The interior innovates ice cream

In the summer, few things are more satisfying than a cool ice cream. But have you ever wondered what it takes to make a spoon on your cone? This traditional treat dates back centuries, but today’s many frozen desserts are the culmination of months of research and development. In the Danish suburb of Aarhus is what could be considered the ice cream answer to Silicon Valley.

Among the business clusters, including dairy producers, engineers and service providers, is a manufacturing plant owned by food packaging giant Tetra Pak. The place also houses a product development center where future recipes and technologies are tested. It’s the first step in a long journey to launch a product,” says Elsebeth Baungaard, portfolio manager at Tetra Pak.

We are testing what we will see in the market next summer or two years from now.” Inside the well-lit lab are steel vats, freezers and machines that dispense oval-shaped ice cream onto a conveyor belt. Customers of Tetra Pak – the world’s leading ice cream brand – often spend two or three days at the facility making and tasting samples. We look at how the mouthfeel is, the texture, and if it works,” he explains.

There will also be various experts on hand to assist the process along the way, including expert “stickers”. This facility allows customers to try new recipes without tying up their own production. New products are released in late spring, then production ramps up ready for summer. There is a lot of investment in innovation during the winter,” says Tetra Pak Ice Cream Academy manager Torben Vilsgaard.

The US and China are the biggest consumers, and according to Tetra Pak, more than 25 billion liters will be consumed worldwide in 2021. Meanwhile in the UK, hot summer temperatures have seen ice cream sales soar. Data from NielsenIQ shows purchases were 28% higher in the four weeks to mid-August, compared to a year earlier. But how is this delicious dish made?

Production begins with the mix. Milk or water is combined with dry ingredients such as milk solids, sugar and dairy or vegetable fat. The liquid is heated and homogenized, then cooled and “aged”. Dressed in a white lab coat, Mr. Vilsgaard walked me through the process. “We add functional ingredients like flavors and colors, but also stabilizers and emulsifiers.

They give it a little stickiness. That’s the mouthfeel, when it’s eaten and melts.” Next it is pumped to a continuous freezer. “This is the heart of any ice cream production facility,” he said. These “small” units can produce 700 liters per hour, but commercial-scale freezers can produce up to 4,000. Inside the rotating cylinder, the mixture is cooled and whipped rapidly, while incorporating air. The ice cream appears slightly soft, so it can be pumped into tubs or molds, then stored at a lower temperature.

Although the recipe looks simple, ice cream has a complex chemistry consisting of ice crystals, air bubbles and fat globules, which are kept in a solution of water and sugar. But how is this delicious dish made? Production begins with the mix. Milk or water is combined with dry ingredients such as milk solids, sugar and dairy or vegetable fat. The liquid is heated and homogenized, then cooled and “aged”.

Dressed in a white lab coat, Mr. Vilsgaard walked me through the process. “We add functional ingredients like flavors and colors, but also stabilizers and emulsifiers. They give it a little stickiness. That’s the mouthfeel, when it’s eaten and melts.” Next it is pumped to a continuous freezer. “This is the heart of any ice cream production facility,” he said.

These “small” units can produce 700 liters per hour, but commercial-scale freezers can produce up to 4,000. Inside the rotating cylinder, the mixture is cooled and whipped rapidly, while incorporating air. The ice cream appears slightly soft, so it can be pumped into tubs or molds, then stored at a lower temperature. Although the recipe looks simple, ice cream has a complex chemistry consisting of ice crystals, air bubbles and fat globules, which are kept in a solution of water and sugar.

Commercial production is becoming increasingly automated and at Tetra Pak engineers are toying with new factory lines capable of producing a million ice creams a day. The firm estimates that half of the world’s ice cream production is made using its equipment. It recently supplied one of the first collaborative robots, known as a cobot, with which staff work to fill ice cream bowls.

The interior innovates ice cream

Designers are also developing special nozzles to make complex shapes like animals, or multiple layers of different flavors, and 3D printed molds. However, keeping ice cream cold requires energy. Elsebeth Baungaard said she and her colleagues are working on a more targeted cooling process that cools specific places. Other firms have developed technology that is literally “out of the box”.

For example, the US firm Cold Snap makes ice cream that is only frozen in the appliance when you want to eat it, thereby eliminating the energy used by storing it in the freezer. Back in the lab at Tetra Pak, where the ice cream of the future is tested, I’m interested to know what’s coming next.

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