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Nondairy Frozen Desserts Go Mainstream

Innovative novelties, premium flavors and reformulations propel the category
Emily Crowe, Progressive Grocer
Nondairy Frozen Desserts Go Mainstream
So Delicious Dairy Free's Wondermilk line now also includes frozen pints and sundae cones.

In an age of health consciousness punctuated by a desire for small indulgences, nondairy frozen desserts seemingly have it all: a plant-based health halo and an easy-to-eat format, all wrapped up in a cold, sweet and creamy treat. And consumers are increasingly taking notice.

The nondairy frozen dessert segment is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 11% from 2020 to 2027, according to Grand View Research, with demand partly driven by young consumers seeking out more dairy-free products. Further, Global Market Insights expects nondairy ice cream sales to surpass $1 billion worldwide by 2026. 

Further research from the Plant Based Foods Association, The Good Food Institute and market research firm SPINS finds that sales of plant-based ice cream and frozen desserts have increased 31% over the past two years to reach $458 million. Producers are taking heed of the growing trend, and, according to Mintel, dairy-free product claims grew 8.8% from 2019 to 2020. 

“Nondairy frozen treat offerings have significant awareness and adoption, and are increasingly popular with their base, meaning consumer expectations of product quality, variety and unique selling points of brands will grow,” notes Mintel’s “2021 Ice Cream and Frozen Novelties Report.”

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Nondairy Frozen Desserts Go Mainstream
AldenOrganic is among the plant-based frozen dessert brands offering products beyond the typical pint-sized package.

Gaining Market Share

With an evolution in flavor options, formats and formulations taking place over the past decade, accompanied by an increase in shopper education about plant-based products in general, nondairy frozen desserts are being embraced by vegans and dairy eaters alike.

“I think there was kind of a convergence of animal welfare, sustainability and health orientation around eating more plants,” says Deena Jalal, co-founder and head of product at plant-based ice cream producer Sweet Tree Creamery, in the Boston area. 

Dave Robinson, director of So Delicious Dairy Free, a division of White Plains, N.Y.-based Danone North America, agrees that today’s consumers are more likely than ever before to reach for plant-based alternatives.

“Now that flexitarian diets are on the rise, consumers are more interested in all aspects of the plant-based food experience, not just specific hero ingredients,” Robinson observes. “They’re seeking out nondairy options that bring high-quality taste, texture and variety to their diet.”

More approachable milk substitutes and identifiable ingredients are also compelling more consumers to pick these products and stick with them, according to Jalal. “I think people are more open-minded and more likely to try it,” she explains, providing a further reason that consumers are becoming long-term adopters of these desserts.

In an effort to ramp up its dairy-like appeal, So Delicious unveiled the Wondermilk line of pints and frozen sundae cones using a mix of these more approachable milk substitutes — including oat, coconut and soy — that promises to be smooth, rich and creamy.

“With our Wondermilk Frozen Desserts, we wanted to ensure the flavors took the spotlight, not the dairy-free ingredients themselves,” Robinson emphasizes. “We also unlocked a uniquely indulgent texture, so pints and cones have a creamy, melty finish that delights the senses.”

He continues: “With Wondermilk, we have set out to reach reluctant dairy lovers and challenge their assumptions about just how good plant-based alternatives can taste, thus helping to close the gap between dairy and plant-based households.”

Ice cream mainstay Ben & Jerry’s, based in South Burlington, Vt., is doubling down on vegan-friendly desserts with the recent introduction of Nondairy Boom Chocolatta and Nondairy Bananas Foster core flavors, while among newcomers to the segment, Cleveland-based Wonderlab’s dairy-free oat and hemp gelatos, known as Doozy Pots, rolled out to grocers nationwide at the end of last year. 

Beyond ingredients, many manufacturers are taking plant-based frozen desserts to the next level by moving beyond the typical pint-sized package, including the frozen sundae cones from So Delicious; a dairy- and gluten-free Vanilla Bean Sammie from Eugene, Ore.-based Alden’s Organic; and plant-based, gluten-free oat milk mochi from Phoenix-based Bubbies. For its part, Sweet Tree Creamery is now offering its nondairy ice creams in quart sizes, a move that Jalal says opens up options for families who would like more product but don’t want to spend so much money on small pints.

Nondairy Frozen Desserts Go Mainstream
Sweet Tree Creamery is focusing on making its nondairy frozen desserts accessible to people outside of urban areas.

Keeping Up With Demand

According to Mintel, these frozen treats have forward momentum and the potential to be a driving force in the overall frozen dessert category in the long term. 

“The amount of innovation happening in the plant-based space is really exciting, and I see a great deal of potential for growth and continued innovation in the dairy-free frozen category, as well as the plant-based category overall,” So Delicious’ Robinson says.

Mintel further notes that formulations, as well as touting their products’ health benefits, should be a consideration for manufacturers and retailers. 

People are also growing increasingly interested in newer, trendier milk-alternative options like oat and cashew milk, which indicates that consumers are excited for the next big thing. “Players will want to keep an eye on emerging trends in the milk space, like macadamia milk and nutrient-dense ubermilk, for inspiration,” the Mintel report observes.

Additionally, the report notes: “While indulgent nondairy options can cater to consumers with dairy allergies who simply want to indulge without risk, nondairy brands will be challenged to continue innovating with ingredients and bring health to the forefront for those who seek out nondairy options because they perceive them as healthier.”

In addition to product attributes, companies are paying close attention to product marketing and consumer demographics. Robinson cites a Danone North America survey of more than 4,000 multicultural consumers, including Hispanic, Black and Asian American communities, that found plant-based eating is on the rise among these groups, especially the younger Millennial and Gen Z populations.

For Jalal and Sweet Tree, a major focus is making these products accessible to people outside urban areas who are still learning why a plant-based diet can be good for their health. As a matter of course, both manufacturers and grocers alike can continue educating shoppers about nondairy frozen desserts, and plant-based alternatives in general.

“Once you leave the city, that education, that awareness and that accessibility drops pretty quickly,” Jalal says. “I think there still is a ton of opportunity as more and more people outside of those areas learn about the benefits of a plant-based diet and eating more all-natural foods.”

Others are winning over consumers through packaging claims and third-party certifications.
“[W]e have secured vegan certification on our dairy-free products, as well as gluten-free certification on a majority of our products as well,” says Joelle Simmons, SVP of sales and marketing at Alden’s Organic. “It’s important to us that consumers can trust what they are serving their families, especially when it comes to dietary needs.”

For whatever reason shoppers reach for nondairy frozen desserts, growth and interest in the segment aren’t expected to wane anytime soon.

“We see dairy-free as part of a lasting lifestyle shift among consumers,” Simmons asserts. “They crave options, whether it is a household that is purchasing both dairy and dairy-free products for multiple family members, or someone following a plant-based lifestyle. Consumers are looking for dairy-free solutions to eating occasions from snacking to dessert.” 

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