Joyful Juxtaposition
by Julie Cook Ramirez
After decades of trial and error, ice cream makers have struck the right balance of indulgence, great taste and healthful attributes.
Ice cream has never been considered a health food. Chances are you’ll probably never see an endorsement by the American Heart Association on a pint of Chubby Hubby or Moose Tracks.
That hasn’t stopped manufacturers from trying to give consumers healthier options in frozen desserts. Those who are old enough to remember the 1970s are sure to recall ice milk, hailed as a lowfat alternative for dieters and other health-conscious consumers. And then there’s ice cream’s venerable cousin, frozen yogurt, which racked up some fairly impressive sales during the fat-conscious 1980s, but has since stood by helplessly as its market share has eroded year after year. In recent years, low-carb products flooded the market, promising Atkins and South Beach dieters a full-bodied ice cream experience with fewer carbohydrates.
In the eyes — and stomachs — of consumers, however, these products didn’t deliver the true ice cream experience. “They just didn’t deliver on taste expectations,” says Jason Glover, marketing manager for indulgent and kid products, Wells’ Dairy Inc., Le Mars, Iowa. “They were forced to make a trade-off: ‘I want to have ice cream, but I need to have ice cream that doesn’t taste good because of my particular dietary need.’”
For several years, the backlash against so-called “healthier” frozen desserts seemed almost visceral. Fed up with products that just didn’t do it for them, consumers seemed determined to seek out the most fat-laden, inclusion-filled, decadent concoctions known to mankind.
As a result, we saw the emergence of increasingly indulgent offerings. Even the terms used to describe top-of-the-line ice creams were deemed no longer sufficient. Premium gave way to super-premium and ultra-premium, as manufacturers sought to meet the demand for excess.
So what does that mean for health-conscious consumers? Are they simply left out in the cold, shut out of the sheer joy of scooping up a spoonful of ice cream on a warm summer’s day? With an increasing number of Americans suffering from diabetes and other ailments that affect — and are easily affected by — what they eat, ice cream makers would be ill-advised to shut the door on this growing consumer segment.
Intelligent Indulgence
And they haven’t. In recent years, a significant percent of R&D investment has gone into bolstering the better-for-you segment of the category. South Burlington, Vt.-based Ben & Jerry’s rolled out Body & Soul, a line of reduced-fat versions of several of the company’s signature flavors, including Cherry Garcia and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. Meanwhile, Green Bay, Wis.-based Good Humor-Breyers Ice Cream Co. offers an entire Smart Eating line of “healthier” ice creams, including CarbSmart, HeartSmart and CalSmart, in addition to All Natural Light and a new line of no-sugar-added ice cream.
Last fall, Cleveland-based Pierre’s French Ice Cream Co. rolled out Smooth Churned Light Ice Cream, containing 50 percent less fat and 30 percent fewer calories than regular ice cream.
And Oakland, Calif.-based Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream Holdings Inc., continues to garner rave reviews for its Dreyers/Edys Grand Light, now re-named Slow-Churned Light. Available in more than two dozen tempting flavors, including Cookies ‘N Cream, French Vanilla, Fudge Tracks, Mint Chocolate Chips, Mocha Almond Fudge, Rocky Road, and Cookie Dough, the Slow Churned line has recently been expanded to include an assortment of no sugar added ice cream, including Cookie Dough, Fudge Tracks, and Triple Chocolate Chip.
Häagen-Dazs, its sister brand in the Nestlé family, used proprietary European low-temperature blending technology to create Häagen-Dazs Light, which boasts the taste of full-fat ice cream.
Long committed to developing products that don’t force consumers to make the choice between good health and good taste, Wells’ Dairy continues on that journey with the introduction of Blue Bunny Premium Light Ice Cream. With half the fat of regular ice cream, Premium Light is available in eight premium-style flavors, including Bunny Tracks, Butter Pecan, Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake, Double Strawberry, Mint Chip Swirl, Peanut Butter Fudge, Super Fudge Brownie and Vanilla.
“For years, we’ve been striving to deliver a product that has the same taste, the same amount of inclusions, the same eating experience as premium ice cream, yet has a health benefit or a diet benefit to a particular consumer group,” Glover says. “Our Premium Light product is just fantastic in that it delivers that premium experience in a better-for-you package.”
Wells has also responded to consumers’ requests for assistance with portion control. Available in both premium and light varieties, Blue Bunny Personals offer individual servings for those containers who otherwise might have a hard time knowing when to say “when.”
“At 8 ounces, it’s just the right size for them,” Glover says. “They can feel comfortable eating it and they are not left with the feeling of guilt they would have if they sat down and ate a whole pint.”
Caution to the Wind
Traditional full-fat ice cream still accounts for 90 percent of category sales, according to Katie Koppenhoefer, spokesperson for the International Dairy Foods Association’s International Ice Cream Association in Washington, D.C.
Seeking to answer the call for still more indulgent offerings, Wells’ Dairy introduced Ultimate Rewards dessert cups, featuring premium ice cream layered with mousses, thick sauces and sweet candy toppings. Koppenhoefer says Wells has hit upon one of the major trends impacting the category today — ice cream flavors that offer “an entire dessert” inside.
Minneapolis-based neighbors Marigold Foods (Kemps) and General Mills’ Pillsbury teamed up last year for Pillsbury Ice Cream, a line of dessert-inspired offerings based on consumers’ favorite Pillsbury baked goods: Fudge Brownie, Peanut Butter Fudge Chunk and Cake & Ice Cream.
Other companies dishing up dessert-themed ice creams include Breyers, which sells Sara Lee Strawberry Cheesecake All Natural ice cream, along with Brownie Mud Pie, Banana Bonanza and others. Following the success of its Key Lime Pie Ice Cream, Brenham, Texas-based Blue Bell Creameries recently rolled out two more dessert-flavored offerings: Strawberry Cheesecake Ice Cream and Lemon Ice Box Pie Ice Cream.
Ben & Jerry’s, meanwhile, set out to give its consumers a different kind of ice cream indulgence when it rolled out Black & Tan ice cream just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. Made with a European non-alcoholic stout extract, the ice cream is swirled with chocolate and topped with a foamy stout ice cream head. According to Ben & Jerry’s “brewmaster” John Shafer, it’s just another example of the company’s creativity in bringing two great tastes together: “Some may say that beer and ice cream don’t go together, but we think the combination of deep, dark chocolate and the creamy stout flavor is the perfect marriage of tastes.”  m
Julie Cook Ramirez is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.