Tetra Pak helps ice cream manufacturers to overcome Covid-19 challenges

Thinking outside the cone

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Tetra Pak
Ice cream manufacturers can use innovation to overcome the challenges of Covid-19​. Photo - Brooke Lark on Unsplash

In a normal year, during a normal summer, for most people, warm days would be regularly and pleasurably punctuated with ice cream. Whether you prefer a towering triple scoop of gelato or have a liking for ice cream encased in a sumptuous layer of chocolate and served on a stick, ice cream is synonymous with the taste of summer.

Tetra Pak states that this year, however, isn’t normal, and neither is this summer. What should have been the Northern Hemisphere’s peak ice cream season saw instead most ice cream parlors, shops, and restaurants shuttered for months. Despite this, ice cream is still a global favorite – but the ice cream industry has had to be nimble to make it happen.

Tetra Pak, a global food processing and packaging solutions company, is helping many ice cream makers. Close up from these challenging circumstances, the company saw new growth opportunities arise, which will help ice cream producers adapt now and thrive in the future.

Ice cream extrusion wheel. Per Henrik Hansen, innovation manager, and Peter Lindström, managing director Tetra Pak Ice Cream Solutions.

Home comforts

“Roughly half of the world’s ice cream is produced with the help of Tetra Pak equipment,” said Peter Lindstrom, the managing director at Tetra Pak Ice Cream Solutions. Tetra Pak plays a unique role in the ice cream industry. In a nutshell, the company is the leading provider of equipment to make ice cream – from the mix-plant, freezers, ingredient dosers, extrusion​ , and to the end-of-line solutions – seamlessly integrating processing, automation, and technical services.

​According to Peter, although the world almost came to a halt during the lockdowns, indulgence did not stop. Instead, it shifted shape as consumers sought reassurance from the familiar and sought out the delicious as comfort in their homes. The industry saw a move away from single-serve impulse buys, which were replaced by a striking trend towards multipacks of premium ice creams instead.

“The larger brands in the market have definitely seen sharply growing demand for ice cream, but obviously not for single serve portions or food-services, but take-home bulk products and multipacks,” Peter explains. “One of our customers, for example, saw sales of its premium product in China grow by 40% during the lockdown, much of it driven by e-commerce providers that do instant deliveries, enabling consumers to order a box of ice creams on a stick and have it in their home freezer within an hour.”

For many, this growth opportunity came rather unexpected during this otherwise challenging period. To meet the need, Peter said, producers had to have access to the right distribution channels and have the equipment that made it easy to quickly convert the processing and packaging from single-serve to a multipack production, emphasizing premium products. Distribution channels, however, were just as important, Peter said, “What we’re seeing is that many smaller brands – that don’t already have access to space in supermarket refrigerators – struggle because they relied on the impulse market and food services, such as selling through small kiosks and to restaurants.”

A taste for premium ice cream novelties

​However, in the longer term, there is potential for all ice cream producers to take advantage of the global love for ice cream. Peter anticipates that overall consumption will continue to grow, with more planned purchases and less impulse purchases. Those investing in innovative premium products now are likely to see the biggest upturn in the future.

“Most of the growth isn’t in the lower end of the market, it’s for premium products… consumers really indulged and are choosing the high-end options,” said Peter. Consumers have discovered a taste for premium and novel products during the lockdown, with fancier ice creams – especially for products with “inclusions” in the ice cream like fruits and salted caramel proving to be especially popular.

Another trend that’s here to stay is sustainability. Despite Covid-19, consumers still expect companies to stick with their environmental goals; since they want sustainable products.
Peter said that the demand for sustainability is not at odds with the trend for premiumization, but instead supports it, “People who are prepared to pay for premium are also happy to pay a little bit more for products that they know to be sustainably produced.”

According to Tetra Pak, another big trend boosting the industry is dairy-free ice cream’s growing popularity. Consumers have many different reasons to go dairy-free; it could be health reasons, food allergies, or concerns about animal welfare and sustainability. But while consumers are increasingly reaching for plant-based products, they ultimately expect a product that ticks all the ice cream boxes: rich, creamy, and deliciously rich flavor – factors that can be difficult for manufacturers to achieve when using dairy alternatives.

​Peter said, “Consumers still want the product to be indulgent – the texture has to be the same and it has to almost match a dairy based product.” That’s where Tetra Pak’s expertise in developing new products comes in; the company helps its customers to develop and fine-tune even the most unusual and complicated recipes to create delicious ice creams with all the added extras – from almond and fruit pieces to lashings of chocolate – whether they are dairy- or plant-based.

Travel-free product trials

With 10 Product Development Centers​ (PDCs) globally, these specialized centers act as a one-stop-shop for new product and category trials, it said. They are uniquely equipped to address the technical challenges and opportunities to develop and reformulate food and beverage products in a cost- and time-effective, highly flexible way without the need to close down a production line to experiment and test.

That flexibility was tested in the wake of Covid-19 travel restrictions. The specialized ice cream PDC center in Aarhus, Denmark, Peter and his team helps customers innovate with live-streamed product trials for far away customers and lockdown.

Whether virtual or face-to-face, any product trial starts with an idea. “Ice cream invention happens either at customers or here at Tetra Pak,” Peter explained. Most of the time, it’s the customer who comes to Tetra Pak with what he jokingly calls “some crazy idea”. However, Tetra Pak also has an in-house consumables group that discovers exotic raw materials and conceptualizes the next generation of ice creams. “Together we are trying to create our own crazy products to inspire and excite manufacturers.”

From there, the trials and tribulations of product development get underway as Tetra Pak brings their expertise, equipment, and, most notably, their Extrusion Wheel technology to put recipes through their paces. Peter said, “We need to test — is it sustainable? Is it nice and creamy? What happens to it after it has been frozen to minus 25 degrees?”

When it comes to the look and feel, customers can quickly assess that in real-time, as they follow the trial live from afar; they can even see what’s happening inside certain machines. However, to allow for tasting for that all-important sensory profile, Tetra Pak arranges for samples from the trial itself to be sent to the customer. “So, you’re not just relying on Danish tongues,” he said with a chuckle.

​From process to packaging

The innovation doesn’t stop at flavor and textures. Peter said that they need to consider every aspect of new product development to help their customers get the highest quality version of the new products on supermarket shelves, as quickly as possible.

To keep up with demand changes, Tetra Pak is now helping many customers to upgrade or expand their lines with Tetra Pak’s pioneering equipment, which makes it possible to change between products quickly.

Even during the pandemic, customers continued to invest in “premium equipment to cater for premium products.” Tetra Pak sees many customers already invest in upgrades and expansions to be ready for 2021, Covid-19, or not.

The at-home consumption trend has also led to an increased demand for creative packaging options. “We are working with partners to continually develop the offering for multipacks and creating even more exciting solutions, where you can combine multiple products into one pack.”

The future of frozen is flexible & forward-thinking

​Ice cream is one of life’s greatest simple pleasures for millions worldwide. But its production can be anything but simple, with ever-evolving flavor and format trends, shifting consumer behavior, and a growing expectation for a company to be sustainable at every touchpoint.

According to the company, Tetra Pak is working to provide ice cream manufacturers with hassle-free, flexible solutions and increased efficiency, quality, sustainability, and consumer-centered innovation.

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