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Ice cream craving? Treats to feel good about

/ Source: Forbes

Most of us harbor ambitions of looking good in — or at least fitting into — a swimsuit this summer.

But with temperatures on the rise and the days growing longer, it gets harder to resist buying an ice cream cone or throwing a pint of Ben & Jerry's into the grocery cart.

When it comes to ice cream, Americans have trouble saying no. In 2005 alone, total U.S. sales of ice cream and frozen desserts hit $21.6 billion, including $13.5 billion spent at scoop shops, restaurants and other retail outlets, and $8.2 billion on consumption at home, according to 2006 Dairy Facts/International Ice Cream Association.

Fortunately, manufacturers recognize that we're trying to watch our waistlines. Reduced-fat, light, low-fat and nonfat ice cream account for 23.5 percent of the frozen dessert market, followed by frozen yogurt at 4.3 percent, water ice at 4.3 percent and sherbet at 3.6 percent, according to the USDA's 2005 U.S. production figures.

And thanks to new recipes and developments in production technology, the light ice creams and frozen yogurts of today are, in many cases, a far cry from the bland products first introduced in the '80s and '90s.

"We're lucky," says Melissa Mattilio, consumer marketing manager for Turkey Hill Dairy. "We're living in an age where products are good for you and taste pretty good too. You don't have to settle for them anymore."

What's hot

Experts in the world of frozen desserts say the health-conscious indulgences that are hot right now include gelato, water ice, sour frozen yogurt and "fro-yo" with probiotics, a gut-friendly bacteria.

Lynda Utterback, executive director of the National Ice Cream Retailers Association, says she's seeing more businesses sell gelato, an Italian treat that tends to contain less butterfat than American ice creams. It's popping up on the West and East coasts in high-end restaurants and shops like Grom, an Italian gelati chain that just opened a new branch in New York and is having trouble keeping up with demand.

When it comes to frozen yogurt, tangy is in. Utterback says when frozen yogurt first came on the market many didn't like its sour taste. Over the years, many companies altered their recipes. But chains like the popular Pinkberry are showing tart might be back.

"I have a feeling there's going to be a trend toward bringing that acid level back," says Bill Klein, dairy plant manager for the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant, a research and teaching facility at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

More frozen yogurt products are touting the fact that they contain probiotics. Yogen Früz, which currently is available in 30 countries, is finally entering the U.S. market this year with its line of no-fat and low-fat frozen yogurt products, all of which contain probiotics. Dave Craig, director of business development for Yogen Früz, said the step makes sense because there's more awareness of and demand in the U.S. for healthy frozen desserts.

"People know that if they move toward healthier snacks in between main meals, it's a move in the right direction," says Craig.

New offerings

If you've never been a fan of the taste of low-fat or light frozen desserts, you might want to give them another try. A few brands have recently changed their production technology and recipes to give consumers more of what they want — products that taste good and are good for you.

TCBY has offered smoothies for years, but recently changed its formula, and in July will introduce the Beriyo smoothie, a mix of 96 percent fat-free frozen yogurt and fruit, in 10 different combinations. Brand manager Steve Willes says the product is a healthy option for consumers and an opportunity for stores to increase their daytime traffic, since smoothies are popular in the morning and afternoon.

MaggieMoo's International also reformulated its smoothie line, changing it from nonfat to a low-fat, lactose-free ice cream or fruit smoothie called Zoomers. The company made the change after conducting blind taste tests with consumers, 67 percent of whom preferred a tasty, low-fat smoothie to a nonfat smoothie, says Debbie Benedek, senior vice president of brand marketing. Flavors include a Triple Berry Pomegranate that's packed with antioxidants.

After changing its frozen yogurt production process, within six months Dreyer's/Edy's Slow Churned watched a double-digit decline in frozen yogurt business turn into double-digit growth, says Suzanne Ginestro, senior brand manager for Dreyer's and Edy's Slow Churned ice cream. (Dreyer's is known as Edy's east of the Rockies.) By using the slow-churn method, fat is better dispersed throughout the product, making it feel richer and creamier. A similar change also boosted the brand's light ice cream sales.

Guiltless pleasures

It doesn't hurt to make a healthy choice appear sinful, either.

Weight Watchers has found success in the diet-friendly frozen dessert market by offering products that take the guesswork out of portion control, and seem like they should be packed with calories.

The brand just introduced giant chocolate cookies and cream ice cream bars, as well as 6-ounce, two-pack ice cream cups, which equate to two points per bar or cup for those following the system.

"When people are watching what they eat they still want those flavors and tastes they get when they're not," says Adam Baumgartner, marketing manager for Wells' Dairy. "The more intense, the better received the product is by consumers. It emulates what they can't get."

And it may just help you fit into that bathing suit after all.