Typical. The day Unilever chooses to unveil a state-of-the-art centre ice cream innovation centre in Bedfordshire, it pours down with rain. 

Worse still are the TV pictures being fed back from a second new Unilever site in Caivano, near Naples in Italy, where the assembled party is bathed in sunshine.

“Looks like I got the weather wrong this time,” quips Iain Campbell, director of Unilever’s new Centre of Excellence Ice Foods in Colworth Science Park, Bedfordshire.

It’s a comment made in jest, but when it comes to ice cream sales, poor weather is no laughing matter. In the wake of a mixed summer on the Continent so far, Unilever attributed its 2.9% second-quarter fall in overall European sales volumes to weaker ice cream sales. 

No wonder the company is keen to be at the forefront of new concepts that are less reliant on the weather. And it is at the new Colworth Science Park innovation centre, which The Grocer was lucky enough to take a look around recently, that it’s hoping to come up with them.

Rather than leave the tricky task of product development to individual teams across the world, Unilever has decided to pool its resources so that the Colworth centre becomes the focal point for all its global ice cream NPD. The smaller site in Caivano, chosen because of Unilever’s extensive ice cream expertise in Italy, will focus on testing the products.

And what products. At Colworth, a raft of innovative new ice cream products and flavours are being developed in one its many development kitchens and its fully equipped pilot plant – a large lab full of clever scientific equipment. Whether it is a new flavoured Magnum or Cornetto, or an entirely new concept for the UK, the US or China, the product’s origins will be traceable back to the site.

Bedfordshire may seem a strange location from which to develop products for a number of vastly different markets – the US likes peanut butter and cherry-flavoured products, the Chinese opt for healthier, lighter-tasting ones – but the logic is sound, says Campbell. 

“We can ensure we have the best team and the best skills working on every NPD project,” he says. “It is a demonstration that Unilever is operating as a big, global company rather than as many single companies. It will bring braver and bolder innovation that will be quicker to market. Together we will be doing something very special. We will wow the consumer.”

He points to Café Zero, which will be launched in Italy next year. Described as a cross between an ice cream and a coffee-flavoured drink, it harnesses new ice technology to produce what Unilever claims is the first drinkable ice cream. The technology works by incorporating thousands of ice crystals into ice cream as it is mixed to create a frozen product that has a drink-like consistency.

“Why shouldn’t ice cream be drunk?” asks Sarah Mayes, leader of ice structuring at the Unilever centre. “The future of ice cream is moving into different channels. It’s an exciting time.”

So far, three variants have been developed – espresso, cappuccino and mocaccino – in coffee-cup style packaging. Unilever believes that the product will have special appeal on beaches and in cafés as an alternative to frappuccino-style drinks. The only drawback is that the company has had to develop special freezer cabinets running at -7C to allow the product to maintain its drinkable consistency. 

Unilever’s ice technology is also being used to create new sensations in the mouth. The company has developed a process that traps CO2 in tiny ice particles, which produce a tingling sensation when melted on the tongue. The first product to use the technology will be Calippo Fizz, a cola-flavoured fizzy variant that is still in the development stage, but its use will extend to different products in the future. 

The most exciting innovation that this ice technology will bring, however, is in its application in healthier formulations. Until now, Unilever’s health strategy has focused on natural products, such as its frozen yoghurt, fruit and muesli combination Frusi, and Milk Time, a calcium-rich ice cream for children. Now the company is pushing the message that ice cream is not as unhealthy as people think. “Ice cream is already healthy but people don’t understand it,” says Mandy Mistlin, leader of technological information and consumer insight at the centre. “Two scoops of ice cream contain about 99 calories and 5% to 8% fat. Most people don’t consider ice cream as an alternative to yoghurt, but it can actually contain less fat and sugar. It is the chocolate inclusions that raise the calorific value of ice cream.”

Unilever intends to shift some of its focus towards lower-calorie products that differ from those already on the market by making the most of its ice technology.

Existing low-calorie ice creams replace the sugar with an ingredient called inulin, a fibre derived from chicory, which retains the texture of the product while lowering the fat levels, whereas Unilever intends to replace the sugar with ice to create healthy products with a simpler ingredients list.

It’s not as easy at it sounds, according to Mayes. Sugar is a key ingredient in softening ice-cream, so its removal will affect texture. Simply replacing sugar with water would lead to a runny mess, but by incorporating ice crystals into the mix using its new technology, a low-calorie ice cream with the right texture can be achieved. “Our knowledge in combining ice into a product isn’t unique, but the secret lies in how you blend it and still get the right consistency,” says Mayes.
The company’s low-fat ice cream probably won’t be available until 2010 at the earliest, but other products, such as ice lollies that contain real fruit pieces and frozen fruit purées are likely to be making their way on to UK shelves much sooner. Other products that are already available in its foreign markets, such as a soy variant of Carte D’Or, and a slow-melting popsicle, could also launch over here.

Even though thousands of products will be developed in the UK in coming years, many will not see the light of day on our shelves. Biscuit-based ice creams, while big in the States, still don’t translate over here, because Brits can’t get their heads around the idea of a soft biscuit, says Mistlin. Likewise, green tea variants developed for the Chinese market are unlikely to debut here any time soon, says Campbell.

But many other interesting products certainly will hit our shelves, and Unilever hints that the developments on show are just the tip of the ice lolly, although it isn’t going to discuss them. “We are investing a lot in innovation,” says Campbell, “and there are secrets we don’t want you to know.” Whether the next few summers turn out to be wet or dry, they are sure to be interesting. n
ice innovation
Unilever is developing a range of new products at its Colworth centre: Café Zero – a cross between an ice cream and a coffee-flavoured drink. Espresso, cappuccino and mocaccino flavours are being trialled in Italy Calippo Fizz – still in development, the cola-flavoured variant gives a tingling sensation when melted on the tongue Heathier alternatives – by replacing sugar with ice crystals that remain frozen when mixed, low-calorie ice cream can be made Ice lollies – made with real fruit pieces Frozen fruit purées Other products already available overseas and could be making their way to the UK include: A soy variant of Carte D’Or Slow-melting popsicles