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Formulating for Plant-Based Frozen Desserts

Formulating for Plant-Based Frozen Desserts

Plant-based frozen desserts continue to gain traction in the marketplace.  These frozen desserts are an appealing alternative for those with allergies to dairy protein.  They also appeal to customers who wish to consume fewer animal products in their diet. This is because plant-based frozen desserts do not contain dairy or other animal components of any kind.  Further, plant-based frozen desserts emphasize a clean label. You can use the knowledge associated with dairy formulations as a foundation for plant-based alternatives.  Here are some things to consider in these formulations.

Differences between dairy and plant-based dessert formulations?

Plant-based and dairy frozen desserts differ in how they are regulated.  Dairy ice cream is made with legally defined amounts of milk fat and milk solids non-fat (21CFR135.110). There is also a growing market for dairy-based frozen dessert formulations that do not conform to this standard.  These formulations are often lower in cost than standard dairy ice cream. Both milk fat and milk solids non-fat are derived from cow’s fresh whole milk.

The compositions of plant-based formulations are not defined by any regulation.  So, there is a lot of flexibility in this segment to use unique and functional ingredients.  Plant solids come from a wide range of plant species: legumes, grains, seeds, nuts, and fruits are all common sources of plant fats and plant solids nonfat.  These sources of fat include emulsions like coconut cream, margarine, and shortening.  Or they come from refined sources such as virgin oils and their refined, bleached, and deodorized (RBD) counterparts. Plant solids non-fat can be a part of things like nut butter or plant-based beverages.  However, they are more often added to formulations in dry concentrated forms such as pea protein concentrate or soy protein isolate.

Similarities between plant-based and dairy formulations?

There are a great number of similarities between dairy-based and plant-based formulations in basic formulation components.  That is if you set fat and protein aside.  Both can use similar sources of flavors, stabilizers, and emulsifiers.  Sweeteners and bulking agents are often the same; except for lactose which is exclusive to dairy.

Plant-based solids can be unpredictable in frozen desserts

Plant-based ingredients tend to have more off-notes when compared to dairy. The presence of off-notes requires careful selection of flavors and inclusions.  Flavors and inclusions can mask the off-notes in the base. Or they complement off-notes in a way that is acceptable to the consumer.  Consumers often describe plant ingredients as earthy, beany, nutty, and even brothy. These off-notes may be desirable depending on the market. Consumers who are accustomed to purchasing plant-based products often expect some of the nutty notes.

Plant solids also contain variability in sugars, starches, fibers, fats, minerals, and protein.  All of these variables can influence the key functional properties for which we rely on these ingredients.  In contrast, dairy ingredients are more predictable.

Influencing Variables
  • Freezing point depression (sucrose equivalence)
  • Buffering capacity (resistance to pH change)
  • Emulsification performance
  • Viscosity contribution to the mix formulation
  • Protein digestibility, amino acid profile, and anti-nutrition factors
  • Fatty-acid composition (texturizing & stability consideration)
The Fluctuation of Functional Properties in Frozen Desserts

Functional properties in dairy ingredients are consistent and functional, but in plant-based proteins are variable yet adaptable.

Take great care in understanding what characteristics a given ingredient is bringing with it.  Food technologists have to make these considerations because of the unpredictable nature of plant-based ingredients.  The formulator should also consider what consequences those characteristics can create in a given mix formulation.

For example, plant solids non-fat can bring a great number of different sugars and minerals.  That can impact freezing point in unpredictable ways.

Another example to consider is plant solids non-fat may include large amounts of starch and fiber in them. This may change the need for additional gums.

The nutrition and role of plant proteins are largely dependent on their source.  Some plant proteins are excellent sources of protein, while others are not. Some plant proteins are highly efficient emulsifiers, while others have limited use as bulk phase emulsifiers.  You will have better formulations and fewer headaches later in the project cycle if you understand ingredient composition.

How to Start Formulating

Formulation options seem endless without an existing standard of identity for plant-based frozen desserts.  100% plant-based formulas have little published data. It is best to start with what what you know. You may do this by either looking at what is in the marketplace or adapting what we know about developing dairy-based formulations. The developer than moves on to the specifics for how their formulation is to be differentiated in the marketplace.

First: Establish your target audience.

Second: Narrow potential ingredient sources.

These questions can help in this step:

  • Does the formulation need to meet any label claims like GMO- project verified, allergen-free, or fair-trade?
  • Does poor past performance eliminate any ingredients?
  • Can you avoid being single-sourced to ensure product availability?

Third: Evaluate selected ingredients for functionality.

You should balance plant fats in such a way that ensures an appropriate amount of solid fat will be in formulations. After that, you should screen plant solids non-fat for their flavor, heat-stability, and emulsification performance right away.  This will save time on testing poor performing ingredients later in larger scale tests.

Plant-based frozen desserts, beverages, creams, and butters are difficult to standardize and should not be the main base for a plant-based formula.  These make a great secondary ingredient to add flavor, mask off notes, and differentiate your product.

It is good to start processing by using the same manufacturing and testing techniques as dairy frozen desserts once you’ve settled on a plant-based frozen dessert formula.   You may use similar processing and product quality testing as those used on dairy formulations.  The developer must do their best to ensure the integrity of the product’s safety.

Final Takeaways

There are many formulation options available to the plant-based frozen dessert product developer.  Consider these key points before you begin.

  1. Your product goal should be clear; this will help to narrow the plant-based ingredient possibilities.
  2. Understand which plant-based ingredients are available, how they best meet your product goal, and how their composition directly correlates with their functionality.
  3. Know what you need each ingredient to do and how to use these ingredients effectively.

These things will save you time and money in the later stages of product development.

For more information or to speak with a Frozen Dessert expert please visit or email

Our team formulated a plant-based frozen dessert with all these factors in mind! Check out what plant-based frozen desserts are capable of at IFT. We chose our favorite allergen-free plant proteins and a highly effective stabilizer blend. Agropur will be featuring samples of our plant-based frozen dessert at IFT in New Orleans June 2-5th. Try it at booth 4513 to see how we can support your business from start to finish.



Learn more about TJ’s internship and journey at Agropur during the summer of 2020.


Learn more about Claire’s internship and journey at Agropur during the summer of 2020.