Experts at the ice foods product development facilities, which were officially opened last week in the UK and Italy, will focus on using natural ingredients, such as milk, fruit and cereals, and on minimising fat, sugar and calories without compromising on taste. Additionally, Unilever will attempt to produce more exciting ice cream products through the creation of new sensory experiences and innovative shapes. The European ice-cream sector has been stagnant for many companies over the past few years due to a maturation of the sector, health concerns and growing competition from cheaper private-label products, according to analysts. This has placed extra pressures for manufacturers to develop innovative products for the sector, and companies are increasingly moving into the market for more premium products and unusual combinations of flavours. Areas for innovation The centre will aim to develop innovation in four areas. Firstly, it will focus on the freezing and aeration of products and ice technology. The company hopes to give the consumer varied sensory experiences, with new products such as drinkable or fizzy ice. It aims perfect processes for controlling ice crystals through the freezing process and keeping air in the products so as to provide different and fun textures. Furthermore, this can assist flavour delivery and help in the reduction of fat or sugar. Secondly, product shape has been identified as an area providing innovation opportunities. For example, Unilever hopes to develop its cold shaping technology to create ice creams with an increased number of inclusions. Additionally, the company intends to progress its technical know-how across the supply chain - from cow to cone. And finally, experts at the centre will be looking at ways to change packaging formats for ice foods, so that they are made more attractive while also easier to handle and better for the environment. "We want to be a treasure trove of technologies for new innovations that wow our consumers," said Iain Campbell, director of the centre. This is not Unilever's first Centre of Excellence. It has many such research facilities across Europe, such as a centre for structured emulsions in the Netherlands, which focuses on healthier products and reducing high-cost commodities. Ice cream market The global ice cream market grew by 3 per cent in 2007 to reach a value of $43.8bn, according to Research and Markets. In 2012, the market is forecast to have a value of $51.5bn, an increase of 17.7 per cent since 2007. Take-home ice cream accounts for 42.7 per cent of the global markets value, and Europe accounts for 44.4 per cent of the global markets value. The global ice cream market is dominated by Unilever and Nestle. Unilever accounts for 15.8 per cent of the global markets value.