What exactly do you get when you spend $12 on a pint of ice cream?
This week, Out of Office is celebrating all things ice cream. Follow along as we explore the sweet history and unexpected influences of America’s favorite dessert.
Walk through any freezer aisle, and you’ll see half gallons (which are actually 1.5 quarts, but still referred to as half gallons per antiquated ice cream tradition) of Breyers’ “frozen dairy dessert” ($7.99 in NYC) and Edy’s “slow churned light ice cream” ($6.99 in NYC) alongside premium brands like Jeni’s Splendid ($12 per pint), Steve’s Ice Cream ($10 per pint). With countless national and regional brands selling their frozen goods for double-digit prices, we looked at what exactly makes these ice creams so expensive. Is it merely the packaging and the cool factor of a small brand, or do the high-end ingredients, intricate churning process and other unseen factors truly justify the exorbitant prices of today’s “it” pints?
“When we add up the number of growers, pickers, washers, jam makers, dairy farmers and their teams; makers, distillers and ice cream churners, literally hundreds of people go into making one pint,” said Jeni Britton Bauer, founder of Ohio-based ice cream empire Jeni’s. “Labor is expensive and ingredients are expensive.“
For her signature orange-and-white-striped pints, which come in flavors like mocha black cherry, cream puff and hard cider sorbet, Bauer isn’t willing to cut corners to bring costs down. “We use the best cream and milk from small farms,” Bauer said of her product. When she started making ice cream 15 years ago, she wanted her ice cream to be the absolute best it could be, eliminating the need for dairy bases, artificial products, stabilizers or added fillers (often seen in big brand ice cream tubs) by using quality, real ingredients. It’s a product Bauer believes is “the best American ice cream can be.” And the best of anything comes with a price.
Knowing where ingredients come from
Good luck guessing where the chocolate chips in your pint of Haagen Dazs came from, but with Jeni’s (and similar smaller brands), personal connections with whiskey distillers, berry growers, cheesemakers and vintners add a human element to the pints. “Our ice cream is made with ingredients from people we know, or one degree of separation away,” Bauer said.
Consider making any dish at home with fresh ingredients, and where you’d have to go (or to whom) to procure all of these, and you can easily see the costs adding up. “When you start with good ingredients, you get a better product,” Bauer said, noting that ice cream isn’t the only food product with a double-digit price tag in today’s grocery stores. Shoppers are willing to shell out $10 for a jar of tomato sauce, $20 to $30 per pound for artisanal cheeses and beyond. “Consumers are willing to spend more because they believe in the value of responsibly sourced, higher quality foods,” Bauer said.
Brooklyn-based Blue Marble also has a clear reason for pricing their pints higher than bigger brands, at $6.99 (to compare, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s typically retails for $5.49, not on sale). Because their ice cream is certified organic, all ingredients must come from purveyors and farmers who use no pesticides, dairy cows must graze on pasture a minimum of 120 days a year and farmers must be paid a living wage, Blue Marble Ice Cream’s cofounder Jennie Dundas explained.
Smaller batches = bigger prices
“The sad truth is that global ice cream brands have kept the shelf-price of ice cream artificially low,” Dundas said. While she wasn’t going to point fingers at familiar freezer aisle favorites, Dundas pointed out that many brands tasted better a few decades ago than they do today, thanks to “formula and ingredient adjustments that have lowered the end quality of the ice cream.”
The economics of running an enormous business, or conglomerate of businesses — Unilever, for example, maintains a portfolio of more than 1,000 food brands including Breyer’s, Talenti, Ben and Jerry’s, Good Humor, Magnum and Klondike — means that a “massive market share [allows big brands] to afford to make pennies on each pint, and in some cases just break even,” Dundas explained. “When you see a big sale on ice creams, say two pints for $5, you can be pretty certain that either the product is packed with corn syrup and air, or the company is taking a loss on that sale, just to maintain market share and keep competitors off the shelf.”
Another way big brands can cut down their ice cream prices? By “[subsidizing] their ice cream losses by selling shampoo,” Dundas said.
Most inexpensive commercial ice creams are pumped full of air and artificial stabilizers, which makes for a gummy body, and minimal fresh cream flavor. Beyond the cool lifestyle shot you get to Instagram with whatever brand you splurge for at the store, there are plenty of benefits to buying the better pint.
Still hesitant to pay more for ice cream?
“It all comes down to what we want our economy to support and how to have a sustainable planet,” Dundas argued. “I think everyone knows deep down that you get what you pay for. If the ice cream is cheaper, there’s a corner being cut somewhere, and someone is paying a price: whether the cows are being fed pesticide-filled grain, which means there is a long-term price to the earth and agricultural communities; the sugar or cocoa are being cultivated by cheap labor, so the workers are paying a price; or the flavorings are artificial, so you are consuming food that just isn’t real.”
Ice cream should be considered a treat, and it’s arguably healthier to buy less quantity and enjoy a higher quality of ice cream, to satiate your ice cream cravings to their fullest rather than dupe your tastebuds with a less satisfying product.
“Taste is so subjective,” Bauer said when discussing whether small batch pints actually taste better. “Do I prefer Cabot clothbound cheddar to Velveeta? Sure. For one million reasons.”