‘The same indulgent taste’: Unilever expands into animal-free dairy with Breyers Lactose-Free Chocolate ice cream

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

Unilever leveraged Perfect Day whey to formulate the new Breyers Lactose-Free Chocolate ice cream. Image via Perfect Day/PRNewswire
Unilever leveraged Perfect Day whey to formulate the new Breyers Lactose-Free Chocolate ice cream. Image via Perfect Day/PRNewswire

Related tags Ice cream Dairy animal-free

The company had been exploring a potential entry into the precision fermentation space for at least two years.

Unilever has partnered with precision fermentation specialist Perfect Day to create a new addition to Breyers’ ice cream portfolio with Lactose-Free Chocolate. This is Unilever’s first venture into animal-free dairy, the group having expressed its intent back in 2022 to launch into this emerging space.


The new ice cream, which carries lactose- and cholesterol-free claims on-pack, is made using Perfect Day’s precision fermentation-derived whey, which is said to be 'the same as' the dairy ingredient. A Perfect Day representative told us its whey protein enables the cow-free ice cream to offer ‘the same indulgent taste, texture and experience that customers have enjoyed from the brand for more than 150 years, while meeting consumer dietary needs and preferences by being lactose-free and having a reduced environmental footprint’.

“Breyers Lactose-Free Chocolate is animal-free, but because it is our whey protein from fermentation is same as the whey protein found in traditional dairy, it is noted on the front and back of pack that it is not suitable for those with a milk protein allergy,” the spokesperson pointed out.

Besides meeting Unilever’s desire for parity in taste and functionality on dairy alternatives, the ingredient is also less environmentally intensive to manufacture compared to the footprint of the milk protein. A lifecycle assessment commissioned by the company showed at least 29% lower energy demand, at least 91% lower greenhouse gas emissions, and up to 99% water consumption for the precision fermentation-derived whey.

Unilever eyeing ‘scalable innovation’ to improve group performance

Unilever’s ice cream products recorded a 2.3% increase in sales in 2023 and a 0.5% increase in turnover. There was a 7% sales growth across the group, though chief executive Hein Schumacher acknowledged that competitiveness ‘remains disappointing and overall performance needs to improve’. Key to this strategy is Unilever’s Growth Action Plan of portfolio optimizations, including investment in areas that ‘drive impact and support improved competitiveness; and in ‘scalable innovation programs to drive market development and premiumization’.

Unilever had previously recognized the potential of precision fermentation technology for achieving no-compromise dairy alternatives whilst also reducing the group’s environmental footprint. In 2022, Unilever chief R&D officer for ice cream Andrew Sztehlo told reporters that the company had ‘some things coming’ in the next year or so, likely from one of its North American brands.

Research​ conducted by the Hartman Group in partnership with Cargill and Perfect Day from March 2023 supported a positive trend in the precision fermentation space. The survey of more than 2,500 US adults estimated that by 2027, around 132 million Americans would consume precision fermentation-derived products; that’s more than one third of the current US population. And already in 2023, around 40% of those surveyed acknowledged that they were willing to try precision fermentation-derived products immediately; in population terms, that equates to around 90 million.

Millennials and Gen Z were most eager to be early adopters according to the survey, with 85% of the former and 84% of the latter stating they would be willing to purchase products that contain precision fermentation-derived ingredients. As the share of Gen Z consumers increases in the next five years, so would the acceleration of the PF space, the research suggested.

Asked how consumer attitudes have changes since Perfect Day started out, a company spokesperson told us: “In partnership with the Hartman Group and Cargill, we measured consumer attitudes and found that 2 in 3 Americans believe we need food that uses fewer resources like energy, water, or carbon; 77% of those familiar with precision fermentation are likely to purchase products made with its ingredients; and nearly half would be willing to pay more for products that include ingredients made using precision fermentation.”

The research also shed light on some of the challenges that brands face with precision fermentation foods – including overcoming the affordability barrier, communicating environmental and societal benefits as well as nutritional ones, and gauge taste expectations and safety information.

In terms of product categories, the research found that consumers found it easiest to envision PF ingredients in functional food categories such as protein bars or drinkable yogurts. Ad for ice cream, 7 to 8 in 10 consumers stated they were ‘at least somewhat likely’ to purchase products containing such ingredients, suggesting at least some level of purchase intent.

Uncertainty lingers in the precision fermentation space - but positive signs are there, too

The US remains one of three global markets where precision fermentation-derived foods can be purchased and consumed, but the consumer market has proven difficult to crack even to large CPGs.

In early 2023, General Mills unexpectedly discontinued its animal-free cream cheese brand Bold Cultr, just as the brand was gearing up for a D2C launch. The cow-free cream cheese was first launched in November 2021 and was touted as ‘one of the world’s first next-generation cheese alternatives’, but without elaborating on why, General Mills announced it had decided to de-prioritize funding for the brand.

In August 2023, Perfect Day decided to focus on its B2B services and sell its consumer-facing subsidiary that carried ice cream brands Coolhouse and Brave Robot. The move was likely prompted by funding challenges in the global alternative protein space as investors have adopted a more measured approach compared to several years ago.

At the same time, Danone has invested in both precision fermentation (Imagindairy) and cell-based milk companies (Wilk), with Imagindairy recently announcing​ GRAS certification and the availability of its own industrial-scale production lines. Other companies who achieved self-affirmed GRAS status recently include precision fermentation lactoferrin specialist TurtleTree and New Culture.

In October 2023, Nestlé confirmed it was ‘actively exploring’ technologies for animal-free products, including precision fermentation, to further expand its offering. 

The Bel Group has also accelerated its investment in precision fermentation-derived proteins through a strategic partnership with Paris, France-based Standing Ovation​; the group has also backed food tech firm Climax Foods​ to leverage its predictive analytics and AI technology to identify superior plant-based formulations. New and improved dairy-free cheeses could be arriving in the US as early as Q4 2024, we were told.

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