According to market research provider Euromonitor International, sales revenue of ice cream in China is expected to reach RMB45 billion (US$6.5b) this year.
Meanwhile fellow research agency Mintel predicts the market to grow at a CAGR of 11.9% to reach RMB71 billion (US$10b) over the next five years.
Mintel’s China Reports associate food and drink analyst, Belle Wang said: “Today’s consumers no longer see ice cream as only a summer treat, but as a dessert or snack that can be eaten all year long.
“Instead of having ice cream to cool down, consumers are eating it to indulge and treat themselves,” she said.
In addition, “Ice cream brands are altering their business strategies to encourage more sales, from targeting younger consumers to introducing low-calorie ice cream.”
According to the Mintel report, as many as 61% of dessert consumers in China are willing to pay more for desserts that are all-natural or free-from additives, and 54% are willing to pay more for desserts that are high in nutrition (e.g. protein, probiotics).
It also revealed that 43% of dessert consumers in China are interested in trying ice cream containing superfoods such as chia, hemp seed, and avocado.
Wang added: “The use of natural ingredients is becoming more important in the food and drink industry overall, including the indulgent dessert category.
"Chinese consumers are increasingly pursuing snack foods that are healthy, high-quality and safe," said Neil Wang, president of consultancy Frost and Sullivan.
According to Euromonitor, traditional ice cream products are being edged out by low-calorie varieties with natural sweeteners in the Chinese market.
Low-sugar ice cream is seen as a healthier alternative to traditional ice cream, and is driving the high-end oriented growth through the use of natural and high-quality ingredients, said the report.
Last year, Haagen-Dazs, a US ice cream brand introduced special ice cream flavours like cherry blossom, lavender and blueberry, and raspberry and white peach in China.
This year, it launched jasmine and orange blossom flavours, to cater to young consumer groups who would like to pursue freshness and fashion.
The company said all of its ingredients use imported pure cream and natural raw materials, and there are no synthetic food stabilisers, emulsifiers and sweeteners.
Wang added: “With health and wellness mainstreaming in urban China today, dessert shop brands can look into using more natural ingredients like seasonal fruits and superfoods.”
To compete with other foodservice businesses, dessert shops in China can focus on the after-meal occasion and develop more after-meal desserts.
According to Mintel’s report, 49% of respondents said that they have desserts after meals.
Of all respondents who have desserts after a meal, 62% said they want to try new flavours, and 61% said they want to treat or indulge themselves.
“[Dessert shops] can consider developing more offerings that are high in protein, or even probiotics seeing as Chinese consumers like having desserts after their meals,” she added.