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Makers Put Fattening Ice Cream on a Diet

Posted - Jun. 21, 2004 at 5:40 a.m.



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Lick. Lick. Lick. Ick!

The ice cream industry has an unnerving message for purists this summer: less.

Not less ice cream. But less so-called bad stuff swirled into it. Less sugar. Less fat. And, of course, fewer carbs. In other words, less yummy stuff.

No one's calling it an industry meltdown -- yet. But ice cream retail sales dropped 3.7% during the 52 weeks ending May 8, reports ACNielsen. Overall sales are lower now than four years ago.

That is not good news for the first full day of summer today. Summer is to ice cream sales what winter is to hot chocolate. Perhaps that's why many of the biggest names in the $21 billion ice cream arena, from Breyers to Dreyer's to Ben & Jerry's, are falling all over themselves to give calorie-counting and Atkins-obsessed consumers some serious, better-for-you options this summer.

Suddenly, a product built on fat, calories and carbs is trying to appear svelte. Even Ben & Jerry's, the kingpin of sinfully rich ice cream, has rolled out a carb-reduced concoction called Carb Karma. Tagline: ''Less Body. More Soul.''

''People all want a magic answer for losing weight but are couching it in an exploration of healthier ice cream options,'' says Carol Moog, a consumer psychologist. ''Why not just eat cardboard?''

That would be the ice cream carton, of course. Lots of fiber.

Through the first five months of the year, 62 ''low-carb'' ice creams have been introduced, and the number likely will top 100 before the year ends, reports Productscan Online, which monitors new products. In 2003, there were 19. In 2000, there were none.

Numbers tell the tale. Almost 30% of all products sold by giant Good Humor-Breyers now are in its better-for-you line, says Joe Colligan, vice president of sales. Sales of this line have doubled during the first five months of 2004.

Consumers have been clamoring. When Suzie Bernal buys ice cream, the flight attendant from Howard Beach, N.Y., gets the ''healthier'' ones. Dreyer's no-sugar ice cream ''is just as good as the real stuff,'' she says.

At most ice cream companies, sales of the better-for-you lines are eating away at conventional ice cream sales. But experts say that there's a limited market for the healthier stuff and that a shakeout is surely coming.

''The ice cream makers will drown in this stuff,'' says Tom Vierhile, executive editor at Productscan Online. ''There's not enough freezer space in the supermarkets to accommodate it.''

The sweet substitute

The key ingredient in most of the better-for-you ice creams is Splenda. That's the sugar-based sweetener made from sucralose. It passes through the body, however, without being broken down for energy, so it adds zero calories (vs. 15 for a teaspoon of sugar), and the body does not recognize it as a carbohydrate.

Splenda was approved for use in ice cream in 1998 by the Food and Drug Administration. Since then, it's become a staple of almost every no-sugar or low-sugar brand.

''Splenda owns the alternative sweetener market in ice cream,'' says Howard Waxman, editor and publisher of the Ice Cream Reporter, an industry trade magazine. That's why ice cream ranks as one of the fastest-growing categories for the use of Splenda.

But some nutritionists are slow to jump on the ice cream industry's better-for-you bandwagon.

The ice cream giants don't suddenly care about nutrition, says Marion Nestle, chair of the department of nutrition at New York University. ''They're just trying to sell more ice cream.''

Many consumers who purchase the better-for-you ice creams will mistakenly think they can eat more of it. ''Nothing would delight the companies more,'' Nestle says.

What's the healthiest ice cream for a grown-up to eat?

That has more to do with portion size than brand name, says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Adults should order a ''child's size'' portion of any ice cream -- and refrain from pouring on the toppings, she says.

Few folks know more about ice cream -- or eat more varieties -- than Waxman. He looks at the industry's better-for-you mania and cringes, but for a very different reason than the nutritionists. ''It's sad that ice cream can't just be ice cream,'' he says. ''If you're on a diet, eat sorbet.''

Churning the market

Not so fast, says Gary Rogers, CEO of Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, which sells the Dreyer's and Edy's brands. (The ice creams are the same, but Dreyer's is marketed under the Edy's name in states east of the Rockies.)

While the other ice cream makers are mixing and matching new ingredients to create better-for-you ice creams, his company has gone a giant step further. It has spent $20 million over the past 15 years to devise a new way to make ice cream. The new version has 50% less fat and 30% fewer calories -- and 80% of the consumers it polled mistook it for traditional premium, he says.

The company has coined a marketing term for the process: slow churned. The name comes from the fact that the ice cream takes three times as long to churn.

