New York () — America’s long love affair with ice cream seems to be coming to an end.
Consumption of milk ice cream, excluding frozen yogurt, sherbet and low-fat or fat-free ice cream, has been on the decline for years, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In 1986, the average American ate 8.1 kilograms of regular ice cream, according to the USDA. By 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, consumption fell by a third, to just 5.4 kilos per person.
For years, ice cream was more than just a dessert: it was a lifeline for American brewers during Prohibition and a morale booster during World War II. By the 1950s, this sweet and creamy delicacy had become an American treasure.
But like whole milk, soft drinks, red meat and other former heroes of the American diet, ice cream has come under scrutiny for its impact on health and the environment. After peaking in the 1940s, the per capita availability of regular ice cream began to decline in the 1990s and throughout the 2000s as health-conscious consumers, including a member of the Baskin Robbins family, began to reject this sugary and fatty food, or began to treat it as an occasional and expensive treat.
From beer to ice cream
For years, ice cream held a prominent place in American cultural and culinary history. Matt Siegel, author of “The Secret History of Food,” points out that there were some key moments in the 20th century that helped give it prominence.
First, the Dry Law. When alcohol became illegal, “a lot of the early American breweries turned to making ice cream,” Siegel explains. Both Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling started making it. “The ice cream ingredients, fat and sugar, were a good substitute for alcohol to drown out the emotions,” Siegel explains. Ice cream is “the quintessential comfort food.”
Drinkers traded a pint for a tablespoon. For ice cream makers, Prohibition was a boon.
“Manufacturers are quite optimistic about business prospects and agree that this year will see a large increase over last year,” noted an edition of May 1923 from Ice Cream Field, a specialized ice cream publication. “In fact, they say the ice cream business is bound to increase in volume from year to year as more people are buying ice cream since the advent of the nationwide alcohol ban and exit from the tavern.”
Interest in ice cream continued into World War II, spurred by government use to help boost morale.
“We built makeshift ice cream factories on the front lines, handed out individual cartons of ice cream in the trenches, and we spent more than US$1 million on a floating barge patrolling the Pacific delivering ice cream,” Siegel explains. In 1946, the United States produced the equivalent of 10.2 kilograms of ice cream per person, according to the USDA.
That “exposed massive numbers of soldiers to ice cream,” Siegel explained, giving them a short, fresh respite, and “fueled the industry behind ice cream.”
After the war, the new interstate highway system and the proliferation of single-use freezers made ice cream more widely available, on the road and at home, he said. “Ice cream, and everything around it, was very much a novelty,” Siegel said. “It was special”.
But the emotion of an ice cream or a cone is no longer the same as it was then.
“I think part of the reason ice cream has faded is that the novelty has worn off,” he says. “And with growing concern about the health impact of sugar, the image of ice cream as a healthy treat is fading.”
Concern for health
Following the untimely death in 1967 of Burt Baskin, Robbins’ uncle and co-founder of the ice cream empire, “I began to believe that the more ice cream you eat, the more likely you are to suffer from heart disease, diabetes and obesity,” Robbins said, according to a report. Life Extension magazine article.
Robbins walked away from the family business decades ago, turning his attention to advocating for plant-based diets and animal rights.
Robbins “has an audience of hundreds of thousands for his vegetarian, pro-environmental and animal rights message,” wrote The New York Times in 1992, the same year that Robbins published a book on Eating for a Healthier Planet, which features recommendations from Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson.
Over the years, concerns about sugar and sustainability have become more common.
Lucas Fuess, principal dairy analyst at Rabobank, suspects that health concerns are one reason for ice cream’s decline.
In the frozen food aisle, the offer of ice cream has multiplied over the years. Credit: Richard B. Levine/Levine Roberts/ZUMA Press.
In fact, low-fat and non-fat ice cream consumption fared better from 1986 to 2021, rising from 2.7 kilograms per person per year in 1986 to 2.9 kilograms in 2021, according to USDA data.
There’s also the fact that people have a lot more dessert options now than in the past, Fuess noted. At the grocery store, ice cream is up against packaged cookies, caramels, and cake mixes. In the freezer aisle there are frozen pies, cheesecakes and much more.
“As people have more choices and become more health conscious, ice cream hasn’t won the battle,” he says.
Others believe it’s not so much that Americans no longer like ice cream. It’s just that their tastes have evolved.
Nowadays, there are more and more people who prefer high-quality options and specific flavors, which end up costing more; Since their tastes are more expensive, they buy less.
Smaller, higher quality portions
Over the years, ice cream has come in smaller sizes, explains John Crawford, vice president of the Dairy Department at Circana, a consumer research firm.
“It has gone from family sizes of ice cream to individual packages,” he explains. The per capita reduction may reflect the fact that “less volume is purchased each time.”
Circana has registered a decline in volume in recent years. According to his data, dairy ice cream purchases by volume have fallen about 8% between 2018 and 2022. In that time, unit sales have also fallen, but sales per dollar have risen, showing that people are spending more for less.
The evolution in sizes has accompanied a growth in the types and flavors of ice cream, he noted.
“As people have moved towards the smaller sizes, there has been an explosion of flavors and varieties,” he explains. “When you buy the big bulk ice cream for the family, you buy vanilla, chocolate or strawberry.” With smaller sizes, people can try new flavors or buy what they like, without worrying if everyone will like it.
But smaller sizes are more expensive than bulk options, especially when they’re from premium brands.
In the 2000s, premium ice cream and ice cream brands such as Jeni’s, Van Leeuwen and Talenti appeared and became popular. These brands offer flavors like Earl Gray or goat cheese with cherries.
The change means ice cream could be “more of a treat than a staple you might have in the freezer,” Crawford says.
Although the trends are against traditional ice cream, it is still an important sector. In 2022, dairy ice cream sales amounted to about $7 billion, according to Circana. And anyone who lines up at a local ice cream parlor on a hot summer night still knows the thrill of waiting for a scoop of ice cream.
Deborah Lee owned an ice cream shop in North Carolina, Blue Ridge Ice Creams, for 28 years before retiring.
Today he teaches ice cream entrepreneurs to make ice cream.
The timelessness of the product is “the reason why I dedicated myself to ice cream,” he adds. “I think it’s here to stay.”