There is a rising ice cream trend that may indicate where things are going for the ice cream category. With consumers’ growing interest in healthier indulgence, ice cream companies are creating pints that showcase fewer calories, less sugar and in some cases, a higher protein content. In a context where consumers are looking for indulgence and satisfaction from ice cream, those brands that are associated with a more premium identity, as well as simple, natural ingredients, are outperforming others, said global market research firm Mintel in a 2017 ice cream report.

Halo Top, Los Angeles, with its low-calorie, low-sugar and high-protein ice cream, currently corners the market on “healthy indulgence.” The brand had the best-selling pint of ice cream as of last summer, surpassing industry leaders such as Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs, according to Halo Top. Its ice cream contains from 240 to 360 calories, an average of 5 to 8 grams of sugar and 20 grams of protein per pint. It is also made with sugar alcohol.

But other companies are coming forward with products that could take some share from Halo Top.

In February, Ben & Jerry’s, Burlington, Vt., introduced a line of reduced-calorie, reduced-sugar ice cream pints that gives its customers a “less guilt” option, the company said. Called Moo-phoria, the ice cream contains 60-70% less fat and at least 35% fewer calories than traditional ice cream, according to the company.

One of the line’s three flavors, Chocolate Milk & Cookies, features chocolate and vanilla light ice cream swirled with chocolate chip cookies. A ½-cup serving contains 140 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 15 grams of sugar and 3 grams of protein.

Also in February, Talenti, Minneapolis, makers of gelato and sorbet, launched low-sugar gelato in three flavors: vanilla cinnamon, mint cookie and chocolate fudge swirl. The “crafted with less sugar” chocolate fudge swirl flavor contains 120 calories, 6 grams of fat, 9 grams of sugar, 6 grams of sugar alcohol (erythritol) and 4 grams of protein. The company also uses monk fruit in its recipe to help sweeten the gelato.

Huntington Beach, Calif.-based Revelé, meanwhile, makes a reduced-calorie, reduced-sugar whipped gelato, also sold in pints. The process of whipping air into the gelato makes it naturally lighter, with less sugar needed, according to the company. A ½-cup serving of the chocolate contains 90 calories, 4 grams of fat, 5 grams of sugar and 1 gram of protein.

“I expect to see many more ice cream companies riding the high-protein, low-calorie ice cream wave,” said Cary Frye, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA). “It’s an exciting trend because it means ice cream can be both an indulgent treat and an option for consumers looking to dessert for added nutrients.”

She added that in years past, ice cream companies responded to consumer requests by removing ingredients, such as in no-sugar-added and low-fat formulations. But today, companies are now adding ingredients that consumers want — for example, protein.


Keeping it clean

Another trend that is already unfolding and likely to shape the market going forward is the integration of more natural ingredients and simpler formulations, even as suppliers seek to keep products flavorful, satisfying and indulgent, Mintel said in its ice cream report.

Clean-label is the top trend guiding product development, according to a June 2017 ice cream survey by IDFA. Fifty-six percent of survey respondents listed clean labels (products made without artificial colors, preservatives and chemically derived ingredients) as key. Likewise, 44% of survey respondents listed natural products as a top trend.

Frye noted that clean labeling is here to stay.

“Many ice cream companies have already begun the lengthy process of reformulating and using new ingredients to achieve this trend,” she said. “I see added-sugars labeling as an exciting educational opportunity for ice cream companies. Companies should look to begin a conversation with the consumer about sugar’s role as an inherent and necessary ingredient in the making of a successful sweet treat.” 


New eating occasions

Ice cream is well known as a go-to dessert option. But some companies are looking to expand ice cream’s eating occasions, capitalizing on the popular snacking movement. As companies such as Halo Top emphasize their products’ protein content, this snacking concept could gain steam.

“I think we will see products that pull from overarching trends in snacking,” said Dena Wimette, senior manager of innovation and communications for Ben & Jerry’s. “People are moving towards less formalized meal times and turn to snacks throughout the day. Ice cream is often a dessert item saved for after dinner and late night, so the question becomes how to bring ice cream into a snacking occasion.”

My/Mo Mochi Ice Cream, Los Angeles, is aiming to do just that. Last summer, the company launched a line of mochi ice cream, rice dough-covered ice cream that it’s marketing as portable sweet snacks. The hand-held frozen treats feature ice cream wrapped in sweet, soft dough, which makes them easy to eat on the go. The company recently expanded its line into pints, adding ice cream with mochi bits, featuring flavors similar to its dough-covered treats. 

Wimette noted that products that solve consumers’ problems or provide a positive benefit have the best shot at success, as these supersede fads and trends.

