My Ice Cream Taste Test: Are Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s Overrated?

Did you know ice cream has been around since at least the 18th century? It has.

And although the first ice cream parlor in the United States opened in New York City way back in 1776, commercial mass-production of the tasty treat didn’t get started until 1926, after the invention the continuous-process freezer.

Today, the ice cream industry is as big as ever. In fact, 1.53 billion gallons of ice cream and other frozen desserts were produced in 2011 in the United States alone — and the biggest market segment belongs to take-home ice cream sales, which generated a cool $6.8 billion during 2010.

By the way, according to the International Dairy Foods Association, the three most popular ice cream flavors are, in order: vanilla, Mint Chocolate Chip, and Cookies and Cream.

Take that, chocolate fans.

Haagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s?

The on-going battle between vanilla- and chocolate-lovers isn’t the only war being fought on the ice cream front. Another rivalry exists between Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s.

Both Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs are premium ice cream brands that offer the choicest ingredients and, perhaps most importantly, high-butterfat content which provides that smooth creamy texture we all love. It’s also why, on a unit-cost basis, they’re typically as much as four times more expensive than other ice cream brands sitting in your supermarket freezer.

With that in mind, forget the debate on whether Haagen Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s is the better ice cream — the real scoop is whether or not one of those less-sexy, non-premium, brands sitting in my grocer’s freezer can beat either of those two gelato giants in a blind taste test.

How the Test Was Conducted

As with most of my other taste tests, I recruited a bunch of eager family members. As usual, my dog, Major took part in the test too. Oh, yes … and making his taste test panel debut was my puppy Jack; he thought he had died and gone to heaven.

With the panel in place, I prepared individual ice cream samples in four separate bowls marked ‘A’ through ‘D.’

This time I asked the experts to rank each ice cream for taste and texture on a “ten-point must system” where the top performer gets ten points, and the remaining candidates a value between one and nine points. Panelists could then note any accompanying comments they had regarding each sample.

The Expert Panel

Before we get to the results, let’s once again meet our distinguished panel of experts:

DadDad
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 76
First Album: “After Hours” by the Page Cavanaugh Trio

Mom

Mom
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 72
First Album: “Ricky” by Rick Nelson

Tony
Birthplace: New Haven, Connecticut
Age: 70
First Album: “That’ll Be the Day” by the Crickets

 

Rose

Rose
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California
Age: Old enough to be my mother-in-law.
First Album: “I Don’t Remember.” (No, that’s not an album; it’s a direct quote.)

Honeybee

The Honeybee
Birthplace: Whittier, California
Age: 45
First Album: “Back In Black” by AC/DC

Matthew

Matthew
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 16
First Album: “Nevermind” by Nirvana

 

L.T.
Birthplace: Porter, Indiana
Age: 15
First Album: “American Idiot” by Green Day

Nina

Nina
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 13
First Album: “Jonas Brothers” by the Jonas Brothers

 

Ashley
Birthplace: Whittier, California
Age: 14
First Album: “Under My Skin” by Avril Levigne

 

Major1

Major
Birthplace: Julian, California
Age: 10
First Album: “The Doggfather” by Snoop Doggy Dogg

 

Jack
Birthplace: Julian, California
Age: 6 months
First Album: “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by the Baha Men

Introducing The Ice Cream Competitors

For this taste test challenge, I bought four brands of plain old vanilla ice cream: Ben & Jerry’s, Dreyer’s, Haagen-Dazs, and Costco’s Kirkland brand.

Here now, in reverse order, is a summary of the ice cream taste test results, based upon the inputs of my expert panel:

4. Dreyer’s (Edy’s) Vanilla Ice Cream

Price per ounce: $0.06 (the least expensive brand tested)
Panel Scoring: 54 points
Average Score (10-point scale): 6.0
Human Judges Who Deemed It the Best: 2

The Dreyer’s brand, which is known as Edy’s in the Eastern and Midwestern US, earned top marks from two of the panelists. Matthew liked its creamy texture, while Rose preferred Dreyer’s vanilla flavor over the other competitors. However, they were in the minority as the remainder of the human panelists were less enthusiastic. My dad claimed the Dreyer’s was so bland that he could barely discern any vanilla flavor at all. Don’t tell that to my dogs — both Major and Jack were begging for seconds.

3. Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla Ice Cream

Price per ounce: $0.22
Panel Scoring: 56 points
Average Score (10-point scale): 6.2
Human Judges Who Deemed It the Best: 1

Until recently, I never knew Ben & Jerry’s made plain old vanilla ice cream, but they do. The Honeybee liked Ben & Jerry’s creaminess, while Tony said it had the best vanilla flavor of the bunch. Surprisingly, despite the premium label, Tony was the only judge to give the Ben & Jerry’s a blue ribbon. In fact, the pride of Vermont scored only slightly higher than the Dreyer’s brand, despite a price tag that was three times more expensive. Ashley thought Ben & Jerry’s vanilla flavor was overpowering. My daughter agreed, calling it “gross.” Who knows. Perhaps Ben & Jerry’s should stick to their unique and elaborate concoctions like Phish Food, Cherry Garcia and, my favorite, Chunky Monkey.

2. Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Ice Cream

Price per ounce: $0.25 (the most expensive brand tested)
Panel Scoring: 65 points
Average Score (10-point scale): 7.2
Human Judges Who Deemed It the Best: 2

Although it wasn’t the classic coffee or rum raisin flavors Haagen-Dazs is famous for, the brand’s vanilla offering still got top marks from my parents. Dad said it tasted the most like real vanilla ice cream, while Mom gave it props for its smooth and creamy texture. She wasn’t the only one; all but one of the panelists gave the Haagen-Dazs high marks for its creaminess. The lone contrarian in the group, Rose, thought the Haagen-Dazs had “very little flavor.” Oh, and for what it’s worth, Haagen-Dazs continues to fall victim to shrinking package sizes — it’s now two ounces short of a full pint. I know.

1. Kirkland Vanilla Ice Cream

Price per ounce: $0.07
Panel Scoring: 74 points
Average Score (10-point scale): 8.2
Human Judges Who Deemed It the Best: 4

Despite its bargain-basement price, the Kirkland brand won this challenge in convincing fashion. It garnered four blue ribbons from the panelists — more than Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs combined — and secured first- or second-place rankings from all but two of the experts. Most of the panelists gave Kirkland ice cream high marks for both its vanilla flavor and creaminess.

I Know What You’re Thinking …

I’m sure a lot of Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs fans are shaking their heads and saying, “Yeah, right.” After all, the conventional wisdom says there is no way a low-priced ice cream could be better than either of those premium brands.

However, the results of my blind ice cream taste test proves — yet again — that it’s not always necessary to pay a premium in order to get good quality products at the supermarket.

That being said, I don’t think Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s need to worry.

Well, at least until Kirkland decides to come out with their own version of Rum Raisin or Chunky Monkey.

Photo Credit: Amanda Govaert

Comments

  1. 1

    Jen from Virginia says

    I’m not a big vanilla fan myself. Even though my current team name in our work weight-loss challenge is Chunky Monkeys my favorite ice cream ever is Phish Food! Go chocolate!!!!!!

    • 2

      Len Penzo says

      I prefer chocolate too, Jen. But if you offered me a bowl of vanilla right now, I wouldn’t pass it up!

  2. 3

    says

    There have been several test conducted that show the same thing you just proved and its that quality isn’t always the most expensive. However what is funny though is that in most of these test when they told the people which brand they chose they still say they would buy the “branded” food. I am a butter pecan fan myself and the wifey loves Rum Raisin.

  3. 4

    Allyn says

    I haven’t bought ice cream from the supermarket since my husband starting making it at home. Once I tasted his ice cream, it ruined me for supermarket ice cream. Nothing beats good homemade stuff, hands down.

    • 5

      Len Penzo says

      We have an ice cream maker too, Allyn. And you’re right, the home made stuff wins hands down.

      My favorite home made flavors are peach vanilla and chocolate chip.

  4. 7

    jilly willy says

    i agree with your family, len. The kirkland ice cream sold at costco is really really good. so i’m not surprised by the results!

  5. 8

    says

    I think it’s a give-and-take situation. The more fatty an ice cream, the better it tastes. I can’t eat the more fatty ice cream on a regular basis. Store brands, with less saturated fat content like Kirkland, tastes as good as any national brand ice cream with spending a lot less money. Edy’s is quite good as well especially the ones with slow churning.

  6. 9

    says

    “Store brands” can often match or beat premium brands, in my experience. Ice cream’s got too much fat for me to stomach, but I’ve certainly noticed the outcome you document here in other products. I think the only premium brand product we buy is toilet paper–there are situations in which one doesn’t want to take chances on a store brand. :-)

    • 10

      Len Penzo says

      I’m with ya on the TP, Kurt. Not a good thing to skimp on, in my opinion.

      (No, folks. I do not plan on doing a TP challenge.) ;-)

  7. 14

    says

    Very interesting. I might have to give the Kirkland brand a shot.

    Here’s a question though – what are the ingredients across the different brands? Not that ice cream is particularly good for you, but there are brands that have better, less sci-fi, ingredients than other brands. A person may say one brand tastes better but it’s also possible that brand is pumped full of artificial ingredients and sweeteners.

    When I can I go Ben and Jerry’s over Haagen Dazs simply because of the container size (though I tend to like B&J flavors better too).

    • 15

      Len Penzo says

      Glen, the only brand I have left from the challenge is the Kirkland (mainly because I had to buy 128 oz. of the stuff). The Haagen Daz and B&Js got devoured the first day and I gave the Dreyer’s to my in-laws.

      Here are the Kirkland ingredients: fresh cream, skim milk, sugar, pasteurized egg yolks, natural vanilla, carob bean gum, guar gum.

      (Mmmmmm … guar gum.)

      By the way, the Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey that is currently sitting in my freezer — although not for long — includes guar gum, soy lecithin, and carrageenan (which, according to Wikipedia is a “family of linear sulfated polysaccharides that are extracted from red seaweed).

  8. 16

    says

    I worked for Haagen Dazs for a while and have been an ice cream snob ever since. Their vanilla is the one that has the most distinctive taste imo. I like that they have no additives too, but they sure are expensive. Now that we live in a hot country we have switched to basic brands for day to day ice cream and sorbets are pretty good, ice cream they still have a long way to go.

  9. 17

    Jerry says

    Until they discontinued it, Target’s Archer Farms branded ice cream was SUPERB. Especially their Belgian Chocolate flavor (rich chocolate ice cream with dark chocolate bits). The day we found out that they were discontinuing it was a sad day in our household.

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