America’s age-old love affair with ice cream appears to be waning.
Consumption of regular dairy ice cream, which does not include frozen yogurt, sorbet or fat-free and low-fat ice creams, has been declining for years, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
In 1986, the average American ate 18 pounds of regular ice cream, according to the USDA. By 2021, the last year of the data, it was down by a third to just £12 per person.
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People line up for ice cream in New York, NY, circa 1947.
For years, ice cream was more than a frozen dessert: It was a lifeline for American brewers during Prohibition and a morale booster during World War II. By the 1950s, the sweet, creamy treat had become an American treasure.
But like whole milk, soda, 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, 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—turned on sugary, fatty foods or began process it. as an occasional, expensive treat.
For years, ice cream held a valued place in America’s cultural and culinary history. A few key moments helped usher it into the 20th century, noted Matt Siegel, author of The Secret History of Food.
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First there was a ban. When alcohol became illegal, “a lot of early American breweries turned to making ice cream,” Siegel said. Both Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling started making the treat. “Ice cream’s ingredients — fat, sugar — made a decent substitute for alcohol to drown one’s emotions,” Siegel said. Ice cream is “the ultimate comfort food.”
Drinkers traded a pint for a scoop, and for ice cream makers Prohibition was a blessing.
“Manufacturers are quite optimistic about trade prospects and agree that this year will show a large increase over last year,” noted a May 1923 issue of Ice Cream Field, an ice cream trade publication. “They actually say the ice cream business will increase in volume year on year as more people consume ice cream since the introduction of a nationwide ban and out of the parlor.”
Interest in ice cream continued during World War II, boosted by the government’s use of the frozen dessert to boost morale.
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Ice cream aboard the USS Maryland in Chicago, Illinois, in 1939.
“We built pop-up ice cream factories on the front lines, delivered individual ice cream cartons to foxholes and spent more than a million dollars on a floating ice cream fleet that patrolled the Pacific Ocean delivering ice cream,” Siegel said. In 1946, the United States produced the equivalent of 22.7 pounds of ice cream per person, according to the USDA.
It “exposed massive amounts of troops to ice cream,” Siegel said, giving soldiers a brief, cool respite, and “fed the industry behind ice cream.”
After the war, the new highway system and the proliferation of individual-use freezers helped make ice cream more accessible, on the road and at home, he noted. “Ice cream, and everything around it, was very much a novelty,” Siegel said. “It was special.”
But the excitement of a sundae or a cone is not the same as it was back then.
“I think part of the reason ice cream has faded is because the novelty has worn off,” he said. And with growing concerns about the impact of sugar on health, ice cream’s image as a healthy treat is melting away.
It probably didn’t help, Siegel noted, that one man leading the charge against ice cream and dairy production was John Robbins, the one-time heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream empire.
After 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 ate, the more likely you were to have heart disease, diabetes and obesity.” Robbins said, according to an article in Life Extension magazine.
Robbins walked away from the family business decades ago, devoting his attention instead to raising awareness about plant-based diets and animal rights.
Robbins “has an audience of hundreds of thousands for his animal rights, environmental and vegetarian messages,” wrote the New York Times in 1992, the same year Robbins published a book on eating for a healthier planet, which boasted endorsements from Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson.
Over the years, concerns about sugar (and sustainability) have become more common.
Lucas Fuess, senior dairy analyst at Rabobank, suspects that the health problem is one of the reasons for the ice cream’s decline.
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In the freezer aisle, the ice alternatives have exploded over the years.
In fact, consumption of low-fat and fat-free ice cream has fared better from 1986 to 2021, rising from 6.1 pounds per person per year in 1986 to 6.4 pounds in 2021, according to USDA data.
Then there’s the fact that people have far more dessert options now than they did in the past, Fuess pointed out. In the grocery store, ice cream is up against packaged cookies, candy and cake mixes. The freezer aisle contains frozen pies, cheesecake and more.
“As people have more choices and more options, and as they become increasingly health conscious, ice cream has not won that battle,” he said.
Others think it’s not so much that Americans don’t like ice cream anymore. It’s just that their tastes have evolved. These days, more people crave premium options and specific flavors, which end up costing more—as their tastes have become more expensive, they buy less.
Over the years, ice cream has started to come in smaller sizes, said John Crawford, VP of consumer insights for dairy at Circana, a consumer research firm.
“There’s been a shift from these big family sizes of ice cream to the more individual” packages, he said. It could be that the per capita reduction reflects the fact that “you’re buying less volume every time you buy.”
Circana has recorded a drop in volume in recent years. According to the data, volume purchases of dairy ice cream have fallen by about 8% from 2018 to 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.
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Scoops of Falooda ice cream are placed on top of Blueberry Lavender ice cream at Pints of Joy in Sunnyvale, California.
“As people have moved to the smaller sizes, it has allowed for a taste [and] explosion of variety,” he said. “When you buy large ice creams for the family, you buy … vanilla, you buy chocolate, you buy strawberry.” With smaller sizes, people can try new flavors or buy what they like, without worrying about whether it will appeal to everyone.
But smaller sizes are more expensive than bulk options, especially when they come from premium brands.
In the 2000s, premium ice cream and gelato brands such as Jeni’s, Van Leeuwen and Talenti emerged and became popular. The brands sell flavors from Earl Gray to goat cheese with cherries.
The shift means ice cream can be “more of a treat than it is a staple that you would potentially have in your freezer,” Crawford said.
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A person buys ice cream near the US capital during a heat wave this winter.
Although the trends may be against traditional ice cream, it is still a large sector. By 2022, dairy ice cream sales totaled around $7 billion, according to Circana. And anyone who walks through the line at a local scoop shop on a warm summer night still knows the thrill of waiting for a scoop.
Deborah Lee owned an ice cream shop, Blue Ridge Ice Creams, in North Carolina for about 28 years before retiring. Today, she teaches aspiring ice cream entrepreneurs how to make ice cream.
The timelessness of the product is “why I got into ice cream,” she added. “I think it’s here to stay.”