At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, ice cream sales skyrocketed as people turned to comforting indulgences to get through uncertain times. Two years later, the desire for comfort foods is still an influencing purchasing factor, but consumers also are refocused on their health.

“Now more than ever, consumers are torn between indulgent comfort foods and health aspirations — and frozen treats are no exception,” global market research firm Mintel says in its “Ice Cream and Frozen Novelties U.S., April 2021” report. “Brands can advocate for balance, encouraging consumers to keep both healthier and more indulgent options on hand for different occasions and need states.”

As ice cream sales fall from their 2020 peaks, Mintel predicts that in 2022 and beyond, the category will return to its pre-pandemic slow, steady growth. But brands could try to keep consumers engaged with their products — by helping them achieve that balancing act of “indulgence and emotional and physical health.”

According to Lisa Vortsman, marketing director, ice cream innovations for Englewood Cliffs. N.J.-based Unilever USA, consumers are still turning to ice cream as a special indulgence as the pandemic continues. With that in mind, the company recently added 19 new offerings to its Breyers, Klondike, Magnum, and Talenti brands.

“We continue to leverage trends to bring frozen treat lovers new product innovations and experiences that they will enjoy, especially during this time,” she emphasizes.

A return to childhood favorites

Many ice cream lovers have enjoyed the frozen treat since they were children, and the desire for the comfort of nostalgic favorites is currently influencing purchasing decisions. According to Mintel, 44% of ice cream buyers “who are purchasing frozen treats more often since the start of the pandemic are doing so for comfort.”

Cincinnati-based The Kroger Co. identified #TBT Flavors (aka throwback flavors) as one of the top 10 trends in its “2022 Food Trends Report.”

“Think of the nostalgic 90s comeback, but apply it to meals,” the company said in a press release.

Ben & Jerry’s, Burlington, Vt., says the newest additions to its Topped line are for those yearning to relive favorite childhood memories. The new flavors — which bring to mind classic children’s desserts —include Topped Chocolate Milk & Cookies and Topped Dirt Cake.

Ben & Jerry’s Topped Dirt Cake variety is inspired by a classic childhood dessert.

The Ben & Jerry’s Topped portfolio, which was initially introduced a year ago, features a layer of fudgy ganache at the top of each pint. The new flavors have a milk chocolatey ganache layer, as well as a chocolate cookie swirl, the company says. The Topped Dirt Cake variety also contains another innovation: a vanilla pudding ice cream base covered with cookie crumbs.

"The 2021 Topped lineup was one of our most successful innovation launches ever," says Ben & Jerry's “flavor guru,” Colleen Rossell. "If you're looking for a treat loaded with nostalgia that brings you back — these two new Topped flavors deliver."

Tillamook County Creamery Association’s Butter Pecan Flavor is part of the company’s commitment to develop the best classic flavors.

Holland, Mich.-based Hudsonville Ice Cream recently unveiled a line of ice cream pints inspired by childhood-favorite Little Debbie snack cakes. The varieties include Oatmeal Creme Pies, Cosmic Brownies, Zebra Cakes, Honey Buns, Strawberry Shortcake Rolls, Swiss Rolls, and Nutty Bars; they are available at Walmart for a suggested retail price of $2.50.

Unilever USA also jumped on the nostalgia trend by adding “new flavors inspired by some of America’s most beloved desserts,” under its Breyers brand, explains Vortsman. The new varieties include Very Berry Cobbler and Banana Split.

For its part, Tillamook is committed to “developing the best of everyone’s favorite classic flavors,” explains Leo Castello Branco, senior category manager, ice cream for Tillamook County Creamery Association, Tillamook, Ore. For example, the company recently added a familiar favorite to its ice cream line: Butter Pecan.  

Innovate with new flavors

Beyond the tried-and-true, flavor innovation also is driving the ice cream category forward, explains Castello Branco. He says a wide range of new flavors is being introduced, “ranging from extra-indulgent to internationally inspired (such as boba ice cream) to savory/salty offerings.”

Speaking of boba, Pittsburg, Calif.-based Ramar Foods expanded its superpremium Magnolia brand with a line of ice cream with boba inclusions in late 2021. Flavors include Ube, Mango, Coffee, Green Tea, Wintermelon, Honeydew, Brown Sugar, and Jasmine Milk Tea.

“The team is excited to be part of the boba trend; we are bringing the flavors our consumers love with a new twist while introducing new milk tea flavors to the Magnolia line," says Vaneza Agustin, marketing coordinator for Ramar Foods.

Castello Branco adds that one way to keep the category “fresh” is to continue to offer exciting new flavors such as “seasonally inspired flavors, limited-time offers and partnerships/collaborations with other brands.”

Turkey Hill Dairy added intrigue to its ice cream portfolio by asking its consumers to play flavor detective. The Conestoga, Pa.-based company introduced a limited-time Mystery Flavor; fans who guess the correct flavor could win free ice cream for life.

"Surprising our fans with a delicious but mysterious new flavor is what the Mystery Flavor is all about," says Kriston Ohm, vice president, marketing. "We like to have fun at Turkey Hill, and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to bring the unexpected to the freezer aisle.”

Portland, Ore.-based Salt & Straw’s brand identity is built on its willingness to innovate with adventurous new flavors, notes Tyler Malek, co-founder, and chief creative officer. The company creates a new themed menu for its scoop shops each month. Flavors in June’s picnic-themed portfolio include spins on familiar favorites such as Pink Rosé & Watermelon Sorbet, Baked Brie & Fig Cheesecake, and Chocolate Nocino Cherry Pie, as well as more “out there” varieties such as Cinnamon & Honey Fried Chicken and Deviled Egg Custard with Smoked Black Tea.

