It was during the Reagan administration that ice cream finally got proper recognition for its place in American life. Our 40th president designated July as National Ice Cream Month and the third Sunday of the month as National Ice Cream Day.
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The honor was long overdue. Sales of ice cream in the U.S., one of the food industry’s largest sectors, amounts to about $20 billion in annual sales, which (according to the USDA) translates to about 23 quarts per person per year. (And, just in case you ever wondered, it takes the average person just about 50 licks to polish off a single scoop ice cream cone.)
In recent years, the main trend in the industry has been towards “indulgence,” with sales of premium and super-premium ice creams (see definitions below) now outselling regular ice cream as well as light, reduced fat, low fat and nonfat products.
Ice cream, like many other food products, has felt the effects of the low-carb diet boom. In fact, according to ACNielsen, both unit volume and dollar sales of ice cream for the past 52 weeks ending May 15 show an overall decline of just over 3 percent. But that may change as many ice cream brands introduce low-carb products that actually taste good.
There are hundreds of brands, thousands of flavors and more ice cream choices than ever, so we’ve selected a sampling of some of the newest trends and flavors to see just what our own consumer panel of ice cream experts — Katie, Matt, Ann and Al — think are the best!
A little history
Ice cream historians are divided over whether the delicious dessert was begun in China, which developed the first ice houses, or Europe, where the French and Italians perfected fruited ices before adding the richness of cream.
However, it was America that first took a luxury for an elite few and turned it into a product for the masses. America’s first ice cream parlor reportedly opened in New York City in 1776 and our second first lady, Dolly Madison, served ice cream as a dessert in the White House at the second inaugural ball in 1812. But it was a Baltimore man, Jacob Fussell, who transformed the industry in the 1850s with a mass-production method that reduced prices and increased availability.
Premium? Low-fat? What’s the deal?
What makes ice cream so delicious are its basic ingredients: butterfat, cream or milk, and sugar. In fact to be called ice cream in the U.S., the product must have 10 percent butterfat, and to reach premium status, the content of butterfat must be at least 16 percent (but is often more). In addition, of course, makers add a plethora of fruit, nuts, chocolate chips or other confections and flavorings to entice us.
Ice cream packages can be as confusing as any in the supermarket, so be sure you know what you are buying. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets the standards for ice cream, and here are some of the terms on those ice cream cartons — and exactly what those terms mean:
- Ice cream is a frozen food made from a mixture of dairy products, containing at least 10 percent butterfat.
- "Reduced fat" ice cream contains at least 25 percent less total fat than the product with which it is being compared (either an average of leading brands, or the company's own brand.)
- "Light" ice cream contains at least 50 percent less total fat or 33 percent fewer calories than the referenced product (the average of leading regional or national brands.)
- "Low-fat" ice cream contains a maximum of 3 grams of total fat per (1/2 cup) serving.
- "Non-fat" ice cream contains less than 0.5 grams of total fat per serving.
- “Overrun” refers to the amount of aeration the ice cream undergoes during its manufacture, a process that keeps the mix from becoming a frozen mass. Overrun is governed by federal standards stating that the finished product must not weigh less than 4.5 pounds per gallon. (A less aerated ice cream will be heavier.)
- "Super-premium" ice cream tends to have very low overrun and high fat content. This category accounts for just 3.5 percent of sales.
- "Premium" ice cream tends to have low overrun and higher fat content than regular ice cream. It is the largest category in terms of sales with 51.5 percent of the market.
The 10 most popular ice cream flavors
(as reported by the International Ice Cream Association)
- Butter pecan
- Chocolate chip
- French vanilla
- Cookies and cream
- Vanilla fudge ripple
- Praline pecan
Ciao Bella: Ciao Bella Gelato, a high-end artisanal gelato and sorbet maker, uses handmade methods and top-quality ingredients. The flavors are unique and intense, and just this week they won the gold medal at the Fancy Food Show in New York for their Chocolate Sorbet. Our favorite is Fresh Mint Chocolate Chunk Gelato and their Coconut Gelato (in a half coconut shell).
Bubbies: This Hawaiian company, named after the founder’s grandmother, is known for its Homemade Hawaiian Mochi Ice Cream, which is made by wrapping a paste of sweet rice around a bite sized one and a quarter ounce ball of ice cream.
Cold Stone: Cold Stone Creamery is celebrating the first anniversary of its store in New York’s Time Square and has introduced ice cream cakes that are bound to be the most indulgent and delicious you’ve ever tried. Our favorites are Strawberry Passion (their best seller) and Snickers Supreme.
Baskin-Robbins: Still one of our favorite scoop stores, this nationwide chain is introducing two special flavors: America's Birthday Cake and Marathon Mint (to commemorate the summer Olympics).
Dreyer’s/Edy’s: This company’s “Slow Churned” Grand Light ice creams have a wonderful creamy texture while delivering 50 percent less fat and 30 percent fewer calories (with no fake fats or artificial sweeteners). The product is made through a proprietary manufacturing process, similar to “kneading” dough, that better disperses the fat.
Pierre’s: This Cleveland company’s Carb Success No Sugar Added Ice Cream is sweetened with Splenda artificial sweetener and tastes the best of all the low-carb ice creams we’ve tried. Available just in Chocolate and Vanilla so far, but expect more flavors by summer’s end.
Ben & Jerry’s: This well-known Vermont-based premium purveyor introduces both Carb Karma (for those low carb aficionados) and organic ice cream. Now that one of the major brands has gone organic, expect to see many of the others to follow.
Make sure every bit of your ice cream tastes great!
Here are my tips to guarantee that every spoonful is delicious:
- 1. Be sure your freezer temperature is set between -5°F and 0°F.
- 2. Store ice cream in the main part of the freezer, not in the door, where ice cream can be subject to more fluctuating temperatures.
- 3. Never allow ice cream to soften and re-freeze. As ice cream's small ice crystals melt and re-freeze, they can eventually turn into large, unpalatable lumps.
- 4. Keep the ice cream container lid tightly closed when storing in the freezer. I always put a covering of heavy duty plastic wrap or aluminum foil around the mouth of the container first and then put the lid over that to ensure a tight seal.
- 5. Don't store ice cream alongside uncovered foods; odors can penetrate ice cream and affect its flavor.
Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent firstname.lastname@example.org by using the mail box below. You can also visit his website at www.supermarketguru.com.