Formulating Clean Label Frozen Desserts

Originally Published: November 10, 2017
Last Updated: February 9, 2021
Manufacturers can produce clean labeled ice cream that still meets the performance and quality consumers' expect.

November 10, 2017 – Ice cream originated as a clean label product, began Steven Young, Ph.D., Principal, Steven Young Worldwide, in his presentation “Formulating Clean Label Dairy (and Non-Dairy) Frozen Desserts.”

Historically ice cream contained: milk, sugar, cream and natural flavor. In the early 1950s, the FDA established Standards of Identity for Frozen Desserts to distinguish ice cream and similar products from competing products that might contain other ingredients or varying quantities of the basic ingredients.

Over time, standards have been modified to redefine allowable ingredients and to fit evolving food technologies, approaches and regulations. The product originally called “ice milk” now is “reduced-fat ice cream.” There are also a wide range of non-standard products, including frozen yogurt, or “hybrid” frozen desserts, and novel plant-based products. Proposed revisions to the Nutrition Facts Panel will change the serving size for ice cream from ½-cup to 2/3-cup, creating challenges to formulating, eating quality and resistance to heat shock.

“The two largest ingredients by volume, air and water, and how they are managed, are critical to success,” said Young. As ice cream technology has evolved, additional ingredients have been added to allow the product to tolerate performance demands in a wide range of formats, including bulk foodservice for dipping, and resale mixes for direct-draw soft-serve and shakes.This has resulted in a wide array of frozen dairy desserts with long ingredients lists that are not clean label-friendly.

Because of multiple manufacturing demands, ice cream has evolved from a clean label product into one with a long list of ingredients.

Click for downloadable version of the Chart

The challenge is to create the same performance characteristics with fewer ingredients, while navigating the rigors of distribution— and maintaining any given brand equity. Manufacturers can use a variety of ingredient approaches to achieve a cleaner label ice cream. They can also alter processing approaches and conditions, such as for mix assembly; pasteurization; homogenization; mix aging; and whipping/freezing.

Managing the freezing point of water is the first challenge. Water freezes at 32˚F, but the freezing point of an ice cream mix might be 27˚F. One way to increase dairy ingredients’ ability to interfere with the behavior of water is by heating skim milk and cream to 175˚F or 180˚F, thus denaturing whey proteins, increasing their capacity to do just that. A second option is to freeze as much water in the barrel of the ice cream freezer as possible, drawing the product from the freezer at the lowest temperature possible. The more water frozen, the greater positive influence on resistance to heat shock and eating quality. A third option is rapid hardening, with novel application of cryogenic gas to freeze as much water as possible. Essentially, this is enhancing hardening from the inside-out and outside-in.

Another approach is to leverage the functionality of milkfat to achieve sufficient, controllable “de-emulsification” (i.e., “fat agglomeration”) to create small agglomerates of fat, to allow for structure and inclusion of whipped-in air, both of which interfere with the transition of ice-to-water-to-ice, so critical during distribution, storage and sale. One solution might be pre-aeration of the liquid mix prior to freezing to create many small air bubbles and small fat agglomerates. Still another approach is to use dairy ingredients that contain higher levels of naturally occurring phospholipids. Sour cream or sweet-cream buttermilk (uncultured byproduct from butter making) are good sources, if managed properly.

Sweeteners have come under increased scrutiny by consumers. In frozen desserts, sweeteners serve the dual purpose of adding sweetness, allowing formation of the finished product; and managing the amount, size and stability of ice. Lactose, sugar naturally present in dairy ingredients, has problems of its own to avoid “sandiness” in any dairy product.

To manage the above, a number of formula guidance tools, i.e., indices, are used. These include Theoretical Sweetness, Texture Stability Index and Water Control Index, to calculate how any ingredient substitution can modify resistance to heat shock, body (bite and chew) and texture (smoothness, creaminess.)

Ice cream formulators must also pay special attention to flavors that might negatively affect any given finished product. These include flavors intrinsic to the mix and so-called added characterizing flavors. Milkfat is supportive to components of natural flavors down to below 4-5% milkfat. Thus, there are more challenges in reduced-, low- and no-fat formulas. Unique flavor challenges arise with plant-based “milks.” The flavor of nutmeat/seed/grain ingredients vary, depending on type and extent of extraction processes, and naturally occurring enzymes that often times create undesirable off-flavors. Components of these novel plant “milk” ingredients also can be incompatible with functional requirements, including freezing, whipping and the delivery of more aromatic characterizing flavors.

Finally, manufacturers must (and normally do) evaluate the cost of any and all approaches, keeping a keen eye on costs and point-of-sale pricing.

However, clean label, easy-to-make and economically viable products are certainly possible. A thorough knowledge of ice cream manufacturing principles, plus evolving ingredient, formula and manufacturing options, can expedite those factors critical to success.

“Formulating Clean Label Dairy (and Non-Dairy) Frozen Desserts,” Steven Young, Ph.D., Principal, Steven Young Worldwide,

This presentation was given at the 2017 Clean Label Conference. To download presentations from this event, go to

See past and future Clean Label Conference Events at