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Ice cream sales cool as tastes change

Published Oct. 7, 2005

Across America, there are still whole-pint gobblers. Armed with a spoon and a craving, they polish off an entire pint of Haagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry's ice cream in a single sitting.

Often, they have favored techniques. Some like to grip the ice cream container with an oven mit to keep their holding hand warm. Others advocate zapping a pint for a few seconds in the microwave to quickly soften the rich, fat-laden ice cream.

The ice cream gourmands may be a hardy breed _ or foolhardy, health experts say _ but their numbers are dwindling. And more and more, shoppers browsing the freezer cases of the nation's supermarkets are likely to resist grabbing a carton of Chunky Monkey, Triple Brownie Overload or some other flavor of super-premium ice cream.

Super premium is the top tier of the ice cream market, where the prices ($2.70 a pint on average), the calories (270 or more in a 4-ounce serving) and the fat content (up to 23 grams of fat) are highest.

Throughout the 1980s, the sales of super-premium ice cream in grocery stores grew rapidly. But recently, this $277-million-a-year market has slowed sharply, from the double-digit growth rates of a few years ago to almost no growth at all.

Today, a frozen yogurt or a cup of Starbucks coffee passes for a decadent dessert for many of the affluent, well-educated consumers who eat the most super-premium ice cream.

Health worries and changing cultural tastes, experts say, are behind the slowdown.

Harold Z. Friedman, 41, a cardiologist in Berkley, Mich., used to eat rich ice cream without a second thought. But, as a surgeon who has performed thousands of angioplasties to clear clogged arteries, he knew quite well that consuming fatty foods like ice cream contributes to heart problems. Growing older made him reconsider his diet.

"Suddenly I realized I was getting to the age of many of the patients I was treating," Friedman recalled.

So a few years ago, Friedman and his wife, Lynda, switched to lighter ice creams _ precisely the advice he had been dispensing to his patients.

More customers will likely be scared away as they begin to read what they are eating. Three months ago, federal food-labeling regulations took effect that require all ice cream companies to print the fat, calorie and other nutritional contents on each carton.

For years, health experts like Dr. William Castelli, director of the Framingham Heart Study, have been warning people about the dangers of eating rich ice cream.

But perhaps more effective in dissuading consumers will be reading that a single half-cup, 4-ounce serving of Haagen-Dazs vanilla contains 18 grams of fat (28 percent of the recommended daily limit). Of the fat grams, 11 are saturated (54 percent of the daily limit). The serving also has 120 milligrams of cholesterol (40 percent of the limit).

Industry analysts say health-consciousness is only part of the reason super-premium sales are slowing.

The decade of the 1980s was more open to excess and extravagance than the 1990s, they say. People still enjoy self-indulgent pleasures, but probably not as often in the more restrained 1990s.

"The state of ice cream reflects culture," said Richard Davis, an analyst for Wessels, Arnold & Henderson in Minneapolis. "The 1980s had wild flavors and decadent richness. But the world has changed. People are ambivalent about gratification."

Many fans of rich ice cream have fine-tuned their habit, suggests Howard Waxman, who publishes a newsletter about ice cream.

"They eat a diet food to counteract their Haagen-Dazs," Waxman said, "or they work out twice as hard the next day."

Rob Michalak, a spokesman for Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc.,asserts the devoted consumers ofthe company's ice cream are "still eating it, but they might be eating from a demitasse cup instead of a salad bowl."

Yet, by all accounts, the slower growth in the super-premium market has meant tougher competition.

The key combatants in this high-end ice cream war are Haagen-Dazs, a subsidiary of Grand Metropolitan PLC, and Ben & Jerry's Homemade in Waterbury, Vt. Together, the two account for roughly 90 percent of super-premium sales in grocery stores.

Each has invaded the other's turf. Though both companies have scoop shops across the nation, the main arena of competition is in store freezers, where most super-premium ice cream is sold.

The fight began two years ago when Haagen-Dazs, long known for its "smooth" ice cream, went after Ben & Jerry's market by introducing its own versions of "chunky" ice cream, dubbed "Extraas," like Triple Brownie Overload.

Last spring Ben & Jerry's, famous for its chunky ice creams with zany names like Cherry Garcia (cherry-and-chunk chocolate flavor named after Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead rock band), retaliated with its own smooth varieties.

To promote its smooth flavors, the company is advertising on television for the first time, featuring the anti-Vietnam activist Daniel Berrigan, the folk-singer Pete Seeger and the filmmaker Spike Lee.

Haagen-Dazs isn't amused. David Gilman, a public relations man working on behalf of Haagen-Dazs, declared that Ben & Jerry's introduction of chunkless flavors "begs one question, how innovative is it to launch vanilla ice cream in 1994?"

With growth slowing in America, Haagen-Dazs has ventured across the Atlantic with an aggressive campaign to sell its super-premium ice cream to Europeans.

The Ben & Jerry's formula for growth includes new senior management. The company recently announced that Ben Cohen would step down as chief executive, though he will remain chairman.

To lure a promising candidate, Ben & Jerry's has said it will abandon its commitment to pay its top executives no more than seven times its lowest-paid workers. The chief executive search is not yet complete.

Growth may be waning, but the super-premium market is still a lucrative business. Analysts estimate that profit margins are 50 percent higher on rich brands like Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's than on ordinary ice cream.

A heaping helping of fat

More than 50 percent of the calories in a one-half cup serving of these two ice creams are calories from fat. (And note that a serving is just one-fourth of the pint container.) The nutritional numbers:

In the 250 calories in a half cup of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream, you get 140 calories of fat.

In the 270 calories in a half cup of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream, you get 160 calories of fat.

Ben & Haagen- Nutritional

Jerry's Dazs requirements+

Total fat 16g 18g Less than 65g

Saturated fat 10g 11g Less than 20g

Cholesterol 75mg 120mg Less than 300mg

Sodium 60mg 85mg Less than 2,400mg

Total carbohydrate 27g 21g 300g

Dietary fiber 0g 0g 25g

+If you need 2,000 calories a day to maintain your weight, these numbers indicate how much you should take from each category.

Sources: The Haagen-Dazs Co., Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc.

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