Donna BerryCHICAGO — Swell Foods, Santa Barbara, Calif., is the brainchild of Nathan Carey, who gained inspiration for better-for-you Swell Ice Cream after he found himself in the hospital following a weightlifting accident. While enduring months of physical therapy, he would see people spend a lot of money on high-protein shakes and protein bars, but could tell by their facial expressions they were not enjoying the products.

“What started as an injury ended as a revelation,” he said. “Inspired by the patients I met during my recovery, many with grave conditions who were forced to eat joyless hospital food that met their dietary restrictions, I leveraged my combined experience in construction management and being an owner of a drive-thru yogurt and smoothie stand, to create the ultimate nutritionally balanced treat, a food that everyone could eat and would actually want to eat.”

He began experimenting with making high-protein frozen yogurt. Eventually ProYo, a combination of creamy probiotic yogurt, protein and fruit, was born.

ProYo became Swell earlier this year. The rebrand is setting itself apart in retailers’ burgeoning high-protein ice cream freezers where some stores now carry as many as 20 different brands in both carton and novelty formats, including private label. Food Business News spoke with Mr. Carey to better understand the high-protein ice cream category and to gain perspective on the future of the business.

Food Business News: What qualifies a product to make a high-protein claim? 

Nathan Carey, founder of Swell Foods

Nathan Carey: Many better-for-you ice creams are attracting shoppers by marketing their option as one that offers higher levels of protein than traditional ice cream. While it’s true that many of these pints may have more protein than a conventional ice cream pint, to make an “excellent source of protein” claim, the ice cream must contain at least 20% of the recommended daily allowance of protein, per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. We believe as shoppers continue to evaluate the taste, texture and nutritional variances of players in this space, they will better be able to decipher the difference between protein and other claims made on packaging and in marketing programs.

In what is now a market saturated with products featuring extra protein, at what point does a high-protein claim not become a point of differentiation?

Mr. Carey: There is no question we will continue to see protein as a leading claim to attract shoppers; it is not a fad. However, as consumers continue to become more educated on the difference between protein sources — from whey protein concentrate to soy and other plant-based options — what will begin to matter more is the quality of the protein. What will also matter more is how well the product meets demands for taste and texture, having a clean ingredient panel, and meeting other nutritional and dietary requirements.

Similar to what happened in the nutrition bar and Greek yogurt categories, I believe the brands that will come out on top in the better-for-you ice cream category are the brands that most importantly deliver on taste and texture, but also meet a variety of high-quality, clean ingredient and nutritional demands, including being able to make an excellent source of protein claim.

After three years in the market, ProYo became Swell. What led to this name change?

Mr. Carey: After conducting an in-depth consumer study, we learned two things were keeping us from connecting to frequent category shoppers, including our name and our packaging design. Some consumers were confused by the name ProYo, and others felt that the black packaging and the on-pack, large protein callout resonated predominantly with men. In order to meet the needs of our consumers and continue to grow the brand, we decided to leverage our maverick spirit and reinvent our name and design in a way that would both better resonate with our core consumer segments and also better allow us to launch innovations in new categories in the future.

ProYo to Swell transformationHow did the marketplace respond to this reinvention?

Mr. Carey: We took a thoughtful and integrated approach to educating our retailer partners and our consumers about the shift from ProYo to Swell Foods, including executing a retailer education program as we led up to and launched Swell Ice Cream. We walked retailers through the results of our consumer insights work and showed them how Swell Ice Cream answers the demands of the consumers in our category. As we started to transition on shelf, we executed an integrated direct-to-consumer marketing program that included retailer promotions, shopping app promotions, and increased programming on social media, influencer engagement and public relations.

There are many ways to boost protein content. What is Swell’s approach to boosting content? 

