Ben & Jerry’s is switching to oats as the primary ingredient in its plant-based offerings as the popular brand aims to deliver a better taste and flavor profile for its dairy-free products.
The Unilever-owned brand launched its first non-dairy line in 2016 with almond milk, before adding a few flavors four years later that had a sunflower butter base. But as plant-based ingredients improved and the technology used to make products advanced, Ben & Jerry’s saw an opportunity to boost the quality of its non-dairy line.
“We compared it to some of the other products on the market and we were finding that actually there's really room to improve what we had,” Craig Koskiniemi, Ben & Jerry’s self-described “flavor guru,” said in an interview. “It really stemmed from this internal view, knowing that we're not satisfied with what we have. We know we can do better.”
The process of changing the recipe started two years, Koskiniemi said, with the brand considering about 10 options as its primary plant-based ingredient. Scientists were able to use insight from their prior work in plant- based to hone their focus.
This allowed Ben & Jerry’s to rule out certain choices from the start, such as coconut which imparted too much flavor in the final product. They also considered taking their almond-based recipe and improving what they had.
Eventually, researchers at Ben & Jerry’s determined oats did the best job delivering the creaminess they were looking for. It also had the least impact on taste, something that wasn’t possible with almonds and sunflower. Oats allowed the core flavors of vanilla, chocolate, mint and caramel to stand out. Oats also help serve consumers who have nut allergies.
Koskiniemi said most shoppers who purchase non-dairy novelties also consume traditional items made with milk and cream. He added that they choose their plant-based product based on the flavor, not the main ingredient.
Ben & Jerry’s has amassed a commanding presence in the non-dairy packaged ice cream business. The brand has a 33% market share and is the No. 1 in the U.S. for non-dairy packaged ice cream, placing it ahead of other brands such as Danone’s So Delicious in that category.
There is a risk that some Ben & Jerry’s diehards will balk at the recipe change, Koskiniemi admitted, but researchers found the new oat recipe was the most popular among the consumers who tried it in a taste test.
And with nondairy making up only about 7% of Ben & Jerry’s total packaged business, there isn’t as big of a threat to hurting sales as there would be if they tinkered with the more popular dairy version and it failed to resonate with consumers.
“We can really help grow the nondairy category by improving the quality of our product,” Koskiniemi added, noting it should help increase repeat purchases and loyalty to the Ben & Jerry’s brand. “We took our time to make sure that we were getting the best possible product for our nondairy.”
Ben & Jerry’s said reformulated versions of classics such as Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Chocolate Fudge Brownie will reach store shelves this fall. The rest of the brand’s nearly 20 existing non-dairy flavors will make the switch to an oat-based recipe by next spring.
Ben & Jerry’s is the latest major ice cream brand to reformulate its product.
After a sharp decline in sales, Halo Top, which is now owned by Nutella maker Ferrero, announced it was switching in 2022 to ultra-filtered milk with concentrated protein to create a creamier texture. Previously, Halo Top used skim milk and added in the protein solids later.