Unilever hopes to launch ‘cow-free’ ice cream but asks: ‘how do we position it to mainstream consumers'?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Magnums being inspected at Unilever's global R&D centre at Colworth Science Park. Image: Unilever/Michael Cockerham
Magnums being inspected at Unilever's global R&D centre at Colworth Science Park. Image: Unilever/Michael Cockerham

Related tags Unilever Ice cream precision fermentation Dairy Milk

Unilever has said it is exploring making ‘cow-free’ ice cream and is hoping to soon launch a product made with dairy proteins made via precision fermentation, but admitted there’s a danger they will be ultimately be rejected by shoppers if they are perceived as being ‘unnatural’.

Journalists visiting its global R&D centre at Colworth Science Park in the UK, dubbed the ‘spiritual home of ice cream’, heard that the company sees precision fermentation – which uses yeast to produce real dairy proteins like whey and casein, to deliver the familiar flavour of foods milk, without using animals –  as a ‘significant trend’.

"We've been looking at precision fermentation for some time,”​ revealed Unilever President of Ice Cream Matt Close. “Our nutrition colleagues are also looking at it for meat-free products where we have publicly declared partnerships in that space,”​ he said, referring to the tie-up with biotech start-up Algenuity announced in 2020​. “From an ice cream point of view, I think we are somewhere between a year and two years off.”

Unilever Ice Cream Chief R&D Officer Andrew Sztehlo said the company is in talks with a number of start-ups with a view to using dairy proteins produced by precision fermentation in its ice cream to soon come to market. "Probably it will be one of our big global brands,”​ he said. “Possibly one of our North American brands but we are still working out the details.” 

Because precision fermentation doesn’t use animals, Unilever views it as a way to reduce its carbon footprint. The FMCG giant has a commitment to be net zero by 2039. Ice cream contributes to 20% of Unilever's GHG emissions. Roughly half of that comes from Unilever's near three million ice cream cabinets. The next biggest chunk is dairy from cows.

Rising consumer interest in sustainability, meanwhile, has already led to Unilever’s vegan ice cream range which now makes up more than 10% of its sales.

The emissions saved by using ingredients made via precision fermentation could “potentially be very significant”, ​Close said.

Regulatory hurdles may have to be jumped, however. Only the US has authorised dairy alternatives made using precision fermentation. Those companies hoping to supply consumer brands with animal free dairy include Remilk in Israel, Formo in Germany and the US’s Perfect Day, which has piloted ‘animal-free’ milk via a Nestle/Starbucks partnership.

But with an industry only recently developing to create these proteins, cost and scale remain big challenges.

“The likelihood is that we will do it on mainstream brands and particular ones that are heavy on diary,”​ Close elaborated. “Brands that are heavy on dairy tend to be particularly the ice cream tub brands. But we're still working on it in labs and it will take us a little while to get to industrialisation at scale.”​ 

Taste, of course, is another challenge – especially so in the indulgent world of ice cream. And although precision fermentation provides an exact copy of dairy proteins, ice cream is notoriously complex. “It’s the food equivalent of making a motor car... it wants not to be,”​ quipped Sztehlo. “As soon as you make it, it wants to be a puddle on the floor.”

The precision fermented-enabled product will therefore involve elements of reformulation to get right.

Another potential sticking point is consumer acceptance and Close revealed there are concerns consumers may not perceive products made via precision fermentation as being ‘natural’ products.

The regulatory environment aside, he admitted a reason the company has yet to launch a product in this space is down to hesitancy about how to position it to consumers.

"We've done some tests and there is a positioning challenge. Consumers don't really know what it is,”​ he told journalists.

“The thing that would keep me awake in this space is getting the positioning wrong with the consumer too early on. What you don't want consumers to think is that this is somehow fake and too scientific.

“I think we'll position this as a low greenhouse gas product as there's some evidence that consumers are beginning to understand what that means and quite like that but it’s early days… It all comes down to consumer acceptance. Will we be able to use protein made from precision fermentation in our ice cream factories as they are made today: yes. Will it scale? Only if consumers accept it as a really tasty product.” 

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