We All Scream: Low-Fat
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Call it the $150 million ice cream.
Edy's Slow Churned light ice cream took 10 years, millions of dollars in research and more than $100 million in manufacturing changes to produce. And all because American consumers love ice cream but aren't too thrilled with the fat and calories.
Despite the high price tag, the payoff for ice cream giant Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream Inc. (which markets under the Edy's brand on the East Coast and Dreyer's in the West) has been worth it. The low-fat line, renamed Edy's Slow Churned in 2005, has quickly become the company's biggest-selling brand.
It also may have helped rejuvenate the market for reduced-fat ice cream. Although overall sales of frozen desserts are down, low-fat ice cream sales jumped 14 percent from January to June 2005 over the same period in 2004, according to the most recent figures from the International Dairy Foods Association.
That's a warm spot of news in a cooling market. U.S. consumption of ice cream has been declining, a trend that worries the $21 billion frozen dessert industry.
In 2004, Americans ate 21 quarts of ice cream per capita, down slightly from 22 quarts in 2003, according to the dairy foods association. Sales of supermarket ice cream, in particular, have been flat or falling (ice cream sales declined 1.4 percent in the 12 months ending May 21, according to industry analyst Information Resources Inc.), and ice cream companies have been scrambling to come up with ways to lure us back to the freezer aisle.
The answer, apparently, is a better-tasting low-fat ice cream.
"We knew consumers had this 'have your cake and eat it too' philosophy about ice cream. They wanted the taste rewards but without the nutritional drawbacks," said Dave Ritterbush, vice president for marketing at Dreyer's, which is owned by the Swiss giant Nestle.
The Oakland, Calif.-based company patented a technology that freezes fat molecules and then spreads them over a larger surface area to produce a creamy, fatty texture using less fat. "It's like the way you'd butter toast, with a thin, even layer so you get a little butter in every bite," Ritterbush explained.
The company tentatively introduced the new ice cream in 2003, labeling it "improved" Edy's Grand Light. Sales increased 80 to 90 percent, Ritterbush said, and increased by the same amount the following year. "Sales this year are up 50 percent over the same period last year," he said.
The Slow Churned ice creams contain about half the fat and one-third the calories of regular ice cream. The top seller? No surprise, it's vanilla -- Americans' favorite ice cream flavor.
The company also has increased the cult following for its limited-supply flavors by introducing new low-fat versions, including peppermint-candy during the winter, Girl Scout cookies during the spring and orange cream this summer.
Dreyer's biggest competitor, Breyers, owned by British-based Unilever, recently introduced its own version of a rich-tasting low-fat ice cream, calling it Double Churned.