GROCERY: Ice Cream/Frozen Novelties: Churn, baby, churn

Lots of people go on diets every day, swearing to lose weight and get in shape. For a while they stick to them -- starting or boosting their exercise programs, and eating more fruits and vegetables, seafood, grilled chicken, and the like.

And then the urge comes. According to a recent national survey commissioned by Englewood Cliffs. N.J.-based Unilever USA, the No. 1 food that both men and women sneak while on a diet is ice cream. It's no wonder that ice cream and frozen dessert manufacturers are catering to that weakness with new, sometimes exotic products, as well as improved (is that possible?) versions of the old standbys.

"Superindulgent" is a word some use to describe their products. "Decadent" is another.

Even companies whose niche is to serve the needs of health-conscious consumers -- including those on restricted diets -- recognize that taste rules when it comes to ice cream.

"While consumer interest in health and wellness is certainly growing, the interest in indulgent products, including ice cream, remains strong," says Eric Julstrom, marketing manager, retail brands at Le Mars, Iowa-based Wells' Dairy, Inc., maker of Blue Bunny ice cream. "The connection to ice cream consumption can be very emotional, and for some there is no replacement for 'the good stuff.'"

Julstrom hastens to add that Blue Bunny "has the good stuff" in the form of better-for-you options.

The ice cream industry at large is tracking other component trends in the food industry in developing products that incorporate fresh fruits with antioxidant attributes such as blueberries and pomegranates, and in making sure 100-calorie items and other portion-control packaging is prominent.

Sophisticated flavors

"There's a big uptick in organic, too," says Connie Tipton, president and c.e.o. of the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) in Washington, "with some companies getting into the organic category big-time.

"And there's a lot of growth in the superindulgent, as well as in slow-churned [segments]," she continues. "There are still people who want to be really indulgent, but the real growth is in slow-churned."

Certainly the "churn" phenomenon -- ncluding products such as Slow Churned from Dryer's/Edy's and Double Churn from Breyers -- is intended to provide the best of both worlds, turning traditional low-fat ice cream into a creamier version with a taste profile closer to its full-fat cousin.

But beyond that, standby companies and new entrants alike are developing and offering products directly aimed at the ice cream lover who simply can't resist great flavor and smooth taste, and who doesn't much care about the cost either in calories consumed or dollars surrendered at the checkout counter.

One such product is Haagen-Dazs Reserve Series, a new line of superpremium ice cream "that celebrates rare ingredients and unique flavor combinations from around the world," according to the Oakland, Calif.-based company.

With a suggested retail price of $4.99 per pint, Reserve debuted in March in 19 states, with five flavors: Hawaiian Lehua Honey and Sweet Cream, Pomegranate Chip, Amazon Valley Chocolate, Brazilian Acai Berry Sorbet, and Toasted Coconut Sesame Brittle. There's also a box of three Pomegranate Dark Chocolate Bars, with a suggested retail price of $4.99.

"All of these are inspired by culinary trends," says Josh Gellert, brand manager for Haagen-Dazs. "We think they will appeal to true foodies. True ice cream lovers savor their ice cream much the same way that wine enthusiasts appreciate a fine wine, and they actively seek out finely crafted ice creams with the most intriguing flavors."

Indeed, there are even "Tasting Notes" for each Reserve flavor, describing the taste characteristics and even recommending which dishes and wines go together best.

"Having Reserve on their shelves helps retailers compete better with Whole Foods and other upscale stores, and provides a high register ring so there's more penny profit for them," says Gellert. The same can be said, of course, for other upscale brands that offer distinction and a point of differentiation for the retailer.

How about ice cream made with wine for something different to appeal to the upscale consumer?

Mercer's Dairy, based in Boonville, N.Y., was awarded "Best New Product" in the "Small Bite, Big Taste" competition at the Great American Dessert Expo in Atlanta in June. The winning product: Mercer's Wine Ice Cream, now available in Red Raspberry Chardonnay, Ala Port, Peach White Zinfandel, and Royal White Riesling varieties. Since this 12 percent cream product contains up to 5 percent alcohol by volume, purchasers must be over age 21.

Roxaina Hulburt, director of marketing, a partner in the company, and a former dairy farmer, says the idea to blend fine wine with ice cream stemmed from her work with the New York State Wine & Grape Foundation. First, wine was simply mixed with ice cream at dinner; then came the idea to create a new product.

So the company hired Jim Derway, general manager and formulations expert, and charged him with making it work. "As far as we can find, nobody else has made ice cream with alcohol content like this," notes Hulburt. "We have to be licensed by the feds and also in each state where it's sold."

Mercer's Wine Ice Cream sells for $5.99 or $6.99 per pint, according to Hulburt, "depending on the store."

"We've been selling our Wine Ice Cream for eight months," she says. "For the holidays, we'll do Merlot -- it goes very well. We've had an incredible response."