Ben & Jerry’s tried to capitalize on the convenience/portable trend with its Pint Slices, introduced last summer. The round single servings of ice cream are covered in a chocolate coating. They are packaged in individually wrapped pouches (for easy on-the-go eating) and come in four flavors.

“People are leading increasingly busy lives and are looking for products and services to provide convenience,” Wimette said.



Ice cream companies showcase daring flavors

As consumers’ palates for ice cream flavors change and broaden, many ice cream companies are grabbing the opportunity to innovate and stand out among competitors. 

“Consumers are becoming more adventurous with their flavor choices, with global flavor trends showing up across multiple categories,” said Dena Wimette, senior manager of innovation and communications for Ben & Jerry’s, Burlington, Vt. “Spices, fruits and desserts from other parts of the world will start getting integrated into ice cream either subtlety or overtly.”

She added that nostalgia is the trend that almost counters the global trend.

“People lead busy, complicated lives, and tasting something that brings you back to simpler times brings a sense of calm and joy,” she said. 

Last spring, the Washington, D.C.-based International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) conducted an ice cream company survey.  Survey respondents were asked to reveal the most daring or creative flavor in their current product lineup.

Included among the top 10 mentioned were sweet and salty, Dreamsickle Orange, lavender coconut, salted caramel chocolate truffle, Fireball (red hot cinnamon), Elvis (banana peanut butter), caramel apple and black raspberry. Also listed were flavors inspired by liquor or spices such as bourbon crunch, margarita sorbet, curry coconut, black sesame and spicy caramel. Flavors that contain plenty of inclusions were also listed as popular and unique.

Natasha Case, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based Coolhaus, believes the flavor focus going forward will be with innovation in variegate and inclusions.

“Folks really want loaded pints ... and it can be even trickier to do in novelties, like our sammies [the company’s ice cream sandwiches],” she said. “In two of our three new sammies, we have inclusions/variegates.”


A regional approach

“Many companies are currently seeing success by introducing regional flavors,” said Cary Frye, IDFA’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs.

She pointed to Mardi Gras King Cake (cinnamon cake-flavored ice cream, pastry pieces and a cream cheese swirl with candy sprinkles) from Brenham, Texas-based Blue Bell Creameries and Buffalo-Bills-inspired Brownie Blitz from Perry’s Ice Cream Co., Buffalo, N.Y., as examples.

On the foodservice side, some of the fastest-growing ice cream flavors are chocolate peanut butter (+22.2%), toffee (+22.2%), bourbon (+12.5%), espresso (+12.5%) and black cherry (+10.0%), according Technomic Inc.,
a Chicago-based research firm specializing in foodservice trends. 


The scoop on Halo Top’s success

Dairy Foods spoke with Halo Top Creamer’s President and COO Doug Bouton to discuss how the company is tapping into the better-for-you ice cream trend and its successes.


Dairy Foods: Halo Top ice cream taps into a number of trends that are still gaining traction across the food industry, including those toward higher protein content and lower sugar levels. How were you able to successfully leverage these trends in what’s typically viewed as an indulgent category?

Bouton: I think that consumers are becoming more educated about what it means to eat healthy and the effects of things like calories, sugar and protein. The challenge is that most consumers do not want to sacrifice on taste. In some ways, we were fortunate to be in a category as indulgent as ice cream because, within the ice cream category, Halo Top’s nutritional profile really stood out. When we coupled our nutritional profile — low-calorie, high-protein, low-sugar — with a taste profile that mirrored regular ice cream, we knew we had a hit.


Dairy Foods: What type of dialogue does Halo Top have with its consumers and how does that shape new product development?

Bouton: We take a lot of pride in our brand voice and strive to engage with our fans as often as possible, including with respect to flavor and product development. In fact, by way of example, before we launched our dairy-free and vegan line, our number one request from fans was for Halo Top to create a dairy-free and vegan product. The same is true for many of our flavors, which are the direct result of fan requests or suggestions.


Dairy Foods: What is the company most excited about as it heads into 2018 and beyond?

Bouton: As we look to 2018 and beyond, I think we’re most excited about the ways in which we can continue to grow the brand. For instance, we’re starting to expand internationally, including launching in the U.K. and Ireland in January 2018 and Canada in March 2018. In addition, we’re extremely excited about launching our first new product — the dairy-free and vegan line — and our first new concept — a retail scoop shop.


Dairy Foods: Talk about emerging trends specific to the ice cream category — how is Halo Top responding to those trends?

Bouton: The biggest trend seems to be the movement toward dairy-free alternatives and vegan items. As a result, we launched a dairy-free and vegan-friendly line last year and just recently added seven additional flavors to it (bringing the total number of flavors to 14). We’re excited to finally offer our dairy-free and vegan fans the same thing that we’ve given to our dairy fans.