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Better-for-You Desserts Fuel the Frozen Food Aisle

Shoppers seek healthy alternatives to traditional indulgences
Photograph: Shutterstock

Some of today’s coolest desserts and sweet treats can be found in the frozen food aisle. With new product introductions catering to consumers in search of cleaner ingredients, free-from labels, non-dairy offerings and other alternatives to traditional ice cream, mousse and novelties, shoppers are rediscovering the aisle with renewed gusto.

“We’ve seen a real comeback in the frozen food aisle,” says Julie Henderson, VP of communications for the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association, Harrisburg, Pa.

“We saw growth for the first time in five years during March Frozen Food Month,” she says. The frozen food department saw a unit gain of 1.9% for the five weeks ending March 31, 2018. And ice cream and novelties are the second- and third-highest selling categories in all of frozen. “Both categories have shown sales gains and are long-term growth drivers.”

Annual ice cream category sales hit $6.2 billion as of the end of June 2018, up 2.2% from last year, according to Nielsen, which names Unilever, private-label products and Nestle as the biggest ice cream manufacturers.

But while Nielsen finds that traditional ice cream remains the category front-runner, nondairy ice cream saw the most growth, up 33% in late June as compared to last year.

Non-Dairy Delights

Fueled by lactose-intolerant consumers, vegetarians, vegans and those simply looking to reduce their dairy consumption, sales of nondairy ice cream have swelled in recent years.

“Nondairy is not just a fad—it’s become a part of the consumer’s lifestyle. And it’s a growth engine for the ice cream category,” says John Henry Siedlecki, senior brand manager for South Burlington, Vt.-based Ben & Jerry’s, part of Unilever.

Ben & Jerry’s entered the nondairy space several years ago with the aim of delivering greater indulgence. “We saw a real need for products that deliver on taste and texture, with chunks and swirls and unique flavors,” Siedlecki says.

ben jerrys nondairy products
Photograph courtesy of Ben & Jerry's

With two recently introduced nondairy flavors—Peanut Butter Half Baked and Cinnamon Bun—Ben & Jerry’s continues to elevate the dairy-alternative experience. “When we started with nondairy in 2016, the category was about 1% share of the total category. Now it’s grown to over 3% share of the total packaged ice cream category,” says Siedlecki, who points out that sales of nondairy ice cream were well over $200 million for the 52 weeks ending September 2018.

“There is a trend toward consumers becoming more interested in plant-centric eating for a variety of reasons, including food sensitivities, environmental or ethical reasons, and general wellness,” says Kiersti Bird, associate brand manager for So Delicious Dairy Free in Springfield, Ore.

So Delicious recently expanded its offerings in the frozen, dairy-free dessert category with So Delicious Frozen Mousse. At only 300 to 330 calories per pint, So Delicious Mousse delivers a decidedly creamy and fluffy texture in a variety of flavors.

so delicious dairy free
Photograph courtesy of So Delicious

“As consumers are becoming more adventurous, So Delicious has worked to innovate our product portfolio with different flavor combinations,” says Bird. “Instead of simply replacing dairy in traditional ice cream flavors, we’re focusing on artisan flavors that highlight the plant-based base in our frozen desserts.”

So Delicious Dairy Free Toasted Coconut Keylime with a coconut milk base and Peachy Maple Pecan with a cashew milk base are two such examples.

Free-From Frenzy

Whether it refers to free from gluten, growth hormones, artificial colors or dairy, “free-from” offerings in the frozen dessert space are leading innovation and new product trends, according to the Packaged Facts report Ice Cream and Frozen Desserts in the U.S., 9th Edition. “Invariably this avalanche of new, free-from introductions will help the market overcome some of the lukewarm sales growth of recent years,” says the Rockville, Md.-based Packaged Facts.

When it comes to free-from ice cream and novelties, Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Markets is one grocer that is spoiling shoppers for choice. Offering flavors from Coconut Bliss to So Delicious Dairy Free to Almond Dream dairy-free Frozen Dessert Bites to Three Twins Ice Cream, Sprouts has its finger on the pulse of permissible indulgence.

“Sprouts Farmers Markets has seen great success with our brand this year,” says Elizabeth Reilly, digital marketing manager for Coconut Bliss, Eugene, Ore. “As evidenced by an exploding category, consumers are seeking alternatives to traditional ice cream more than ever before.”  

Coconut Bliss products are all certified organic, vegan and gluten-free, and are Non-GMO Project verified and kosher pareve. The company also uses fair trade certified cocoa, coffee and chocolate.

The company recently introduced two new ice cream bars that are dipped in fair trade dark chocolate that appeal to the health-conscious, grab-and-go, single-serve-seeking customer. “Our new Raspberry Acai in Chocolate bars are fruit-forward with the added nutritional benefit of antioxidants from the acai,” says Reilly. “Our Vanilla Island in Chocolate bars offer all the nostalgia of a childhood favorite with a cleaned-up ingredient profile.”