Perhaps consumers who enjoy ice cream blended with wine are among those with the sophisticated tastes Wells Dairy is targeting with its latest product, Blue Bunny Gelato.

"Through research, we learned that enjoying gelato is as much of a visual experience as it is a taste experience," explains Julstrom. "That's why we added top dressing and packaged it in a clear container. We wanted to give consumers as much of the gelatoria experience as possible in a retail concept. Although the product is currently limited in distribution, indications are that consumer interest in gelato is good, and we are excited about performance in the coming year."

For chocolate aficionados, there is Pasadena, Calif.-based Choctal, which offers pints of four flavors of chocolate, each made with a cocoa powder from a different country: Pure Costa Rican Chocolate, Pure Kalimantan Chocolate, Pure Ghana Chocolate, and Pure San Dominican Chocolate. As a contrast, there's also Pure Madagascar Vanilla.

"I was sitting in a hotel room after a meeting with a manufacturer of premium chocolate in which an offer of a licensing agreement to make a gourmet novelty item had been rejected," says Choctal c.e.o. and president Marc S. Boatright. "I was hit with a bolt of lightening that said, 'You should do this.' I never questioned it. It was an epiphany, and it really works."

The idea that came to him was to produce single-country-of-origin chocolate ice creams, based exclusively on cocoa from the countries in which he had traveled. Now sold in retail ($5.99 a pint at Whole Foods), those flavors will soon be joined by "This Road is Rocky," Boatright's version of Rocky Road ("It's based on a relationship"); another chocolate from Cameroon that will include salted, caramelized almonds in a marshmallow sauce; and "some very interesting ice cream bars that will be radically different from anybody else's," promises Boatright.

"We need to stay ahead of the curve," he continues. "With Nestle and Unilever our top competition, we've got to be creative and as quick as we can be. I'm not a big battleship that has to turn. I'm a little PT boat, and I can turn very quickly."

The folks at Oakland, Calif.-based Dreyer's/Edy's may play on a bigger boat that takes longer to turn, but they've been busy developing a wide variety of innovations, including Slow Churned, using a process of extremely cold blending over a longer period of time to create light ice cream that tastes more like the regular product, but without additional additives, fats, or sweeteners.

The company says Slow Churned sales nearly doubled over the original Grand Light ice cream it replaced in 2004 when it debuted, and have since increased another 80 percent to 90 percent.

"The momentum has continued at a stellar pace, with sales this past year [2006] up 50 percent over the same period last year," reports Dreyer's/Edy's spokeswoman Kim Goeller-Johnson. "2007 is proving to be another stellar year for Slow Churned sales."

Dryer's/Edy's Slow Churned will introduce five new "American Idol" flavors in 2008, according to Goeller-Johnson. "Ice cream lovers are urged to cast votes at for their favorite flavor, offering glitz, glam, and Hollywood fun for the whole family."

Using an "American Idol" tie-in marketing campaign, American Idol Slow Churned flavors generated over 600,000 online votes this year, resulting in "Take the Cake" receiving 32 percent of the total vote and securing a spot as a permanent flavor in the Slow Churned lineup.

Best of both worlds

At Unilever's Breyers, the company is combining the success of Breyers Double Churn with the popularity of portion-control packaging. Available nationwide beginning this past March, Good Humor-Breyers' new 100-calorie lineup includes single-serving 100-calorie cups available in Cookies & Cream and Vanilla Fudge Swirl varieties. The suggested retail price per six-pack is $3.99.

Other 100-calorie packages from Breyers are three-ounce Slim-a-Bear 100-Calorie ice cream sandwiches available in Vanilla and Vanilla/Chocolate flavors, and sold in a six-count package for a suggested retail price of $4.09; two-ounce Slim-a-Bear 100-Calorie ice cram bars made with reduced-calorie and low-fat ice cream, covered with Klondike Chocolate, and sold in an eight-count box for a suggested retail price of $4.09; and 3.5-ounce Fudgsicle 100-Calorie fudge bars sold in an eight-count package for a suggested retail price of $3.99.

In July Breyers introduced Breyers Double Churn Free, a fat-free product designed to help consumers satisfy their ice cream cravings while not blowing their diets. Available in Creamy Vanilla, French Chocolate, Caramel Swirl, and Cappuccino Chocolate Chunk varieties, the product is sold in a 56-ounce container for a suggested retail price of $5.29.

Meanwhile, in April Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, Inc. introduced Loaded, a product that makes no fat-free or low-calorie claims. Instead, the company says it combines scoop shop mix-ins with a frozen dairy dessert. Flavors include Nestle Butterfinger, Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Cookies and Cream, Chocolate Fudge Brownie, and Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup, all including 20 percent more mix-ins than regular ice cream.

