Ice cream is still America's favorite summertime splurge -- one third of American households spoon down at least a gallon every two weeks -- but its less fattening counterparts, ice milk and frozen yogurt, are enjoying record popularity.
The dip in ice cream consumption is most likely tied to a heightened consumer interest in cutting fats, according to Tracy Boyle, spokeswoman for the Washington-based International Ice Cream Association.
Despite signs of shifting preferences, July remains the prime month for consumption of ice cream, a food that is especially associated with Fourth of July festivities.
First made by the Romans -- and reportedly a particular favorite of the emperor Nero -- ice cream caused a sensation in 1812, when First Lady Dolly Madison served it at the second inaugural ball.
These days, premium and superpremium ice creams like Frusen Gla dje' account for almost 40 percent of total ice cream sales and are most often found in childless households, according to the industry association. Superpremium brands, which have the most calories, contain as much 18 percent milkfat. Regular ice creams such as Sealtest have 12 percent fat while ice milk contains between 2 and 7 percent fat.
In general, the creamier the taste, the higher the fat and calorie content. A cup of superpremium French vanilla ice cream contains about 520 calories, and can have as much as 153 mg. of cholesterol, far above the recommended daily requirement.
But ice cream lovers can take some comfort in the fact that frozen yogurt, widely promoted as a healthier and less fattening alternative, can pack as many calories in a cone as ice cream. Some brands are pumped up with sweeteners or preserves or topped with candy or nuts.
Ice cream lovers, who abound in New England, which produces more of the stuff than any region of the country, also can console themselves with the fact that ice cream provides 20 percent each of the daily calcium and riboflavin requirement.
And, says Arun Kilara, professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University, ice cream is a good food as a dessert -- better than say, candy. Additives in cheaper brands, which retain freshness, do nothing to hurt the nutritional value, he said.
"You're definitely getting some things other than just calories," Kilara noted. "But you have to remember they are desserts. You cannot make a complete meal out of them."