Unilever has developed a new genetically modified protein that it says will serve up low-fat ice cream without compromising on taste, as ice cream firms step up the race to please health conscious consumers.
Unilever, which owns successful ice cream brands such as Wall's and Magnum, has applied to Britain's Food Standards Agency to use the ice structuring protein in its edible ices.
The move makes Unilever the third large food firm in two weeks to announce its intention to penetrate further into the low-fat ice cream market.
Unilever said in its application it had used genetically modified baker's yeast, containing an ice structuring protein originally isolated from the blood of a fish, known as ocean pout.
Both the protein and the yeast is removed from the formula during processing, however, meaning nothing is passed on into the end product. Ice cream in shops would simply have ice structuring protein on the ingredients label.
A spokesperson for Unilever told DairyReporter.com this process could replace fat in the ice cream without compromising taste.
"The ice structuring protein makes ice crystals in the ice cream more robust and allows you to take out fats, because one of the main reasons fats are used in ice cream is for their structural ability."
The group, which was recently replaced by Nestlé as the world's number one ice cream firm, has been looking to target consumer health trends to ensure future growth.
"In general people want healthier versions of all products," said the Unilever spokesperson. "We understand that ice cream is an indulgent product and not to be eaten every day, but if we have a healthier variant consumers will want it."
He added that Unilever would look to use its protein in several brands in the UK and across Europe, although this will likely not be for a couple of years even if approved by food authorities.
Authorities in some other countries have already cleared the protein, including in the US where Unilever has used it in Breyers ice cream products.
The firm is likely to face increasing competition in the healthy ice cream market, however, with several other firms unveiling new techniques for low-fat ice cream in recent weeks.
Dutch firm Unimills claimed last week to have developed a way of slashing saturated fat from butter-based ice cream. Gerhard de Ruiter, research and development manager at Unimills, told the Reuters news agency of the breakthrough.
The news came only days after US-based firm FMC Biopolymer announced it had devised a new, cellulose-based ingredient to cut fat in ice cream down to five per cent.
European ingedrients giant Danisco also said in May that it had made ice cream with less than one per cent fat possible, thanks to a new ingredient blend based on its Cremodan IcePro technology. Both Danisco and FMC said taste would be unaffected.