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Indulgence is Shaping Ice Cream Demand in 2021

Although 2020 was a tumultuous year, it drove consumers to rediscover joy in the little things—family game nights, home bake-offs and drive-by birthday parades. Consumers took comfort in indulgent foods that created even the slightest feeling of normalcy. This is especially true with ice cream, where consumers allowed themselves the pleasure of permissible indulgence.

According to Nielsen data, ice cream retail sales in dollars are up about 17%, equating to incremental retail sales of over $1 billion (Nielsen xAOC 52 weeks ending 12-26-20). Super premium ice cream, which uses the highest quality of ingredients including swirls and chunks of mix-ins, proved to be a winning indulgence for households; flavors such as Cookie Dough, Cookies & Cream and Moose Tracks experienced growth above the category average.

Almost 50% of consumers state ice cream is their favorite indulgence, according to Mintel. They left behind the better-for-you options, and — with the exception of keto-friendly ice cream — low-fat, light, and reduced sugar ice cream offerings saw a decline in sales in 2020 (Nielsen xAOC 52 weeks ending 12-26-20).

Denali Ingredients’ research and development food scientists believe super premium ice cream will continue its upward trajectory throughout 2021. It is outpacing the ice cream category at an astounding 21% growth over 2020 unit sales (Nielsen xAOC52 weeks ending 12-26-20).

Taste, texture and visual appeal are all part of the experience when consumers treat themselves to ice cream. Multi-experiential ice cream launches continue to grow like new layered products with texture-filled ingredients, or several different ice cream flavors with unique ingredients in one carton. For example, a recent launch from a popular pint brand features a thick layer of chocolate with an inclusion at the top of each pint, inviting the consumer to break through the chocolate for a new texture experience while also digging into the indulgent ice cream underneath.

Especially in the continuation of dining at home, consumer interest in flavor, texture, and visual appeal continue to drive innovation in the packaged ice cream category. According to a Mintel survey, when asked “which of the following attributes are important to you when purchasing ice cream?”, texture was the second most popular response, behind flavor (Mintel Ice Cream & Frozen Novelties Report, January 2020).

Denali developed an ice cream flavor that replicates the fluffy “cloud foam” texture  found on the top of popular chain coffeehouse beverages. Paired with a coffee-flavored chocolate swirl and a choco espresso flake, it can recreate the effect of a frozen coffee beverage. Reimagining the restaurant experience in a time of at-home dining is a unique challenge but it has provided food developers with a blank slate for innovation.

Given consumer demand and recent trends, it’s likely that indulgent, super premium ice cream will continue to enjoy stronger-than-average growth this year. Households rediscovered the decadence of fudge swirls and chocolate chunks and, as a result, rediscovered comfort food. A bowl of ice cream after a long day is acceptable; celebrating the small joys and wins is encouraged; allowing yourself a moment of indulgence is welcomed.  Food manufacturers should tap into this trend throughout the year, as consumers shift from shying away from decadence and instead embrace it.


Jon Vander Woude is vice president of marketing at Denali Ingredients. He has been in the ice cream industry for over 20 years.