Better-for-You Bliss

Just as “free-from” is resonating with consumers in the frozen treat space, so are better-for-you desserts with less sugar.

Ben & Jerry’s is on board with the better-for-you trend. Last year, the company launched its Moo-phoria line of light ice cream. “It’s the full Ben & Jerry’s experience with less sugar and fat, and it’s also our first line that uses all organic milk and cream,” says Siedlecki.

“There’s definitely a trend toward frozen dessert options becoming better for you,” says Isabella Monico, brand manager and marketing coordinator for GoodPop, Austin, Texas. “The hottest trends are shifting frozen desserts to dairy-free, gluten-free, and containing less sugar than before.

“The industry standard for a frozen dessert used to be 30 to 40 grams of sugar,” she continues. “Now, while the majority of desserts still contain high numbers, there are companies like GoodPop that are providing equally delicious products with 9 to 10 grams of sugar.”

Coined “The Cleaned-Up Classics,” GoodPop’s three newest products are reminiscent of time-honored ice cream truck treats, but with a better-for-you spin. For example, GoodPop’s new Red, White & Blue, is dairy-free and gluten-free and contains no added sugar.

As part of the better-for-you trend, individual servings of frozen desserts are also in demand. “I think that more and more, consumers really appreciate having their foods portioned out for them in such a way that prevents them from overeating,” Monico says. “Rather than having a pint of ice cream in their hands, and not knowing what one portion is supposed to look like, it’s easier to eat an ice cream bar.”

Organic Ice Cream Heats Up

According to the Organic Trade Association, Washington, D.C., sales of organic food in the U.S. reached $45.2 billion in 2017, up a record 6.4%. Organic ice cream was a standout category in the organic food landscape, with sales up more than 9%.

“The direction of the marketplace shows that [organic and healthier frozen desserts] are increasingly more important,” says Neal Gottlieb, founder of Three Twins Ice Cream, Petaluma, Calif. “The organic market continues to grow at a steady rate, and the scale of the market for healthier frozen desserts, like Slim Twin, has grown exponentially in recent years.”

Three Twins launched both Slim Twin—its first offering in the better-for-you organic ice cream category—and Maxine’s in the past year.

“Protein is also very much on trend right now, and frozen desserts that tout their elevated protein contents are doing very well,” Gottlieb says. Slim Twin packs 24 grams of protein into each pint and has just 240 to 320 calories per pint.

“Maxine’s, which is named after my coupon-clipping supermom, is a family-friendly size,” he says. Also organic, Maxine’s gives money back to protect land through Three Twins’ land conservation initiative, Ice Cream For Acres.

“Across all categories, consumers are voting for tastier and cleaner products by putting them in their carts and taking them home,” Gottlieb says. “Consumers are tired of questionable ingredients that they don’t understand and are willing and able to pay for better choices.”

According to the Organic Trade Association, Washington, D.C., sales of organic food in the U.S. reached $45.2 billion in 2017, up a record 6.4%. Organic ice cream was a standout category in the organic food landscape, with sales up more than 9%.

“The direction of the marketplace shows that [organic and healthier frozen desserts] are increasingly more important,” says Neal Gottlieb, founder of Three Twins Ice Cream, Petaluma, Calif. “The organic market continues to grow at a steady rate, and the scale of the market for healthier frozen desserts, like Slim Twin, has grown exponentially in recent years.”

Three Twins launched both Slim Twin—its first offering in the better-for-you organic ice cream category—and Maxine’s in the past year.

“Protein is also very much on trend right now, and frozen desserts that tout their elevated protein contents are doing very well,” Gottlieb says. Slim Twin packs 24 grams of protein into each pint and has just 240 to 320 calories per pint.

“Maxine’s, which is named after my coupon-clipping supermom, is a family-friendly size,” he says. Also organic, Maxine’s gives money back to protect land through Three Twins’ land conservation initiative, Ice Cream For Acres.

“Across all categories, consumers are voting for tastier and cleaner products by putting them in their carts and taking them home,” Gottlieb says. “Consumers are tired of questionable ingredients that they don’t understand and are willing and able to pay for better choices.”

Global Goodness

Ice cream and frozen desserts are also taking a cue from broader culinary trends with increasingly exotic and global flavors.

“With certain ice cream companies providing ice creams made with better, fresher ingredients, and with a unique approach, how can there not be an evolution?” says Hannah Bae, founder of Noona’s Ice Cream, Brooklyn, N.Y. Featuring flavors such as Golden Sesame, Toasted Rice and Turmeric Honeycomb, Noona’s ice cream is inspired by Bae’s Asian-American heritage. Noona’s ice cream is also made using locally sourced hormone- and antibiotic-free milk and cream.

Set to launch this fall, Noona’s latest brand extension is a line of dairy-free ice cream made with coconut milk and inspired by Asian flavors. “With a touch of innovation, ice cream made without dairy is possible and surprisingly delicious,” Bae says. “Noona’s dairy-free line will be vegan and made with coconut milk, but without an overwhelming coconut taste.”

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