Skip to content

Deliciously non-dairy: the innovation behind Ben & Jerry’s oat-based ice creams


With a growing plant-based portfolio and consumers seeking ice cream experiences as indulgent as dairy, Ben & Jerry’s has reformulated its non-dairy portfolio to use a new, extra smooth oat base. We speak to flavour guru João Piva to find out more.

Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy Cookies on Cookie Dough tub with new oat base and a hand holding a smooth rich spoonful
Ben & Jerry’s flavour guru João Piva in chef whites, choosing ingredients in a test kitchen
Ben & Jerry’s flavour guru João Piva

Since the launch of its first non-dairy ice cream flavours in 2016, Ben & Jerry’s has been on a quest to ensure its plant-based range gives fans the same premium experience and fun flavours as its dairy ice creams.

Finding that perfect sweet spot is the job of Ben & Jerry’s team of flavour gurus, including Senior Product Developer João Piva.

During his two years working for Ben & Jerry’s, developing the non-dairy oat base formulation has been his biggest challenge yet.

“It’s been a long journey,” says João. “We’ve trialled and tasted up to 70 different flavour combinations. But we’re confident we’ve created the best-tasting non-dairy base for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream yet.”

The evolution to oat: a dairy-free revolution

In a recent report on vegan ice cream, Straits Research valued the global market at $623.63 million in 2022 and it’s predicted to grow by 5.2% by 2031.

In the space of eight years, Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy portfolio has grown from one to 20 non-dairy flavours, which today account for 25% of the company’s global product portfolio.

During that time, its formulation team has experimented with almond and sunflower bases.

However, tastes and flavours constantly evolve, and the team were keen to find a new base to improve the non-dairy ice cream experience for plant-based and flexitarian fans.

“With almond you can experience a nutty aftertaste,” says João. “And as chunks and sauces are a signature of Ben & Jerry’s flavoured ice creams, we were keen to find a base that let our hero ingredients shine more,” he adds.

The team also did a survey among ice cream fans. “Their main flag was texture. They told us non-dairy products could sometimes feel thinner or watery, which meant they didn’t enjoy the same mouth-feel you get from the creamy base of Ben & Jerry’s dairy ice cream,” João explains. “We wanted to find an ingredient that would close that texture gap.”

Crafting the perfect scoop: the flavour development process

João and a team of flavour formulators spent a year in the ice cream pilot plant working alongside Unilever’s science and technology teams and Ben & Jerry’s US team, investigating what ingredients could bring body and texture to a new non-dairy base.

“To turn flavour ideas into reality, you need chemistry,” says João. “Ice cream is a technical product, and you need to understand the part each ingredient plays, otherwise you can end up mixing good ingredients without making a good ice cream.

“But you also need curiosity,” he says. “The best innovations happen when we ask: ‘what if’ questions. What if I mix this flavour with these ingredients and see how it goes.”

The challenges and triumphs of flavour innovation

During the development process, new tastings started at 9am. Strong drinks like coffee were out of bounds and after five or six ice creams, palates were refreshed with salty crackers and water so the team could start again.

“We knew we had a winning recipe when we started scooping the oat-based ice cream,” says João. “The ice cream experience doesn’t start with your first bite. You start eating with your eyes. The oat base was smoother and richer, which meant we expected a better texture, even before we took a spoonful.”

And it’s not just R&D who are happy with the results. It’s proved a winner with consumer focus groups too.

“We tested the new formulation with vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians. They told us they’d buy it again.

“Flexitarians said they’d rebuy it because we’re delivering an experience as good as dairy from non-dairy ice cream,” João says.

“And that’s exciting,” he adds, “because it enables us to deliver the same innovation and excitement as we do with our dairy platforms.”

We’re delivering an experience as good as dairy from non-dairy ice cream.

João Piva, Ben & Jerry’s flavour guru

The future of non-dairy delights at Ben & Jerry’s

The new formulation will be used in the brand’s tubs and scoop shops worldwide from this spring. “So in every country where you can buy non-dairy Ben & Jerry’s, you’ll enjoy the same flavour experience,” João says.

He’s keeping any other new Ben & Jerry’s flavours close to his chest, but João does have two final pieces of advice for Ben & Jerry’s fans. “Keep an eye on the freezers, very good things are coming.”

“And while it’s tempting to dive into our new non-dairy flavours, give pause and let the ice cream melt in your mouth. That’s when the magic happens,” he adds.

Related articles

Magasin avec les enseignes de glaces Wall's présentant les meilleures ventes avec un congélateur à glaces en vitrine

A day in the life of Unilever’s ice cream freezers

There’s more to Unilever’s ice cream freezers than meets the eye. Some run at warmer temperatures that save on energy bills; others use smart tech to tell you when to restock. In future, they may even predict what consumers want before you do.

Back to top