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Unilever’s Ambient Ice Cream and Global Warming

Bill DiBenedetto | Wednesday August 26th, 2009 | 3 Comments

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UPDATE: Unilever has denied the claim that it’s developing a room temperature ice cream. Given all the buzz this story has created, it seems like a good idea for the next R&D cycle!

Chances are you’re an ice cream fan. Maybe you even consider yourself the real emperor of ice cream or at least an expert on its tasty and sensual proclivities. Maybe you love your mate more than chocolate ice cream itself, or maybe it’s a close call but you’ll never admit it either way.

Perhaps you don’t know that one multinational company, Unilever, makes most of the world’s favorite ice cream brands. Brands like Klondike, Good Humor, Breyers and Popsicle. Even Ben & Jerry’s resides in the Unilever stable. The company is the world’s largest ice cream producer.

So when its scientists pursue warm ice cream as a way to address global warming, we should take notice: dessert could become more guilt-free for everyone. They are developing a low-carbon product that would be sold at room temperature and then frozen at home.

It seems like an excellent idea, one that would take the added cost of storing, handling and shipping ice cream in its traditional frozen state out of the equation at the manufacturer’s end of the supply chain. If it’s produced, sold and shipped at room temperature then some of those costly and energy-intensive factors have melted away.

Warm, or ambient, ice cream is an idea that seems ready for prime time but it poses a rocky road for Unilever researchers worrying about the correct product “microstructure” that enables the consumer’s dish of Rocky Road to be, well, the same delicious dish of Rocky Road they have come to expect

A research program to minimize the environmental impact of company products is underway in Unilever laboratories, aided by researchers at Great Britain’s Cambridge University.

“We have to look at a really radical solution,” says Gavin Neath, Unilever’s senior vice-president for sustainability.

Meanwhile Unilever is trying to reduce emissions resulting from its massive ice cream operations by improving the energy efficiency of its factories in Gloucester, Heppenheim in Germany, Caivano in Italy and Saint-Dizier in France.

The project will upgrade two million refrigerators that it supplies to retailers in 40 countries. The company for several years has been shifting to “climate-friendly” refrigerators that use propane rather than hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants, which are a powerful greenhouse gas. The shift to propane as a refrigerant began in 2004. Propane is a hydrocarbon, or natural gas that does not harm the ozone layer and has a low global warming potential, according to the company.

Hydrocarbon refrigerators are also more energy efficient, using up to 15 percent less energy compared to other models. Neath says that to date about 400,000 refrigerators have been replaced with the propane-powered units.

While health care reform stalls and environmental initiatives struggle to take a firm hold, at least the vital ice cream supply chain could have an healthy and eco-friendly future.


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