We eat with our eyes first. It’s a scientific fact. According to a study published in the December 2016 issue of Brain and Cognition, “One of the brain’s key roles is to facilitate foraging and feeding. Contemporary neuroscience demonstrates just what a powerful cue the sight of appealing food can be for the brain, especially the brain of a hungry person.” Enter the power of inclusions.

Think of dairy as a blank white canvas, and inclusions — everything from candies and syrupy variegates to fruits and nuts, and even herbs and spices — as being the painter’s palette. These ingredients may be added to ice cream, yogurt, cheese and even butter. They provide visual cues to the palate.


Loading up ice cream

When Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield got into the ice cream business in 1978, one of the ways they chose to differentiate was by adding lots of inclusions to their frozen treats. Cohen, who has severe anosmia — the inability to smell or taste — was vested in selecting ingredients he could appreciate in foods. These were inclusions that contribute to appearance, mouthfeel and texture. While Cohen and Greenfield are no longer involved in the business, the South Burlington, Vt.-based Ben & Jerry’s brand remains committed to loading up on sensory goodies.

The brand is growing its popular Topped line, which was introduced a year ago and features a fudgy ganache layer across the top of every pint of ice cream. Each Topped flavor provides all the chunks and swirls ice cream aficionados expect. The ganache is so abundant that the brand suggests that the best way to eat any of the Topped flavors is by using a fork to break through the ganache and mixing the chunks into the layers below.

Ben & Jerry’s flavor gurus have developed two new varieties — Chocolate Milk & Cookies and Dirt Cake — that are chock-full of nostalgia. Both include a milk chocolatey version of the ganache Topped layer (the original line featured either a dark or white chocolatey ganache) along with a chocolate cookie swirl affectionately dubbed “fairy dust.” Topped Dirt Cake is modeled after the childhood dirt cake dessert and includes a vanilla pudding ice cream base that is covered with enough cookie crumbs to bring back those days of youth.

“We wanted to dial up the indulgence level with this unique line of flavors, which entirely challenges how you eat this ice cream,” said Dena Wimette, head of innovation at Ben & Jerry’s. “We started with sundaes and all the things you add to sundaes to make them great as our inspiration. You could say we ended up going over the Topped.”


Offerings in the Topped line include Black & White Cookie, which was inspired by New York’s classic black and white cookie. The flavor mixes vanilla bean ice cream with soft cookie pieces and ripples of chocolate frosting. Coffee Chocolate Brownie features classic coffee ice cream swirled with gooey brownies, rich espresso chocolate sauce and crunchy cocoa nibs. Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel is just what one would expect: chocolate ice cream and thick, creamy peanut butter complemented by crunchy, lightly salted pretzel pieces. Dulce De Leche Churro combines cinnamon churro ice cream with thick, gooey dulce de leche sauce. Ample crispy, cinnamon-y churro pieces are mixed into the base. Summer Berry Cake Pop starts with strawberry ice cream, which gets swirled with sweet cream ice cream and finished with fluffy cake pieces and a tangy raspberry sauce.

Wells Enterprises Inc., Le Mars, Iowa, introduced the frozen novelty brand Blue Bunny Load’d in 2018. The concept is all about incorporating more inclusions in one single-serving of ice cream than ever believed imaginable. This is not an easy task, according to Jon Oldroyd, senior director of research and development. Stabilization of the ice cream is critical to keeping the inclusions suspended throughout the base. Managing moisture of all the varied inclusions is paramount, too. A brand cannot afford to have cookie pieces or nuts getting soggy. Sprinkles and other colorful candies cannot bleed into the ice cream base.

The first products in the Load’d line were sundae cups packaged in clear containers that speak directly to the taste buds. Bunny Tracks, for example, is vanilla-flavored ice cream, caramel and fudge swirls, chocolate-covered peanuts and chocolaty peanut butter bunnies. There are now 16 varieties of the sundae cups, and the Load’d brand has extended into cones and stick novelties. Both are described as having “two times the mix-ins” and being loaded with “ooey-gooey” swirls and pieces in every bite.

Nielsen’s Global Consumer business division named Blue Bunny Load’d Sundaes to its 2020 US BASES Top 25 Breakthrough Innovations List for its success in driving sales and frozen dessert category growth.

“We’ve always been proud of delivering all the fun of the ice cream parlor with our Load’d portfolio, loaded up with delicious mix-ins and swirls,” said Jamee Pearlstein, director of brand marketing for Blue Bunny. “We are honored that Load’d Sundaes is the singular frozen dessert offering to be recognized amongst an exceptional array of CPG product innovations.”

