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In most bodegas and small grocery stores, customers can find a small freezer chest, stocked full of their favorite frozen popsicles, ice cream sandwiches, and pints of ice cream. Many of those appliances are supplied and maintained by Unilever, the international conglomerate and parent company that owns various ice cream brands, like Magnum and Ben & Jerry’s. Keeping those chests running, at 0 degrees Fahrenheit, so that they keep the ice cream from melting, accounts for an estimated 10 percent of Unilever’s total carbon footprint, as well as a substantial portion of the energy costs paid by the retailers.

But what if the freezers were set not at 0 degrees but instead ran at 10 degrees Fahrenheit? Right, your first response might be, “Well, everything would melt and make a huge mess.” But what if it didn’t?

Following more than a decade of research, Unilever has noted that it is close to a breakthrough for its ice cream products that would allow them to be stored at 10 degrees, while still providing the same consistency, structure, and mouthfeel. Whereas the initiative seemed doomed for some years, recent advances in sugar-based technologies have enabled the conglomerate to make new strides. The new ice cream formulations currently are being tested in select markets, where blind taste tests indicate the consumers cannot tell the difference between conventional and reformulated ice cream treats.

If the tests continue to prove successful, Unilever could bump up the temperatures of all those ice chests, throughout the world (and there are a lot of them). The resulting savings in terms of energy usage would benefit not only the planet but also the retailers that Unilever relies on to get its products to consumers. By reducing their operating costs, Unilever hopes they might keep the freezers plugged in for longer. When recent jumps in electricity prices pressed small shop owners, many of them sought to cut costs by unplugging the coolers and giving up on sales of the frozen treats. As a result, Unilever’s sales declined for the quarter too—an event it would prefer to avoid in the future.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What other benefits might result from new technology that allows frozen products to be maintained at higher temperatures?
  2. How should other ice cream companies respond to this new product development

Source: Katie Deighton, “Unilever Tries Reformulating Its Ice Cream to Survive Warmer Freezers,” The Wall Street Journal, February 22, 2023

Photo from iStock.com/Vladdeep