Sorbet Is Hot With Consumers, But Its Real Appeal Is Cool

12-19-96

University Park, Pa. -- Sorbet, a water-based frozen dessert that does not use dairy products as an ingredient, is poised to become a hot marketing item because manufacturers can trumpet the claim the dessert is "fat-free" or "no-fat."

Those claims are all true, says Arun Kilara, professor of food science in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. Because sorbets contain no dairy products, no fat is used in its manufacture. That doesn't mean, however, that sorbets are not fattening.

"Sorbets contain large amounts of sugar, which is metabolized by the body into fat unless you burn off the extra calories by exercise," Kilara says. "In fact, the caloric contents of sorbet and ice cream are not very far apart."

Kilara, who is preparing to discuss sorbet, ice cream bars, why there is no such thing as plain vanilla, and a host of other topics at Penn State's Ice Cream Short Course January 6-16 at the University Park campus, says sorbet is nothing new. He points out that sorbet has been around almost as long as ice cream.

"Sorbets were called water ice or Italian water ice, which doesn't have a lot of pizzazz as a brand name," Kilara says. "In Italian, the word for 'water ice' is 'sorbetto,' so the word became a marketing term that adds a little razzle dazzle appeal."

Kilara points out that only American manufacturers use the term "sorbet" to market flavored water ice products. In Europe and Asia, the term takes in both sherbet, which is ice cream made with reduced amounts of dairy products, and water ices.

Sorbet, according to the International Ice Cream Association, is the fastest growing category of the frozen dessert market. Although sales are up, Kilara says sorbet will never replace ice cream as a consumer favorite.

"There are three factors that differentiate sorbet," Kilara says. "They are sweetness, flavor and ice crystal size. Sorbet will feel a little coarser than ice cream, and that in turn creates a different taste."

Ironically, Kilara cites the differences in taste between ice cream and sorbet as the reason sorbet is destined to remain a niche product rather than a dominating dessert trend. To consumers, he explains, sorbet simply tastes colder than ice cream.

"Ice cream contains relatively high amounts of fat," Kilara says. "One of the qualities of fat is its insulating effect -- as you eat ice cream, it feels warmer in your mouth. Sorbet has larger ice crystals and no fat, and as you eat it the larger ice crystals melt, releasing flavor in a different way. It feels more refreshing and colder when you eat it."

If the differences in taste between sorbet and ice cream are not crystal clear, Kilara points to a consumer trend that might send a chill down the spine of a sorbet maker. "Consumption of sorbets falls off dramatically in the winter months," Kilara says. "It is primarily a seasonal product." He says that sorbet also is limited in the number of flavors available. Fruit flavors such as orange, cherry, strawberry, lemon, raspberry and blueberry are popular, and manufacturers are introducing coffee and chocolate sorbets.

"Internationally, there are very popular fruit sorbets made with papaya, mango and kiwi, but those flavors are not popular with American consumers," he says. "Any additives such as nuts or ripples can add fat, which makes the product lose its no-fat appeal."

Kilara sees sorbet being used in other frozen desserts such as sandwich bars, popsicles, or even as a ripple filling in ice cream. He also warns consumers not to be taken in by advertising claiming ice cream or sorbets using "all-natural" ingredients. "The advantage of using the word 'all-natural' for ice cream eludes me," Kilara says. "Ice cream does not occur in nature, so it really doesn't mean anything."

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EDITORS: To contact Arun Kilara, call (814) 863-2963.

Contact: John Wall office (814) 863-2719, #247
Vicki Fong 814-865-9481 (phone) vyf1@psu.edu