This year, Blue Bunny expanded its Load’d Sundaes line to include 16 total flavors with four new additions: Turtle Cheesecake, French Silk Pie, Chocolate Caramel Pretzel and S’more S’mores.

Without a doubt, ice cream formulators have some latitude when it comes to adding goodies to their product as it is a frozen, static system. But like any other frozen food, there is the potential for freeze-thaw abuse, so inclusion quality and safety must be ensured.

This is accomplished by using only ingredients that have been properly heat treated, including all types of nuts. If fresh fruits are used, they must be properly sanitized and handled. With candies, baked pieces and other chunks of decadence, it’s important to make sure the product is properly handled and stored to prevent any microbial contaminants in the environment from settling and starting a family. And because many inclusions are complex systems, often containing known allergens, it is essential to segregate them to prevent cross-contamination.

In addition to ensuring that moisture is managed once product is frozen, other considerations include the potential of ice crystal development and freezing point. Variegates must remain pliable and fruit pieces soft.

Inclusions for refrigerated applications include all these considerations and more. These fresh products are living systems and product breakdown is inevitable. The goal is to delay onset for as long as possible. Dual compartment and dome packages allow for more varied inclusions, as this type of package keeps incompatible ingredients separate from each other. Fabricated inclusions that are either lipid- or carbohydrate-based can be designed with specific moisture contents and textures, as well with layers of flavor in a single bit or piece.


Outside the freezer

While ice cream manufacturers may be the largest user of inclusions in the dairy processing industry, these goodies can be used in refrigerated products, too. Inclusions assist dairy processors with livening up their products. Simple lemon Greek yogurt gets transformed into a decadent dessert when glazed granola and meringue cubes become a topping. Even a cream cheese bagel spread becomes a culinary adventure when it’s infused with maple syrup bits and bacon pieces.

Epicurean Butter, Federal Heights, Colo., has long embraced the power of inclusions in butter. The company offers culinary-inspired flavors such as roasted garlic and herb, honey pecan and porcini sage. Posh Cow Dairy Ltd., London, is growing its flavored Posh Cow Butter line in the United Kingdom with earl grey apricot jam and superfood seaweed. Land O’ Lakes Inc., Arden Hills, Minn., gave its butter spread a plant-based twist this past year through the addition of flax, chia and hemp seeds.

Butter is mostly a forgiving base for inclusions, too. With no less than 80% fat, per the standard of identity, butter is an emulsion with its water content bound. This means that there’s very little free water to migrate into inclusions. As a result, herbs, diced vegetables and seeds will not hydrate.

Pasteurized process cheese spreads as well as cream cheese are also stabilized emulsions. Moisture content of these products, however, can run much higher than butter, and therefore inclusions must be carefully selected.

Savencia Cheese USA, New Holland, Pa., the manufacturer of the Alouette brand of soft, spreadable cheeses, recently introduced Alouette Gourmet Bites. The offerings are small balls of Alouette’s signature creamy cheese filled with flavor-packed centers. The cheese balls come in two flavors: garlic and herb, which is based on Alouette’s best-selling spreadable cheese, and caramelized onion.

One of Alouette’s newest spreadable cheese flavors is garden vegetable. It includes diced carrots, bell peppers and chives throughout as well as on top of the spread, which is visible through the clear package top.

Such spreadable cheese bases provide a culinary canvas for limited-edition and seasonal flavors. That’s something that Bel Brands USA, Chicago, does on a regular basis with its Boursin brand. One of its more recent innovations is caramelized onion and herbs.

“As a leader in the gourmet spreadable cheese category, we’re continuously innovating and looking for new flavors to meet the evolving needs and taste preferences of cheese-lovers everywhere,” said Jamee Pearlstein, brand director of Boursin.

New forms are also part of the brand’s innovation playbook. New Boursin Garlic & Fine Herbs Gournay Style Cheese Bites takes the brand’s most popular spread flavor and turns it into a tiny cube that works well as an appetizer topper, culinary garnish or a snack.

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Nantwich-based Eatlean in the United Kingdom borrowed the multi-compartment concept from yogurt to create Nibbles cheese snacks, which contain high-protein cheese sticks in one part along with two side compartments, one containing flavored beans and seeds and the other a savory, sugar-free sauce for dipping. Consumers can dip the cheese in the sauce and then the crunchies for a new take on cheese snacking. The three varieties are barbecue, sweet chili and spicy. The latter includes a mix of tandoori-flavored seeds and pulses with a portion of sugar-free piri-piri sauce.

Private-label retailer Aldi Inc., Batavia, Ill., does something similar in the dairy dessert category. Its Happy Farms Cheesecake Snacks come in trio-compartment packages with the primary component being a cream cheese-type pudding. The smaller compartments house graham cracker crumble and topping.