Today’s ice cream processors are filling their products with trimming ingredients and tastier-than-ever flavors.

Ice cream can be quite the savior. Whether it’s a bad day at the office or a quiet evening on the couch, tubs of ice cream have always been the ideal go-to-treat to fulfill nearly every mood.

However, a high calorie content mixed with a blend of not-so-healthy ingredients can force ice cream lovers to pull out the stops from the freezer case only when absolutely necessary.

Thanks to a battery of better-for-you blends, though, and a rack of innovative flavors, consumers can now maintain their health and diets, even while dishing into scoops of ice cream.

For instance, nutritional health and wellness has been fueling most of the growth of Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream’s lines, says Dori Bailey, director of consumer communications for the Oakland, Calif.-based ice cream company, owned by Nestlé. “NHW encompasses many consumer pathways, ranging from removal of things consumers would like to see less of (fat, calories, sugar) to portion control and natural offerings,” Bailey says.

That’s why Dreyer’s launched a team of guilty pleasures that are packed with better-for-you ingredients. For example, Häagen-Dazs Five is an all-natural, simple-crafted ice cream that’s made with only five ingredients; it comes in Mint, Ginger, Coffee, Vanilla Bean, Passion Fruit, Brown Sugar and Milk Chocolate flavors.

Dreyer’s Skinny Cow Truffle Bars offer a low-fat indulgent experience with only 100 calories, Bailey says. Meanwhile, Dreyer’s Slow Churned Cups come in 6-ounce snack sizes, which provides a lower-priced entry point into the ice cream category, she adds. And Dreyer’s Drumstick Li’l Drums are a mini version of the original Nestlé Drumstick but now are available in a 140-calorie snack portion.

“Single-serve offerings are growing in popularity,” Bailey adds. “A number of our premium lines, including Dreyer’s/Edy’s Slow Churned, Yogurt Blends and Fun Flavors, in addition to Häagen-Dazs and Skinny Cow, offer consumers a wide variety of single-serve cup flavors.”

Meanwhile, Cleveland's Pierre's

Ice Cream Co. tackled the trends last year by launching seven new premium flavors including Slam Dunk Chunk and Chocolate-covered Strawberry, says Matthew Thornicroft, assistant marketing and communications manager for Pierre’s.

“We are seeing a growing interest in better-for-you products,” he says. “Ice cream lovers are seeking healthier alternatives that taste as good as ice cream and have a flavor assortment that has something just for them. Sales of Pierre’s Smooth Churned Light Ice Cream and Slender No Sugar Added Reduced Fat Ice Cream have done well this year.”

In addition, Pierre’s churned up Yovation, a premium, probiotic frozen yogurt that’s lower in fat and contains a host of live and active yogurt cultures, including Ganeden BC30. “Consumers are now much more aware of the benefits of probiotics and are looking for other ways of getting them into their daily diet,” Thornicroft says. “Yovation is positioned to fill that role.”

The Yovation line comes in Cookie Fudge Crunch, Double Fudge Brownie, Toasted Almond, Vanilla Bean, Vanilla Honey Granola and Vanilla flavors. Likewise, Pierre’s also introduced ¡Hola Fruta!, a superpremium sherbet that’s made from antioxidant-rich fruits and is available in Pomegranate and Blueberry flavors.

“Probiotic frozen yogurt and low-fat and no-sugar choices that offer great taste and variety are two categories that will continue to grow,” Thornicroft adds. “Ice creams and frozen desserts have long held a special place for people. Health-conscious consumers are always looking for guilt-free choices. Having these products available makes it easy for someone watching what they eat to keep ice cream in their diets without feeling guilty.”

Other trends hitting the ice cream aisle are no sugar added, light and low-fat options as well as more exotic offerings, such as gelatos and sorbets.

“There are some micro trends towards sorbets and gelato,” says Michael Brown, senior product manager for Perry’s Ice Cream Co., based in Akron, N.Y. “Sorbets do have an impact in grocery sales while we expect gelato to begin a strong growth trend in the grocery and convenience channels.”

