Consumers Scream for Full-Fat Ice Cream

Sales of Healthier Offerings are Slumping as Indulgent Brands Outperform

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Ben & Jerry 's Half Baked Ice Cream
Ben & Jerry 's Half Baked Ice Cream

Here's the scoop on ice cream: Most consumers don't care about healthy options, at least not now.

After a few years of growth, better-for-you brands are slumping, putting a freeze on the entire category, which has suffered an 8% sales decline from 2006 to 2011, market researcher Mintel found in a new report analyzing ice-cream brands sold at grocery stores. "Full-fat, indulgent brands have performed well in the last year, appealing to consumers' desire for a rich, creamy, flavorful and fun eating experience, gaining share but not growing fast enough to reverse the segment's steady decline," the report states.

Consider that one of the best-performing brands is Ben & Jerry 's, whose funky flavors include Cake Batter, Cheesecake Brownie and the newly launched Bonnaroo Buzz, a blend of coffee and malt ice creams with toffee chunks and a "whiskey caramel swirl" for which one serving checks in at 280 calories, including 130 calories from fat. Overall, the Unilever-owned brand grew sales nearly 7% from 2010 to 2011, according to Mintel, which excludes Walmart data. But when Ben & Jerry 's tried to lower the fat load a bit with its "Lighten Up" line, it didn't go over so well. The varieties -- introduced in 2007 with half fat and 25% fewer calories -- fell flat and were discontinued in 2009.

"If you ask people if they want a lower-fat product that delivers on all the great taste, they always say yes," said Ben & Jerry 's Marketing Director Dave Stever. But in reality, ice cream is often "your comfort food, it's your breakup ice cream -- and light ice cream is not going to work if that 's how you are consuming it."

Frozen novelties, which include fruit and ice-cream bars, have fared much better, growing sales by 15% from 2006 to 2011, now accounting for nearly 41% of the ice cream/novelty/frozen-yogurt category, according to Mintel. (Although falling, ice cream still leads with about 54%.) While marketers have had more success pushing healthier novelty options, sinful treats still get plenty of attention. Look no further than Unilever, which in April brought its internationally successful Magnum ice cream bar to the states. Varieties include Magnum Double Caramel, a stick of vanilla ice cream covered in caramel sauce and thick Belgian milk chocolate, all for 320 calories a pop.

On the other end of the scale is Nestle's Skinny Cow brand, which is trying to hit a sweet spot of tasty treats without all the fat. The bars, cones, cups and sandwiches aren't exactly diet options, but are marketed as a daily treat. Brand manager Jessica Vasisht concedes that the indulgence-seeking consumer will always rule the category, but "there's another person who looks at it as a daily treat, a daily reward and is trying to fit tit into their lifestyle on a very frequent basis." And that market seems to be growing, with Skinny Cow sales up 21% in the year ending in April, as the 6-year-old brand grew its share a full point to 7%, leading all novelty brands, according to Mintel.

But Nestle-owned Dreyer's Slow Churned ice cream (called Edy's east of the Rocky Mountains) -- which promises half the fat of regular ice cream -- has slumped, with sales falling 6% in the year ending April 17, Mintel reported.

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