3 June 2024

The InsideIP scoop: a green future for ice cream

The Met Office 3-month outlook is predicting a higher-than-normal chance of a hot summer. As we look out from our Manchester Office, and think of the sweltering months to come, we take pride in the fact that this city is credited as being where the ice cream cone was invented! In 1901, Antonio Valvona, an Italian citizen living on Great Ancoats Street, filed a patent for an “Apparatus for Baking Biscuit Cups for Ice Cream” (US701776A [1]).

Since then, the ice cream industry has been no stranger to innovation; a quick search for “ice cream” on the European Patent Office’s patent database, Espacenet, reveals 386 patents published in 2023 alone. These patent filings describe technological advances in all areas of ice cream production, from conceptualisation to point of sale.

The ice cream production process.

As the private sector looks to introduce initiatives to help tackle global warming, we decided to ask the question: can the ice cream industry innovate towards a greener future?

A better whey?

Ice cream is a delectable mix of ice crystals, air cells and fats distributed in an unfrozen serum phase, making it both a foam and an oil-in-water emulsion. Traditional raw ingredients, milk and cream, provide the necessary components to stabilize ice cream’s complex microstructure. However, given consumers’ increasing concerns over the dairy industry’s impact on the environment, innovators are working to find animal-free formulations which produce silky smooth ice creams and hold-off melting long enough to be devoured.

Non-dairy ice creams are nothing new. One of the earliest recipes is provided by Almeda Lambert in her 1899 cookery book “Guide for Nut Cookery”, which includes a recipe for a nut butter-based ice cream named Ice-Cream No. 3. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that dairy-free ice cream began to be more widely available, with the commercial release of soy-based ice creams.

Innovators continue to investigate the use of non-traditional ingredients. One such example is the Swedish company Veg of Lund, which was set up in 2016 with the aim of using potatoes as an alternative protein source in plant-based food products. The company discovered that heat-treated dehydrated potato can be used to stabilize the emulsion foam microstructure of ice cream. They recently obtained a granted Swedish patent (SE545460C2 [2]) for a vegan composition comprising dehydrated potato, which can be used to provide an ice cream with good sensory properties and melting behaviour.

Non-dairy ice cream comprising dehydrated potato. Figure taken from SE545460C2 [2]

Meanwhile, some researchers are using precision fermentation processes to obtain milk proteins from non-animal sources. For example, the California-based company Perfect Day has used recombinant technology to genetically modify certain species of yeast to produce the casein and whey proteins found in milk. Having pursued patent protection for dairy substitute compositions incorporating different combinations of casein and whey proteins, the company have now started to commercialize the whey protein β-Lactoglobulin. Earlier this year, Perfect Day and Unilever’s Breyers announced the launch of a lactose-free ice cream featuring fermentation-derived whey protein.

All is not frost…

The inventor of the first hand-cranked ice cream freezer, Nancy M. Johnson, was granted a US patent (US3254 [3]) for her invention over one hundred and eighty years ago.

The first hand-cranked ice cream freezer. Figure taken from US3254 [3]

Johnson described a method in which an ingredient mix is turned in a heat-exchanging barrel. Ice crystals are formed on the surface of the barrel and then scraped off. Variations on this method have been used by ice cream makers ever since.

One of the challenges facing today’s ice cream producers is the conundrum of how to limit the energy demands of the cold chain, which extends from when ice cream is first churned and frozen, right up until it is taken out of a freezer to be enjoyed. The need to meet this demand is so pressing that, in November last year, Unilever announced that it would grant other ice cream manufacturers a free non-exclusive license for twelve of its reformulation patents. These patents describe ice cream formulations which remain stable at a freezer temperature of -12 °C, six degrees warmer than the industry standard of -18 °C, and are therefore less energy demanding to freeze.

More radical thinkers are developing ‘instant’ ice cream methods which cut-out the cold chain altogether and provide a product which is made and served on the spot. Food science engineers, Syed Rizvi and Machel E. Wagner, from Cornell University have invented one such method which is described in their US patent US10624363 [4]. The method uses highly pressurized carbon dioxide to convert liquid ingredients into a scoop of ice cream in a nifty three seconds. As highly pressurized carbon dioxide is released through a nozzle into an interior cavity, a simultaneous cooling and siphoning effect is achieved, and the liquid ingredient mix is pulled into the cavity where it is atomised into frozen droplets.

Packaging a sustainable future…

Plastic waste has become a major environmental issue worldwide, and UK households are estimated to throw away a staggering 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging a year.

However, manufacturers of ice cream packaging are answering the call for more sustainable packaging. Many will have noticed the industry’s move away from traditional plastic containers to more eco-friendly laminated paper packaging. Carte D’Or is a prime example, having introduced paper tubs in 2022. Coating paperboard in a thin plastic film significantly reduces the use of plastics while still providing a protective moisture barrier necessary for chilled and frozen products. Huhtamaki (a Finnish-based global food packaging specialist) have taken this even further by launching their “ICON® packaging”: a recyclable ice cream container which further eliminates the use of plastic by using a water-based barrier coating. Details of a paper board which is coated with a water barrier coating are given in their international patent application WO2014/005697 [5]. Huhtamaki have also recently obtained a granted European patent (EP3519627B1 [6]) relating to food packaging containing a biodegradable aliphatic polyester to replace the use of less sustainable barrier materials in food packaging, such as plastics and aluminium. This biodegradable material provides a ‘compostable’ food packaging suitable for ice cream and is a promising next step in reducing plastic waste.

Cornet cone packaging traditionally contains an aluminium layer, which prevents the package from being recycled. In a bid to provide a more sustainable packaging, Mondi Kalenobel (a Turkish-based global manufacturer of packaging products) has developed an aluminium-free cornet cone package (see pending European patent application EP4271627 [7]), which is biodegradable and compostable.

Motoring towards ‘diesel-free’ distribution…

The sweet jingle of the ice cream van is a familiar sound of the British summertime. And once again, an innovator from the Manchester area plays an important part in the story of ice cream innovation, with Whitby Morrison the world’s largest manufacturer of ice vehicles being based in the area. The company was founded in the 1960s when Bryan Whitby invented an ice cream van powered by a diesel engine (GB1084181A [8]).

But as we strive towards 100% zero emission vehicles by 2035, we may wonder how the iconic ice cream van is adapting to the environmental pressures. Well, David Baker (Styles Farmhouse Ice Cream Ltd), a Somerset farmer, provides a fume-reducing solution. GB2578877A [9] describes a soft-serve ice cream van with solar panels for providing electrical power to drive an ice cream machine, rather than using the diesel engine to directly power the ice cream machine mechanically (e.g. via an electromagnetic clutch) when the engine is idling. This means the diesel engine no longer needs to be running when van is in operation.

Solar-powered ice cream van. Figure taken from GB2578877A.

This article provides just a flavour of the different ways in which the ice cream industry is investing in a greener future. With that in mind, we can keep cool heads this summer as we enjoy our favourite frozen treats.


[1] US patent no 701776

[2] SE publication no 545460

[3] US patent no 3254

[4] US patent no 10624363

[5] WO publication no 2014/005697

[6] EP publication no 3519627

[7] EP publication no 4271627

[8] GB publication no 1084181

[9] GB publication no 2578877