Who Wants Hot Fudge on Their Veggies?

An Indian dairy battles against ice cream made from plant fat
Photograph by Tooga/Getty Images

Ice cream without real cream is like cricket without world-leading batsman Sachin Tendulkar, Diwali without firecrackers, or a wedding without dancing, according to radio ads by India’s Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation. The campaign is designed to draw attention to the lack of a key ingredient in most of arch-rival Unilever’s Indian frozen treats: cream. “Let the consumer decide and make an informed choice that ‘Yes, I’m buying frozen dessert which has got vegetable oil,’ ” says R.S. Sodhi, managing director of Gujarat Cooperative, whose 3.2 million dairy farmer members market their wares under the Amul brand.

Unfortunately for Sodhi and his colleagues at India’s biggest milk producer, consumers seem pretty content with frozen desserts that use cheaper fats such as palm oil. In the five years ended Dec. 31, Gujarat Cooperative’s share of India’s market for frozen treats fell to 31 percent from 35 percent, while Unilever’s rose to 21 percent from 17 percent, according to researcher Euromonitor International. “Unless there is greater awareness among consumers that frozen desserts don’t contain milk [fats], Unilever will continue to grow,” says Swati Gupta, an analyst at A C Choksi Share Brokers in Mumbai.

Sales of all frozen treats more than doubled in India from 2007 to 2012 and will do so again in the five years ending in 2017, reaching 68.6 billion rupees ($1.1 billion), Euromonitor forecasts. There’s plenty of room for growth: Euromonitor says Indians consume an average of about 6.8 fluid ounces of ice cream each year, vs. 74 ounces in China and 473 ounces in the U.S.

Food manufacturers use fats to provide a rich mouthfeel and give body to creamy treats. Since March, Gujarat Cooperative has been urging consumers to check labels for the words “ice cream” before they buy. They won’t find them on the Double Chocolate Cornetto sold in New Delhi by Unilever. Described on the wrapper as a medium-fat frozen dessert, it contains ingredients including water, sugar, vegetable oil, milk solids, liquid glucose, and vegetable protein—but no dairy fat.

Frozen desserts are similar to ice cream in their taste and sensory appeal, Hindustan Unilever, the multinational’s local unit, said in an e-mail. The company’s frozen desserts in India contain proteins and other solids derived from milk, just not milk fats. “It is unfortunate that some competitors are trying to misguide consumers by sharing incomplete facts about frozen desserts,” Unilever wrote.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India in 2011 specified minimum amounts of milk fat and milk protein for products labeled as ice cream. At least 10 percent of the weight of regular ice cream has to be milk fat, for instance; that drops to 2.5 percent for medium-fat ice cream. The rules didn’t set a minimum for what can be called low-fat ice cream. Last year, Gujarat Cooperative lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Council of India over some Unilever TV ads that claimed its products were ice cream. The industry’s self-regulatory body ruled that the spots were misleading, and the terminology is no longer used.

Neither such challenges nor Gujarat Cooperative’s pro-milk fat advertising in 30 cities has had a significant impact, says Naveen Vyas, an analyst at brokerage Microsec Capital in Kolkata. The ads “sound like lectures given by a schoolteacher—eat this because it contains milk,” says Vyas. “Young people are not going to be influenced by that sort of thing.”

One reason producers have developed recipes without cream is that milk fat is about five times as expensive as fats derived from palm oil and coconut oil. The wholesale price of milk rose 23 percent in the three years through August, while crude palm oil in Malaysia declined 6.5 percent. Another advantage to bypassing cows is that frozen desserts made from plant oils can be engineered to melt slower than dairy-based ice creams, says Doug Goff, a food scientist at the University of Guelph in Ontario. That’s important in India’s heat.

Consumers often don’t realize the difference between ice cream and frozen desserts with little or no milk fat, according to Rajesh Gandhi, managing director at Ahmedabad-based frozen dessert maker Vadilal Industries. The company gets as much as 40 percent of its revenue from vegetable oil-based products, he says, and using low-cost ingredients helps keep the goods affordable. That’s a view echoed by Tuntun Prasad, 27, who sells frozen treats from a handcart near New Delhi’s Connaught Place. “People don’t ask what’s inside,” he says while hawking his desserts on a hot September afternoon. “They just want the cheapest thing.”

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