In response to this forecast, next month, Perry’s will be introducing a line of all-natural gelatos in Tahitian Vanilla, Cannoli, Pistachio and Wild Berry flavors, Brown says. “The Perry’s line is made like traditional gelato, more milk than cream, intense flavors and low overrun,” he adds.

Made one batch at a time, these pint-sized options contain all-natural ingredients and offer a fusion of intense flavor and smooth texture.

On the other hand, companies like Alkemie Ice Cream, San Mateo, Calif., are working to create healthier ice creams that also play in to the dairy-free arena.

For instance, Alkemie Dairy-free Ice Cream, produced by Boulder Ice Cream, a wind-powered, batch-churned ice cream maker, replicates the full richness and mouthfeel of premium dairy ice cream, says Daniel Clary, founder and executive chef of Alkemie.

“I believe that collectively, as the consciousness of consumers shifts towards more health-promoting food choices, frozen desserts will and are following suit,” Clary says. “More companies are indeed creating ice creams that include healthier ingredients, natural sweeteners, etc., and the dairy-free category is where the trend is gaining a stronghold. Sales within this category are growing exponentially every year, especially as more innovative products are introduced.”

The Warming Effect

While consumers are vying for low-calorie ice cream options, processors are faced with the challenge of how to successfully meet these demands without sacrificing taste.

“The cost of procuring the wide variety of top-quality ingredients required in a category that thrives on multiple flavors is an ongoing challenge,” says Dori Bailey of Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream. “A second challenge is educating consumers and increasing their awareness of the better-for-you ice cream options available today, many of which are below 200 calories per serving.”

For other processors, it’s about maintaining the authenticity of the product without having to cut corners.

“Many manufacturers now produce products that cannot be labeled ice cream due to lack of butter fat and/or too much overrun,” says Michael Brown of Perry’s Ice Cream. “Consumers are becoming aware of what ice cream is and what isn’t.”

Furthermore, it’s a continuous obstacle for processors to create and introduce innovative products, says Matt Thornicroft at Pierre’s. “Consumers are always looking for fresh flavors along with great-tasting unique and fun products,” he adds. “You know you’ve nailed it when you hear from a customer who calls or writes in thanking you as if you created something special just for them. That’s something we’ve worked very hard at for close to 80 years at Pierre’s Ice Cream Co. and why our consumers have been very brand loyal to our products.”

For others, it’s not as simple as just creating flavors that the general public likes – it’s also about catering to consumers’ pocketbooks.

“We know that the economy forces buyers to be as selective as ever,” Sean Greenwood, public relations for Ben & Jerry’s, Burlington, Vt. “We continue to try to deliver the funkiest, chunkiest and swirl-laden flavors, with sourcing from wholesome suppliers to deliver an ice cream that hits all categories.”

However, the market for ice cream will warm up, according to several industry insiders.

“The greatest opportunity for growth is indeed following the trend of providing nutritionally superior products,” says Alkemie’s Daniel Clary. “The paradigm is shifting and players like us who meet this demand are on the forefront of this emerging trend.”

In addition, consumers still want ice cream. Period.

“I believe that independent of the current economic situation, consumers still use disposable income on small splurges and little luxuries. Statistically, ice cream sales tend to perform well year-round, even in colder climates,” Clary says. “Ice cream in all its forms is a celebrated and classic tradition worldwide. I believe the economic outlook is strong for the producer and the consumer, as long as they both work in concert with each other, listen to each others’ needs and stay ahead of the trends. The familiar and comforting experience of eating ice cream will remain intact and strong for many generations to come.”

Olympic-sized Flair

In today’s challenging economy, consumers can find comfort in not just the ice cream tub but also knowing that what they’re eating is healthy, according to Sean Greenwood, public relations for Ben & Jerry’s, Burlington, Vt.

“Our research and development team stays busy trying to come up with delicious combinations,” he says. “One trend we’re aware of is how people are more aware of where their foods come from. People are voting with their dollars to support good, healthy foods including Fair Trade products and sustainably harvested foods. Fair Trade products basically pay a better wage to the farmers for their goods.”

