. A 100g serving of typical ice cream contains around fives times this amount.

Ice cream that promotes wellbeing is another area that could be explored. Cranberry supplier Ocean Spray, for instance, is promoting the fruit in ice cream because of the health benefits, including an 'anti adhesion' effect on certain bacteria, it says cranberries offer. "Adding cranberry-based ingredients enables manufacturers to position ice cream -- traditionally associated with negative characteristics such as high fat content -- more positively," it says.

Ocean Spray has overcome the problem of highly acidic fruit that causes milk proteins to curdle, developing flavoured fruit pieces with a low moisture content to avoid this. Cranberries' dense texture and firm skin can also withstand heavy processing needed for some ice cream, it says.

Again Richmond's Needham is wary, and says ice cream manufacturers are approaching 'functional' ice cream with caution. "It potentially could work, but you need to understand the reason people buy ice cream," she says. "It's mainly as a dessert and a treat, even if it is every day. Health kick ice creams are a great idea but how much would you need to eat to get the benefits?"

That's as may be, but any ice cream that removes the guilt of consumption looks set to be a winner.FM

Related topics: NPD

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