In fact, it's made at a much higher pressure -- and much lower temperature -- than conventional ice cream. The molecular structure actually changes so that fat globules are broken into smaller pieces. This makes the ice cream taste fattier than it really is. It essentially fools the taste buds.

''It could change the ice cream industry,'' says Rogers. Change won't come cheaply. The first of three stainless-steel, 10-foot-high churners cost the company $8 million. So serious is the company about the new ice cream that it will spend $100 million on its marketing over the next three years.

There's logic to the investment: Since the ''slow churn'' version of Dreyer's Grand Light ice cream hit grocery freezers in May, sales have doubled over the Grand Light it replaced. ''I've been in the business for 27 years, and I've never seen anything like this,'' says Rogers.

Here's what other ice cream giants will have folks doing this summer:

* Chewing on low-carb cookie dough chunks. No ice cream maker's had a harder time getting better for you than Ben & Jerry's. Just one-half cup of its Half Baked ice cream (with chocolate chip cookie dough chunks and brownie pieces) comes crammed with 280 calories, 13 grams of fat and 31 grams of carbs. Double that for a full cup, something closer to what most consumers consider a serving.

So, Ben & Jerry's gave Derek Spors, its ice cream scientist, a seemingly impossible mission: Create a low-carb version of Half Baked. ''When my boss gave me the assignment, I asked, 'Are you kidding?' ''

Spors worked many late nights. He tested dozens of recipes. And he nagged vendors -- particularly the supplier of the chocolate chip cookie dough.

''There were lots of moments when I wanted to give up, but my boss wouldn't let me,'' Spors says.

His boss is Arnold Carbone, director of R&D. ''This was a huge challenge,'' says Carbone. ''How to meet consumer expectations with Ben & Jerry's taste but still deliver better-for-you quality.''

Not easy. But the Carb Karma version of Half Baked has 5 grams of net carbs per half-cup vs. 31 in the original, and 180 calories, a 100-calorie drop.

Melanie Giddings, who lives in Salem, Ore., and is a diabetic, was so happy with the Carb Karma line, she wrote the company this plea: ''I beg you to keep it on the market . . . even if it's not a top seller.''

But Nestle, the NYU nutritionist, tasted another variety, Swiss Almond Vanilla Carb Karma, and pronounced: ''It's vile.''

* Chomping on better-for-you frozen novelties. This year, Good Humor-Breyers introduced a mixed box of 20 sugar-free novelties: Popsicles, Creamsicles and Fudgsicles. Already, this ''Sugar Free Healthy Bunch'' ranks as one of the company's biggest multipack launches. But the company's biggest hit is its Breyers CarbSmart ice cream line. It's not even a year old, but it could be a $100 million line by year's end. ''Our biggest challenge is keeping up with demand,'' says Colligan.

* Checking serving sizes on cartons. Blue Bell Creameries, sold in 14 Southern states, has an idea it hopes makes its new Creme de Carb line stand out from everyone else's low-carb offerings: picture serving sizes on the outside of the carton. Dieters can see what a single serving size is. ''It's a visual reminder,'' says CEO Paul Kruse.

The company spent six months developing the Creme de Carb line. It went through nearly 20 formulations to get it right.

President Bush has Blue Bell sent to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Kruse brags. But it's not the Creme de Carb line. The president prefers the real thing.

* Slurping reduced-fat ice cream. Dairy Queen has a secret that it doesn't rush to discuss: Its soft serve is only 5% butterfat, while most premium ice creams are 10% to 14% butterfat. A cup of DQ's soft serve has 280 calories.

''Technically, our ice cream is reduced fat,'' says Michael Keller, executive vice president of marketing. ''But we don't usually like to promote that because people perceive it as super premium.''

Not too long ago, the chain did consider introducing a Breakfast Blizzard -- soft-serve ice cream blended with granola and fresh fruit. But focus groups put the kibosh on it. ''They thought it sounded pretty ridiculous,'' says Keller.

31 flavors, no low-carb

One of the most familiar names in ice cream, Baskin-Robbins, hasn't joined the fray -- yet.

It's trying to create a low-carb product, but none has passed the taste test, says Ken Kimmel, concept officer at Baskin-Robbins. ''If we get it right, we'll start selling it,'' he says. Until then, don't look to save on carbs at Baskin-Robbins. The irony is that the company isn't feeling pressured: ''We're having one of our best years in a long time,'' says Kimmel.

Perhaps that's no irony at all.

Nestle, the nutritionist from NYU, says she always prefers real ice cream -- in moderation. But, she warns, any ice cream, no matter how few carbs it contains, is, in the end, a dessert.

''Ice cream,'' she sighs, ''will never be a health food.''

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