Vanilla – Ice Cream’s Enduring Flavour

Simple and sophisticated, on its own or with other desserts, vanilla has always topped the ice cream menu. But while Neapolitan was once the height of ice cream innovation, consumers can now choose from a wide variety of novel flavours and combinations ranging from pumpkin to cream cheese. Will the explosion in super-indulgent varieties, combined with a global shortage in cured vanilla beans, spell the end of vanilla’s reign?

Regardless of whether ice cream is full fat, premium or economy, the world’s favourite flavour is still vanilla. In the US, by far the world’s largest market with per capita consumption almost six and a half times the world average, nearly 30% of volume sales are vanilla. According to Euromonitor, this figure is even higher across other key markets in this US$45 billion industry.

Vanilla represents 55% of volume sales in the UK while in Japan, ranked as the 10th biggest spender on ice cream globally, the figure is nearly 40%. Canada, Germany, France and Italy, all among the top 10 markets for ice cream, prefer vanilla. In fact, only three of the top 10 prefer something different, with Australia and Brazil favouring chocolate, while in Russia the preference is for ‘plombir’, a high fat buttercream.

Chocolate and its many variants, including chocolate chip, is the second most popular flavour on a global level, representing 12% of volume sales in the US and 25% in the UK. Consumers in Australasia and Eastern Europe generally prefer it to vanilla. Strawberry, caramel and lemon are also popular world wide, and there are a host of regional-specific flavours which remain firm favourites. In Japan Green Tea and Azuki Bean represent around 30% of volume sales, while in Russia cream, crème brulée, and milk are among the top five.

Global vanilla crisis

In 2000 severe hurricanes in Madagascar, the leading global supplier of vanilla, destroyed part of the country’s extensive plantations. The ensuing shortage, combined with political unrest, contributed to a 10-fold hike in the price of cured vanilla. This price increase particularly affected manufacturers of premium brands – legislation, in the US especially, states that premium ice cream must contain vanilla extract, or change its labelling to vanilla flavour. Manufacturers have found their margins squeezed, unable to pass on the full impact of the price increases to consumers.

Despite these problems, most industry commentators see the crisis as short term. Vanilla plantations take three to four years to mature, meaning that by 2003 prices should start coming down as they recover. In fact, due to the shortage, a large number of additional farmers planted vanilla, suggesting the possibility of a glut by 2004-5. In addition, many manufacturers have already turned to the cheaper Indonesian vanilla bean, or Mexican and Tahitian varieties, as opposed to the higher quality Bourbon bean.

Tastes differ between premium and super-premium brands

Premium ice cream brand Breyers (Unilever), the world’s top selling ice cream, is vanilla dominated with ‘vanilla’ and ‘French vanilla’ the top two brands, and a host of vanilla variations in the top 10. The top seller for Blue Bell, also a premium brand, is its ‘handmade vanilla’ ice cream, and it also offers ‘natural vanilla bean’, ‘French vanilla’ and ‘country vanilla’ variations. Essentially premium brands are capitalising on the popularity of basic flavour and offering added value combinations, including organic or calcium-enriched variants.

By contrast, super premium brands such as Ben & Jerry’s or Häagen-Dazs focus on more exotic and indulgent flavour and texture combinations. Ben & Jerry’s top flavour is Cherry Garcia with vanilla ranked a poor ninth behind textured combinations such as Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Super Fudge Chunk. For super-premium ice creams, which contribute a disproportionate amount to value sales, vanilla is definitely not a leading variant.

Vanilla under pressure

Moreover, most new product development in bulk ice cream has been based on new flavours, prompted by the super-premium trend. Banana, pear and mango were all big launches in 2000/1 with nut and biscuit varieties also seen worldwide. In addition, the extension of confectionery brands is gathering pace, with Mars/Dreyers offering Mars Almond and M&Ms Mint in the US in 2001, and both Cadbury and Nestlé introducing confectionery brands such as Flake or Rolo in bulk ice cream formats in the UK.

In the US, indulgence is a key factor in new product development which has witnessed the development of increasingly complex flavour and texture sensations. New flavours launched in 2001 included Chocolate Brownie with Walnuts by Häagen-Dazs and Strawberries Naturally All Fudged Up from Ben & Jerry’s, containing strawberry and vanilla ice cream, shortbread and fudge.

Significantly, vanilla has become comparatively less popular over the past five years with the flavour’s share of total ice cream volume dropping by one and a half percentage points between 1996 and 2000 according to IDFA (International Dairy Foods Association). Vanilla’s share of value sales has decreased by more than two percentage points over the same period, indicating that while the flavour remains a staple for economy and standard brands, it is losing out to super-premium sales.

Simplicity is key

However, while vanilla may lose some ground due to the sheer variety of flavours now on offer, no other single flavour is likely to challenge it for supremacy. The fact that vanilla is well represented across both economy and premium brands, both insulates it against economic recession, when super-premium brands normally suffer, and allows the flavour to be developed to take advantage of trends towards high quality and natural-seeming foods.

With consumer interest in organic, natural and healthy products on the increase, vanilla’s pure image is likely to benefit. Following a complaint filed in the US with the FDA regarding Ben & Jerry’s ‘All Natural’ claims despite the use of artificial flavours, even super-premium brands may look again to this traditional favourite.