Mr. Carey: What makes my story a bit different is that I applied knowledge I gained during my construction management education to create a special process for how we make our ice cream. I know, it doesn’t sound appetizing at first, but what I can tell you is that the complexities of mixing concrete are similar to crafting the perfect mix of ingredients to deliver surprisingly high levels of key nutrients like protein into ice cream. Without giving away all our trade secrets, I can share we landed on a mixture of whey protein concentrate and other high-quality ingredients and applied a manufacturing process that allows us to deliver high levels of protein in a small amount of liquid without compromising taste or texture.

As we actively watch other players in our category, I can share how some other brands are tackling this challenge. Some are utilizing ultrafiltered milk, which is a sub-classification of milk protein concentrate produced by passing milk under pressure through a thin, porous membrane to separate the components of milk according to their size. Specifically, ultrafiltration allows the smaller lactose, water, mineral and vitamin molecules to pass through the membrane, while the larger protein and fat molecules are retained and concentrated. Other competitors utilize protein isolates and concentrates, casein and soy to boost their protein levels per serving. Additionally, to work around the challenge of having the added protein in the ice cream itself, some competitors have added inclusions rich in protein, such as nuts.

Swell ice cream pints and ingredientsWhen protein content increases, other macronutrients — namely fats and sugars — decrease in concentration. This impacts product quality, such as melt, mouthfeel and flavor. What are the different approaches to adjust formulations for the best sensory attributes?

Mr. Carey: Emulsifiers, salts, sugars and other additives are often used to mitigate any processing issues. Unfortunately, these methods may reduce the quality of the finished product through mouthfeel, flavor, melting points, shrinkage and even shelf life. With Swell Ice Cream, we worked really hard on leveraging our processing methods to allow us to avoid these quality challenges. It has been a long road to refine the right balance of formulation and manufacturing techniques to deliver a finished product that delivers an excellent source of protein and is made with a limited, clean list of ingredients.

Brands vary in their approach to marketing protein content, especially in the pint package. What is Swell’s approach and why?

Mr. Carey: We believe strongly in marketing our ice cream and the nutrition delivered on a per-serving basis, for instance, delivering an excellent source (10 grams) of protein per half-cup serving. I created Swell Ice Cream with the intent to deliver an ice cream that tasted amazing and also provided added nutritional value with every bite, so that if you did decide to have ice cream that you knew you were getting something a little better. My intent was never to create a permissible indulgence and market it as okay to indulge in the whole pint. Hey, I get it, sometimes shoppers will and I may even myself, but what’s more important for us is we’re helping shoppers make a better choice each time they take a bite.

How is Swell educating consumers about the value of dairy-based protein?

Mr. Carey: Our integrated marketing efforts combine a mix of in-store, digital, event, influencer, health expert and public relations tactics to educate consumers about the various reasons they should choose Swell Ice Cream. Rather than focusing solely on the protein source in our ice creams, our marketing efforts celebrate the variety of things that make our ice creams special, including using clean, high quality ingredients like whey protein, but also the fact that we’re able to deliver on such high levels of protein while maintaining a traditional ice cream taste and texture that makes you smile.

Swell chocolate chip cookie dough ice creamWhat’s the future for the category?

Mr. Carey: The better-for-you 14- to 16-oz packaged ice cream segment had a 36.7% increase in unit sales and a 23.3% increase in dollar sales during the 52-week period ending Sept. 9, 2018, according to Spins. I don’t anticipate consumer interest in this category slowing anytime soon. That being said, and knowing shelf space is limited and shoppers are critically evaluating options to find products that meet their taste, texture, ingredient and nutritional demands, it’s likely we’ll see a decline in the number of brands that actually stay on shelf. For those brands that remain, they will likely deliver on marketable points of differentiation, from leading levels of protein and other nutrients, to being plant-based, including probiotics or acting as the low-calorie leader. I strongly believe the better-for-you set should be merchandised alongside other ice cream and novelty options. It is not a category shopped by a niche consumer looking for products in a natural or sports nutrition set, but rather a mainstream consumer looking for the next wave of products that deliver on their taste, texture and nutritional desires. This mainstream consumer is looking for ways to make smarter choices in products they frequently enjoy, like ice cream.