According to John Harrison, official taster for Dreyer's/Edy's Grand Ice Cream, the company spent six years developing Loaded, creating a soft and creamy texture through a mixing process that incorporates more air. Loaded has a suggested retail price of $5.99.

On the other hand, the company's Skinny Cow brand is designed to meet the "indulgence" needs of consumers who also want a healthier product, according to senior brand manager Gulbin Hoeberechts.

"In the U.S. the increase in obesity is getting to be more top of mind," he says. "Skinny Cow provides all of the nutritional guidelines that dieters are looking for, but it's definitely a good eating product. You don't have to get an itty-bitty little thing to control your intake of fat. We try to deliver the best of both worlds."

According to Hoeberechts, Skinny Cow's increase in popularity is due in large measure to online bloggers who help spread the word.

The brand Web site features a svelte bovine that promotes the company's low-fat, low-calorie products. "Sure, I lift weights," Skinny Cow says on the site. "One of my four-ounce ice cream sandwiches at a time."

At Eugene, Ore.-based Turtle Mountain, the company's gluten- and dairy-free Cookie Dough flavor in its Purely Decadent line has become its top seller, according to v.p. John Tucker. "When a person can eat Cookie Dough for the first time, it brings a sense of normality. It really does make it special. You feel like you're doing something worthwhile," he says.

This year Turtle Mountain, whose sales have grown from $3 million in 1998 to nearly $20 million in 2007, launched a new "kids' line" of all-natural popsicles and fudge bars, all free of the most common food allergens. In concert with the launch, the company tied in a promotion with the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y., which helps rescue abused farm animals from around the country. Turtle Mountain created a Kid's Club on its Web site, where young consumers can obtain kits and posters.

"It's all about being mindful of the world around us," says Tucker, pointing to the company's history of producing only vegetable-based, nondairy frozen dessert products. Nevertheless, he adds, "Taste remains king, and the key driver remains that the product is dairy-free."

Its Healthier Indulgences line uses 100 percent all-natural ingredients and is certified vegan, kosher, and organic.

With all of the innovation, unusual flavors, and creative products and promotions, which is the all-time favorite flavor of consumers?

"There has been very, very little change," says the IDFA's Tipton. "It's vanilla, chocolate, butter pecan, strawberry, and chocolate mint chip. Vanilla has been No. 1 for a long, long time."


The scoop on category trends


--Total U.S. production of ice cream and related frozen desserts in 2006 amounted to about 1.55 billion gallons, an increase of 0.73 percent over 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

--In 2006, total U.S. sales of ice cream and frozen desserts reached $22.8 billion. Of that total, $8.9 billion was spent on products for at-home consumption, while $13.9 billion was spent on away-from-home frozen dessert purchases in venues such as scoop shops, foodservice, and other retail sales outlets, according to IDFA Dairy Facts/International Ice Cream Association research.

--Ice cream and related frozen desserts are consumed by more than 90 percent of U.S. households, according to product trends tracker Mintel.

--Regular ice cream accounts for the largest share of the frozen dessert market, at 62.4 percent. Reduced-fat, light, low-fat, and nonfat ice cream account for 25 percent of the market, followed by frozen yogurt (4.3 percent), water ice (4.1 percent), sherbet (3.4 percent), and other products (0.7percent), according to the USDA.


--In 2006 California once again produced the largest volume of ice cream and related frozen desserts in the United States, followed by Texas, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, according to the USDA.

--The U.S. led the world in annual production of ice cream and related frozen desserts at about 1.6 billion gallons in 2006, according to the USDA.

--In 2006 about 7.8 percent of the milk produced in the United States was used to make frozen dairy products, according to the USDA.


--The total frozen novelty market in 2006 was valued at $6.1 billion, up from $5.7 billion in 2005, according to IRI research.

--IRI data from 2001 showed that, mirroring a similar trend in ice cream, vanilla was the top flavor for novelties, with more than 27 percent of the volume share. Fudge was the next highest standalone flavor share, with nearly 8 percent.

--In 2001 ice cream bars held the largest dollar market share (25 percent) of the frozen novelty market in supermarkets, followed by yogurt novelties (20 percent) frozen ice (14.1 percent), ice cream sandwiches (13.5 percent), and ice cream cones (10 percent), according to the same IRI data.

International view

--Total U.S. exports of ice cream reached nearly 58 million pounds in 2006 -- worth about $60 million, according to reports from USDA and the International Ice Cream Association.

--In 2006 Mexico was the single largest market for U.S. frozen dessert exports, with an estimated value of almost $30 million. Canada was the No. 2 destination for U.S. frozen dessert exports, valued at $8.1 million. United Kingdom ($2.55 million), Bahamas ($2.05 million), and Hong Kong ($1.6 million) were third, fourth, and fifth respectively.

This information came from the USDA/International Ice Cream Association.
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