Plus, in honor of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, Ben & Jerry’s launched Maple Blondie after Vermont-native and Olympic snowboarder, Hannah Teter. This limited-time-only flavor consists of maple ice cream packed with brownie chunks and covered with a maple caramel swirl.

“As well as being a worldly, new age, old soul who gives back to the global community, we think she’s got a great chance at another medal,” Greenwood says.  

Ice Cream On the Go

While the ice cream market is laden with creamy and sultry flavors, it also is undergoing a makeover of its own.

For example, ice cream is no longer just the couch companion – now it can go wherever the consumer goes.

“Product portability is certainly a growing trend in the industry,” says Matt Thornicroft at Pierre’s. “With consumers having limited budgets and reducing their snack purchases, ice cream and frozen dessert manufacturers are working to find ways to make it easy for people to keep ice cream as their treat of choice.”

The folks at Ben & Jerry’s are seeing an influx in single-serve cups, says Sean Greenwood, public relations for Ben & Jerry’s, Burlington, Vt. “It may be the selection with a half dozen different flavors, it may be the convenient spoon under the lid, or perhaps it’s the convenient single portion that does it,” Greenwood says. “These little cold cups are hot sellers.”

Ben & Jerry’s also converted its packaging to a Forest Stewardship Council-certified paperboard.

Additionally, packaging needs to be unique in design, simplistic and easy on the eyes, says Daniel Clary of Alkemie.

“Consumers spend on average 10 seconds perusing the ice cream shelf before making a decision. So it is important for your design to be straightforward and to the point, yet approachable and, yes, fun,” he advises. “Also, consumers are looking for more accessible products as well, that fit their very busy lifestyles. Single-serve sizes are a new trend that a lot of companies are working on, including ours.”

Colors That Count

Turkey Hill Dairy redesigned its frozen yogurt packaging to feature a color-coded bar on the front that breaks down the nutrition list in an eye-catching, easier-to-read format.

For example, each color represents a different nutritional ingredient, such as containing live and active cultures, is an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D, is low in fat, contains omega-3s and highlights the number of calories.

In addition, the Conestoga, Pa.-based processor released a bevy of new frozen yogurt flavors including Honey Vanilla Granola, Southern Lemon Pie, Peanut Butter Pie and Limited-edition PomBlueberry Chocolate Truffle, which Turkey Hill reports is an excellent source of omega-3s.

Ice Cream That's on Fire

Blue Bell Creameries is heating up the ice cream aisle with its laundry list of new products. In fact, the Brenham, Texas-based company has a great lineup of flavors scheduled to debut in 2010, says Carl Breed, director of marketing for Blue Bell.

“We’ve listened to our marketing, R&D and sales people and we have created some outstanding flavors that we think will keep up with the latest ice cream trends,” Breed says. “These flavors are sure to bring excitement and uniqueness to the ice cream freezer aisle.”

For instance, just this month, Blue Bell released its first half-gallon flavor of the year, Cake and Ice Cream, which is a creamy vanilla flavor filled with chocolate sprinkles, chocolate-coated cake pieces and a swirl of chocolate icing. And that’s a real half gallon, a size that Blue Bell has maintained while most other manufacturers have downsized to a 56- or 48-ounce container.

Also new this year are 12-pack sundae cups available in Blue Bell’s famous Homemade Vanilla with a chocolate swirl. These portion-controlled cups hold 3-ounce individual servings and are ideal for children and parents, Breed says. Blue Bell also introduced 12-pack Cookies ‘n Cream Bars, which is one of the company’s top-selling flavors on a stick, Breed adds.

To tack on to the convenience factor, and to stay consistent with its stance on the half gallon, Blue Bell pints will remain at 16 ounces.

“The pint size is perfect for some consumers. It gives them the opportunity to sample the flavor before purchasing the larger carton. We initiated this process last year and it worked well for us,” Breed notes. “We [also] will continue to emphasize the foodservice side of our business. In fact, this year, [we] will introduce nine new ice cream flavors in 3-gallon containers. These flavors will be sold to ice cream parlors, restaurants, sporting venues and any other location requiring a hand-dipped operation for consumers.  Some of these will be the same as our half-gallon line, while others will be totally unique for foodservice customers.”