In the summer heat, few things are more satisfying than ice cream. But did you ever wonder what it takes to make the scoop on your cone?
This traditional dessert dates back centuries, but many frozen desserts today are the result of months of research and development.
What could be considered ice cream’s Silicon Valley is located on the outskirts of the Danish city of Aarhus. Among a cluster of businesses, including dairy producers, engineers, and service providers, is a manufacturing plant owned by food packaging giant Tetra Pak.
This place is also home to a product development centre where future recipes and technology are tested out.
Tetra Pak is now testing what we will see on the market next summer or two years from now. They check the mouthfeel, the texture, and if it’s working. There are also a variety of experts on hand to help out with the process along the way, including specialist “stick inserters”.
Tetra Pak’s clients—the world’s major ice cream brands—often spend two or three days in the facility making and tasting samples.
The facility allows customers to try new recipes without tying up their own production. New products are released in the late spring, then manufacturing ramps up ready for the summer.
The US and China are the biggest consumers, and according to Tetra Pak, more than 25 billion litres were eaten worldwide in 2021. Meanwhile, in the UK, sizzling summer temperatures have sent ice cream sales soaring. Data from Nielsen IQ shows purchases were 28% higher in the four weeks to mid-August, compared to a year earlier.
Production starts with the mix. Milk or water is combined with dry ingredients such as milk solids, sugars, and dairy or vegetable fats. The liquid is heated and homogenized, then cooled and “aged” Then functional ingredients such as flavours and colours, as well as stabilisers and an emulsifier, are added. They give some viscosity. That is the mouthfeel when it’s consumed and melting down. Next, it’s pumped into a continuous freezer. This is the heart of any ice cream production facility.
Inside a rotating cylinder, the mix is rapidly cooled and beaten while incorporating air. The ice cream emerges slightly soft, so it can be pumped into a tub or mould, and then stored at a lower temperature. While the recipe sounds simple, ice cream has a complex chemistry consisting of ice.
Ice cream is one of the few products that can hold all three states at once. It’s solid, liquid, and gas all in one. Normally, liquids and oils don’t mix very well. But with the addition of the emulsifier, you get the fats in the ice cream to stick together with the liquids.
Getting the balance right is a precise science, and it’s important for the ice cream’s stability.
Recipes have really evolved and there is a lot of research going into new ingredients, particularly alternatives to lactose or sugar. However, there are also some rather more unexpected components. Up to 50% of it can be air, and it’s crucial to making the ice cream “scoop-able”.
More than 25 billion litres of ice cream were eaten around the world last year, according to Tetra Pak.
Commercial production is becoming increasingly automated, and at Tetra Pak, engineers are tinkering with a new factory line capable of making a million ice creams a day.
The firm estimates that half of the world’s ice cream output is made using its equipment.
Recently, it supplied one of the first collaborative robots, known as a Cobot, where staff work alongside it, filling ice cream bowls.
Designers are also developing special nozzles to make complex shapes like animals or multiple layers of different flavours, and moulds are 3D printed.
However, keeping ice cream cold is energy-intensive. And Tetra Pak is working on a more targeted cooling process that chills specific spots.