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Ice cream’s identity crisis

By Dan Barry
New York Times

We knew something was up if our mother returned from ShopRite with a half-gallon of Breyers ice cream.

It meant that another 8-year-old first communicant had feigned an understanding of transubstantiation. It meant that someone was celebrating her first birthday, or that someone had seen his last.

Most of all, it meant a reprieve from the cheaper fake version of ice cream that usually defiled our freezer, a store-brand ice milk that tasted like nothing so much as frozen sadness.

In certain working-class homes, the Breyers brand lent a momentary class that lasted as long as room temperature would allow, in part because it was “All Natural.” The Breyers vanilla that my father used as a salve for his psychic wounds (administered late at night, by spoon) had flecks of vanilla bean. And the Breyers strawberry that I preferred could be stirred into a fruity, pinkish goop that I savored in loud, teasing slurps.

Today you will still see the Breyers brand at your friendly neighborhood grocery conglomerate. Do not assume, as I did, however, that just any Breyers carton will transport you to those halcyon days when a war waged in Vietnam, the president kept an enemies list and the slurping of melted strawberry could ignite a glorious dining-room donnybrook. Things have changed.

First, as part of typical trompe l’oeil packaging, the cartons now hold 48 ounces, not the half-gallon’s 64. (The good news is that your hands haven’t become freakishly large; the bad news is that you’re not suddenly much stronger.)

Second, that age-old Breyers boast of “All Natural” has been replaced with “Quality,” which is one of those impressive words that loses impact the more you think about it.

Last, not all Breyers is what we once understood the name to mean. A Breyers carton in the store’s freezer might be ice cream, but the Breyers carton right beside it, identical in nearly every way, might be something called “frozen dairy dessert” – which, when translated from the original Orwell, means: not ice cream.

You might ask what the difference is between ice cream and a frozen dairy dessert, and I might answer that it is the same as the difference between a slice of American cheese and a slice of Kraft Singles American Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product.

Since this is not helpful, we turn to a spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration, the guardian of “standards of identity,” who explained the distinction in a written response:

“Ice cream requires specific levels of milk fat content, nonfat milk solids content, total solids in each gallon of ice cream, and total weight in each gallon of ice cream, while frozen dairy products do not.”

In general, ice cream has at least 10 percent dairy fat, and a frozen dairy dessert does not. In my freezer, the Breyers vanilla fudge twirl frozen dairy dessert has the ubiquitous corn syrup, and the Breyers vanilla ice cream does not.

Why, Breyers, why?

Before Haagen-Dazs, before Ben & Jerry’s, before ice cream became an artisanal product that could not be fully appreciated unless you had personally squeezed Elsie’s udder – there was Breyers.

So: Why?

First, a little history. Breyers began as a family business in Philadelphia in 1866. Sixty years later, it became part of what is now Kraft. Then, in 1993, Unilever – a multinational goliath that makes a variety of products, including soap and ice cream, but do not confuse the two – bought the Breyers brand and moved it first to Green Bay, Wis., and then to Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

Nick Soukas, the brand-building director for Unilever’s ice cream in the United States, said that Breyers had introduced its line of frozen dairy desserts in the past couple of years in direct response to what we, the consumers, want.

“People really drove that decision,” he said.

In other words: It’s our fault?

Soukas did not mention the possibility that using less dairy fat is cheaper, but he did say that people had different flavor and texture desires. Through various surveys and taste tests, he said, “People are telling us, ‘We want a smoother texture.’ ”

Smoother than ice cream?

“Smoother than ice cream.”

Although ice cream still represents about 60 percent of the Breyers line, Soukas said, frozen dairy desserts have proved so popular that consumer complaints – at least those to the company – have plummeted.

And he dismissed those howls of outrage expressed in various social media sites as representative of a tiny, tiny minority.

What about the ingredients? “They’re basically the same ingredients,” Soukas said. “It’s not so much about the ingredients as the way they’re put together.”

I may not be a professional food writer, but I once dabbled in investigative journalism. So I donned my fedora and read the ingredients.

Breyers natural vanilla ice cream: milk, cream, sugar, tara gum, natural flavor. Period.

Breyers extra-creamy vanilla frozen dairy dessert: milk, sugar, corn syrup, cream, whey, mono and diglycerides, carob bean gum, guar gum, carrageenan, natural flavor, annatto (for color), vitamin A palmitate, tara gum.

Granted, the ingredients in Breyers frozen dairy desserts do not include plutonium or motor oil or Kraft Singles American Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product.

And granted, this is a big country; some people out there might be demanding more corn syrup and less cream in their frozen treats.

But something more than ice cream is melting away. This is what I brood about, late at night, as I apply basic ice cream to my psychic wounds.

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