Bite into an ice cream and a multitude of sensations flood your palate. The brain registers a sense of body – full or light – and an impression of creaminess as the ice cream starts to melt on the tongue. The product may feel firm and icy, or soft and warmer – or something in between.
This sensory extravaganza is known as mouthfeel. “Mouthfeel has a huge impact on the experience of ice cream quality, it’s a key differentiator”, says Torben Vilsgaard, Manager of Tetra Pak Ice Cream Academy in Aarhus, Denmark.
The mouthfeel and sensory performance of the ice cream will determine whether the consumer enjoys it, he adds. “Mouthfeel is the moment of truth, the proof of the product.”
4 elements of mouthfeel
Essentially, mouthfeel describes four key elements that together underpin the consumer’s experience: structure, body, eating properties and creaminess.
- Ice cream structure can be short or long. A typical flat-top vanilla-and-chocolate cone, for instance, has a more elongated, elastic texture than, say, an artisanal ice cream or supermarket jumbo pack, which gives a drier, crisper and shorter sensation when bitten into.
- Body is the impression the ice cream creates as it enters the mouth, and varies from a thick, luxurious consistency to a thinner, runnier feel depending on the product type and its characteristics.
- Eating properties arise from the product’s perceived temperature and sharpness. Ice cream that is cold and sharp can give rise to that familiar “brain freeze” moment when consumed too quickly. Ice cream at the opposite end of the spectrum may be perceived as having warmer and softer eating properties.
- Creaminess is experienced as the ice cream melts. It varies with the size of the ice crystals and air bubbles. The smaller the crystals and bubbles, the creamier the sensation will be.
As a producer, your challenge is to adjust these four parameters – body, creaminess, eating properties and structure – to create the ideal mouthfeel for your product and the consumer.
Match sensory profile and product
How do you do it? The first step is to define the features you want your product to have and, from there, to work towards establishing an optimal mouthfeel.
Torben Vilsgaard stresses that there is no “right” mouthfeel. “It always depends on the type of product, the point of consumption and a wide variety of parameters including where in the quality spectrum you place your product. What matters is that the sensory profile you choose matches your product.”
When launching a new product, you need to decide where on the sensory scale you want it to be, which means knowing what your customers want.
“Regional differences in consumer tastes make it useful to have a reference ice cream that you can show your supplier and say ‘I want something like this’,” Vilsgaard says. “The supplier can do a sensory analysis of that product, after which you can select the right raw materials to deliver that sensory profile.”
The different elements of mouthfeel can be created – and adjusted – in different ways. Body can be calibrated in the ice cream formulation and the best way to achieve this is to have a discussion with your supplier.
Creaminess, eating properties and structure can all be altered with the help of stabilizers and emulsifiers.
Choose the right suppliers
All mouthfeel parameters are interconnected, meaning that changing one will influence the others. “Because the parameters are interlinked, there are only a certain amount of choices available. This requires a dialogue with your supplier of stabilizers and emulsifiers. It’s important to work with a professional provider with established expertise. At Tetra Pak, we offer ingredient solutions and will work with you to define the right stabilizer combinations to fit all your ice cream categories,” Vilsgaard says.
Freezing point is another area you can work with achieve the perfect mouthfeel. Ice cream with a high freezing point will have more water frozen into ice crystals, making the product harder, than a variety with a low freezing point.
Manufacturers can overcome this by adding sugars to reduce the freezing point. Once again, it’s about striking the right balance. The lower the freezing point, the softer your product and the more sensitive it will be to melting from heat shock when the consumer takes it out of the freezer. Moreover, if the freezing point is too low, it can be difficult to maintain the desired level of viscosity in a continuous freezing process.
The importance of equipment
When optimizing your continuous freezing process, you face an important decision: your choice of ice cream freezer. Here, your focus should be on the dasher and beater, a core freezer component that whips ice cream into the perfect mix of air, ice crystals and fat.
The dasher and beater is the nerve centre of an ice cream freezer and must be able to treat the product in the right way as it passes through. Over-agitating or beating the mix can create buttering and diminish mouthfeel. Insufficient agitation will lead to variable air bubble size, instead of the homogeneous bubbles required for perfect mouthfeel.
“The smaller the air bubbles, the stronger they are when the ice cream is melting and that creates creaminess,” explains Steen Gyldenloev, Product Manager. “In this connection the freezer is really important. It is all about the agitation system, which must be efficient enough to whip the ice cream to create small air bubbles without buttering. And that requires a high-quality freezer.”
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