“I think ice cream in general, it's really got the superpower of allowing you to tell stories,” says Malek. “We really get to go out on a limb and create some flavors for the experience and the storytelling rather than whether or not they're going to get purchased.”

The company also takes advantage of direct-to-consumer sales to try out riskier flavors that might not be successful in a larger launch. For example, it will be unveiling a line featuring adaptogenic mushrooms in the spring. Malek describes these limited-time offerings as a sort of “sneaker drop-style” releases in which the scarcity of the product adds to consumer interest. Releasing products this way also allows Salt & Straw to be responsive to any viral trends and try out adventurous concepts.

Indulge them with premium ingredients

According to Mintel, one way to tempt health-focused consumers is for brands to create a space for permissible indulgence. For example, by using “real, simple ingredients,” brands could create a health halo for their ice cream products — and make premium claims.

“Consumers’ desire for premium offerings intensified with the pandemic, as being home has allowed them to prioritize both taking more time for food, as well as eating better-tasting food,” explains Castello Branco.

Malek agrees that premiumization is a trend that he’s noticing in ice cream. And one way that manifests is through the inclusion of specific craft ingredients associated with being the best in their space. For example, instead of having just one variety of vanilla, ice cream processors might introduce 10 versions of the flavor that utilize specific beans. And product developers might include chocolate or coffee ingredients with a premium reputation.   

“People are just going to start falling in love with that ingredient story more and more, like more of an informed consumer,” he points out.

Early in its product development process, Salt & Straw tries to pin down the best craft ingredients that fit a given monthly theme, and ice cream flavors are invented from there. For example, with June’s picnic line, the research and development team thought, “What suppliers do we know that offer products that we think of when we think of summer,” Malek notes.

With that in mind, Salt & Straw identified “Oprah’s favorite fried chicken” restaurant — Ezell’s Fried Chicken in Seattle — and worked with the restaurant to develop the Cinnamon & Honey Fried Chicken. Other craft suppliers featured in the picnic portfolio include Stone Barn Brandyworks (for the walnut liqueur in the Chocolate Nocino Cherry Pie variety) and Cowgirl Creamery (for the cheese in the Baked Brie & Fig Cheesecake flavor).

Reduce portion sizes

Another way to create permissible indulgences is through portion control, notes Mintel. And with their single-serve packaging, frozen novelties fit the bill here.

Unilever USA’s Breyers brand introduced new flavors that meet consumer desire for nostalgia, healthfulness.

Unilever USA introduced a slew of new frozen novelties in January 2022, Vortsman notes. The company added five flavors — Coocoo for Caramel, Vanilla Caramel Classic, Cookies ‘n Cream, Reese’s Peanut Butter, and Reese’s Chocolate — to its Klondike Cones line. It also added Magnum Duets, which are ice cream bars dipped in two types of chocolate, in Almond Duet, Chocolate Duet, and Cookie Duet varieties.

“Consumers are continuing to look for ways to indulge and treat themselves, seeking out more of the ‘me moments,’” she adds. “Thus, we see superpremium novelties continuing to grow, and we are excited to offer the first-ever double-dipped Magnum Duets bar with two different kinds of chocolates.”

Oreo, a brand of Chicago-based Mondelēz International, says it entered the frozen novelty space with the debut of its Oreo Frozen Treats line. The portfolio includes Oreo bars, which contain a crème-flavored base packed with Oreo cookie pieces, dipped in a coating made from crushed Oreo wafer pieces; Oreo cones, featuring crispy, chocolatey cones filled with a crème-flavored base packed with Oreo cookie pieces, dipped in a coating made from crushed Oreo wafer pieces; and Oreo sandwiches, which have a crème-flavored base mixed with Oreo cookie pieces, sandwiched between two big Oreo cookie wafers. (The brand also unveiled 48-ounce and 14-ounce tubs of Oreo ice cream).

“We continually seek ways to playfully reinvent our classic cookie and are excited to bring this new Oreo innovation to the freezer aisle,” says Justin Parnell, vice president, Oreo U.S.

Keep it healthy 

While ice cream typically is associated with being an indulgent treat, brands could connect with consumers by adding in functional benefits that appeal to wellness-minded shoppers or creating “free-from” products that feel less like a guilty pleasure.

According to Mintel, 64% of those who buy frozen treats report enjoying both regular and better-for-you frozen treats.

“Brands can leverage functional ingredients that provide relaxing or energizing benefits,” the global market research firm reports. “Enlightened, a [better-for-you] frozen treat brand, released a line of adaptogen-infused fruit bars that claim benefits like relaxation and renewal from ingredients like lavender and chamomile.”

Another offering in the better-for-you space is Unilever’s Breyers CarbSmart product line. It is designed “for those in search of carb- and calorie-conscious options in the frozen treat aisle,” notes Vortsman. The brand recently added Brownie a la Mode and Mint Fudge Cookie to its Breyers CarbSmart portfolio.

And N!ck’s, Los Angeles, says it continues to expand its portfolio of light ice creams, which prove there is no need for sacrifices when it comes to healthy eating. The new pints have even more inclusions and contain 260-420 calories and no added sugar. Selections include Rocky Fjord, Campfire S'mörgs, Swedish Munchies, Raspbär Swirl, Hazelnöt Kram, and Strawbär Cheesecake.

N!ck’s unveiled six new light ice cream varieties

"Instead of giving up what you love this year, N!ck’s suggests making positive changes that don't come with a sacrifice, especially when it comes to eating healthy," says Carlos Altschul, CEO of N!ck’s. "There are many options now for enjoying indulgent treats, without the sugar and calories."