Summer is in full swing, and so is the ice cream assault, the time when the food and beverage industry makes a run on our pocketbooks and self-respect. We aren't talking about the wholesome jangle of the neighborhood ice cream truck coming 'round the corner with Fudgesicles. This is a megacorporate, multimillion-dollar effort, staged across multiple media channels on an international battlefield, to unleash an onslaught of irresistible chilly new confections on defenseless consumers.
The assailants are familiar, as are the frosty products of years past. Who can forget the watershed introduction of Ben & Jerry's chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream in the late '80s? Or the beachhead landing of that gateway drug for non-coffee drinkers, Starbucks' Frappuccino? These treats now seem so commonplace that it's hard to imagine a summer without them.
But this year's lineup has taken a turn to the bizarre. Maybe the chemists and marketers were responding to the popularity of exotic beverages like tapioca pearl tea, or perhaps they felt the economy needed an ice-cold goose. Whatever the reason, these sweet nothings are stop-in-your-tracks weird.
The advertisement for Ben & Jerry's Core Concoctions shows a little man rappelling down the center of a pint of ice cream into what looks like a molten core of goo. Why he would want to plunge into the goo, where he will surely drown, is a mystery. But then, why anyone would want to buy this product is also puzzling.
"Our customers told us that they love tunneling -- or rather chunneling for chips, chunks, and swirls," explains Chrystie Heimert, spokesperson for Vermont-based Ben & Jerry's. "So we thought, 'How can we be more decadent, and give them more of what they love?'"
The result is Core Concoctions. Last year, Ben and Jerry's introduced its 2 Twisted! line, putting two flavors in one pint. Core Concoctions starts with a pint of 2 Twisted! and adds a tubed-in core of sundae topping. It doesn't matter how far down you eat, says Heimert: the core of decadence never leaves you.
While that idea may be comforting, the actual experience is regrettable. Eating Core Concoctions is a bit like emptying an entire packet of mayonnaise onto your tongue with each bite of a sandwich. That would be a lot of mayonnaise, wouldn't it?
But Core Concoctions seems clever next to Starbucks' Mocha Coconut Frappuccino. According to Starbucks, this newest iteration of its popular frozen beverage is "A delicious blend of chocolate, coconut, and coffee topped with whipped cream, chocolate, and toasted coconut." If it weren't already obvious that Starbucks has severed its coffeehouse roots for a future as a nouveau soda fountain, this beverage hammers it home.
Sure, Frappuccinos of the past have contained dubious ingredients -- caramel and brownies, to name two. But this latest seems the brainchild of a blissed-out marketing exec vacationing Kona-side. Whatever the inspiration, the result is clear -- coconuts and coffee should be separated at all costs.
For those who can get past the suspicious flavor pairing, more startlements await. The drink contains not just coconut flavoring, but actual coconut, ground up. The resulting texture is as if the guy manning the blender accidentally knocked the container of wooden coffee stirrers into the mix.
Yet people are actually buying the coconut treats. According to a July report by investment firm WR Hambrecht, Starbucks' strong June showing was aided by its new Frappuccinos. Pod-people-style mind control is the only way of accounting for this -- that, or being forced to speak in shameful pretend Italian just to get a cup of coffee. It's a quick skid down the slippery slope from ordering a "venti" to ponying up for a "Grandissimo" Mocha Coconut Frappuccino and loving it.
The oddest new ice cream product has to be McDonald's Dippin' Dots, little pellets of cryogenically frozen ice cream. Yes, you heard right: The same process that's preserving Ted Williams is also bringing you a dessert.
About the size of BBs, Dippin' Dots must be eaten with a spoon. You have to chew them a little, due to their weird waxy texture. They come in three flavors -- chocolate, vanilla, or banana split. Dippin' Dots were invented by a microbiologist in Lexington, Kentucky, who flash-froze pellets of beneficial microbes to add to cattle feed. One slow day, he pondered what would happen if he married liquid nitrogen with his favorite dessert. Now McDonald's can connect humans and cattle in a stunningly new way.
The food and beverage industry has spent the past few years flooding the market with new foods that have less to do with taste than with gimmickry or packaging. How else can you explain purple ketchup, push-up yogurt in a tube, or turquoise french fries, all of which have debuted in the past few years?
That level of invention seems extra unsettling when applied to ice cream. Ice cream is the ultimate comfort food; until the addition of coconut, even a Frappuccino was pretty much a regular milkshake. The new treats are still cold and creamy, but their high-tech razzle-dazzle is evidence of a slicker origin. One thing is certain -- now that the food industry has broken the ice, the innocence of simpler, frostier times is gone forever.
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