Back in early 2013, I had the good fortune to take part in a press trip to Burlington, Vermont, to spend time at the headquarters of Ben & Jerry’s. Over the course of three days, I learned about the exhaustive processes behind making some of the country’s most beloved and recognized ice cream flavors directly from a “flavor guru” and walked around a “flavor graveyard.” The words “dairy-free” and “vegan” weren’t mentioned once. I also ate a lot of ice cream. Like, a lot. And it was very cold outside.
My, how much changes in the span of three years. On Wednesday, Ben & Jerry’s unveiled its long-promised vegan ice cream line. Later this month, best-selling flavors Chunky Monkey and Chocolate Fudge Brownie will be available in dairy-free versions full time, as will P.B. Cookies and Coffee Caramel Fudge on a limited basis. Made with an almond-milk base, the “frozen desserts” (a certain amount of milkfat must be present for them to be categorized as ice cream) reflect an intense period of trial-and-error testing by Ben & Jerry’s, which dedicated several months of extensive research and labor to creating the final products.
So just what exactly is different in February 2016? Well, it’s been consistently above 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the Northeast, for one. I was recently diagnosed with lactose intolerance, for another. The words “dairy-free” and “vegan” have also never been buzzier. And as much as I’d like to take some sort of credit for the ice cream giant’s big announcement, it’s undoubtedly this last point that propelled the company to take on a new, previously unthinkable challenge.
We’re in an unprecedented day and age, one in which seemingly everyone either suffers from — or at least is quick to claim — some sort of dietary condition. Go to a restaurant and someone at the table is bound to request a substitution or three, citing an allergy or restriction. Meanwhile, vegetarian and vegan restaurants have never been hotter, “gluten-free” labels are tacked on to just about everything, and large-scale ice cream companies are making, well, ice cream minus the cream.
Ben & Jerry’s certainly isn’t the first ice cream maker to go vegan. A quick look at the NYC market, for example, reveals that the exclusively dairy-free DF Mavens opened its doors on St. Mark’s Place in early 2014 and that artisanal shop Van Leeuwen has offered many of its popular flavors in vegan versions for years. (The vegan salted caramel is just as good as the original.)
The Ben & Jerry’s release is significant, however, in that it’s likely to usher in similar movements from competitors — vegan ice cream remains a largely untapped market at this point. After all, ice cream is universally established as a milky, creamy treat; there’s even an image of ice cream plastered on packets of Lactaid pills. The potential widespread availability of dairy-free ice cream will, of course, satisfy the vegans and the lactose intolerant, but it just might also convert traditional consumers to switch over, be it for perceived taste, nutrition or newly discovered health reasons. My money’s on a sudden rush of people soon jumping on the “lactose-free” bandwagon.
Editor’s Note: DF Mavens closed shortly following the publication of this article. Its products are still available for purchase in specialty supermarkets and online through its own website.