In Bar Harbor, the Village Green is one of the central hubs of town happenings. This is particularly true in the summer, when tourists and locals alike flock to the Green to catch an Island Explorer bus, enjoy a Town Band performance, or lounge on a park bench in the sun. It’s an exceedingly pleasant place, all sweetness and iconic Norman Rockwell-type scenes brought to life (it’s also the setting for a growing number of civic actions, from Protests for Science to Healthcare Die-Ins– but that’s a story for another day.).
And there’s one element that makes it even sweeter—ice cream. From the Village Green, I can see three independent ice cream shops. Just down the street, out of sight, are at least four more. That’s seven ice cream options over one half-mile stretch of street. And okay, Bar Harbor is a tourist town—but still, to me, this seems to take ice cream consumption to the next level. My general impression has been backed up by friends and neighbors mentioning the evidently well-known fact: New Englanders eat more ice cream than people in any other region in the USA.
I’ve been enthusiastically repeating that stat since I heard it, without any concern about its actual factualness. But in honor of National Ice Cream Month, I decided to dig a little deeper. Is it true? Do New Englanders eat more ice cream? But what I thought would be a quick Google search developed into a warren of previously unconsidered ice cream questions.
As it turns out, “who eats the most ice cream?” is a difficult question to even ask, let alone answer. How do you define what “eating the most ice cream” means? Do you measure by total dollar amount of ice cream sales? Or by counting the number of instances of ice cream consumption per person per year? Or a survey of how many people have ice cream in their freezer at a given time?
But wait, you say—surely you should try to estimate the actual amount consumed, not the dollar sales or number of trips to the ice cream shop. Turns out, even that estimate is slippery. Should you measure ice cream by volume, or weight? Premium ice cream has less air whipped into it, so a pint of premium has more actual cream/sugar/eggs than a pint of regular. But who goes around weighing ice cream? (Actually: that would be the USDA, which rules that in order to be labelled ice cream, a gallon of frozen treat must weigh 4.5 pounds.)
Anyways, my research into “who eats the most ice cream” has returned examples of studies using each of these metrics—dollar sales, trips to the ice cream shop, freezer presence, volumes, weights. Picking the right metric is tricky; comparing between two studies that use different measuring techniques practically impossible.
And it gets trickier, too, because reliable sources are hard to find. The popular business/pop culture reports on these studies tend to be pretty sloppy with their data—not listing the metric used to measure, for example, or leaving off a crucial “billion” here or there (seriously) (incidentally, if you do choose to trust those figures, you’ll notice that New Zealand is listed as #1 ice cream consumption per capita in the world…). It’s like they think reporting on ice cream consumption is a frivolous topic, or something. Go figure.
The primary sources behind these articles are studies conducted by market research groups. Reports on these studies are only available if you pay for them—sometimes to the tune of nearly $4,000 (again, seriously).
Clearly, I could use professional assistance on this one. The National Ice Cream Retailers Association (or NICRA) is an association of various ice cream retailers, or “ice cream people helping ice cream people since 1933”. As a self-identified “ice cream person” (this is like being a dog person, yes?), I thought they might be able to help me out. So I got in touch, wrote them an email. So far, no news back.
That brings me to the IICA, or International Ice Cream Association. This is one of three constituent associations of the IDFA, or International Dairy Foods Association. Ice-cream-specific press releases from the IICA tend to cluster around July, National Ice Cream Month. Their most recent press release hits the sweet spot for accessible and apparently-factual ice cream reporting.
Unfortunately, the press release doesn’t provide a handy list, a table of “Top regions for ice cream consumption by mass consumed per capita per month”. But it does provide hints towards that direction. The IDFA conducted a survey of ice cream manufacturers who market their products regionally. In that survey, respondents listed the Great Lakes region as the top spot for selling their goods. The next regions on the list were the Southwest, the Plains, and the Mideast regions.
The Northeast, you’ll notice, is missing from that list. But again—is the metric used (sales of large-scale manufacturer sales) one that actually and accurately reflects ice cream consumption? What about the local manufacturers, ones that don’t market beyond New England but that have a devoted following here? Does being a largely rural state change how this data should be gathered? Plus, is this all averaged over the course of a year? Because regardless of how it’s measured, I suspect numbers in New England would be dramatically different between June and December, whereas numbers in a region like the Southeast, or California, might stay a bit more constant.
I don’t have answers for these questions. And, to be honest, it is a frivolous topic, and it’s hard to imagine a situation in which nailing down these numbers has big implications on an individual’s life (unless, or course, you’re looking to open an ice cream shop. In that case, the professionals at NICRA might get back to you…).
But I can’t help but be prompted to think about the broader implications of this silly question. How do we measure anything? And judge the quality of the measurements we have? And how do we communicate those measurements and their implications in a non-misleading way? I believe science communicators have a responsibility to find a path in the swampy space between “we have measured enough to know that our question is unendingly complex and we’ll never fully understand” and “we’ve studied this exhaustively and understand it perfectly”. And while that is true for ice cream, it’s even more pressing for complicated situations that call for human response—climate change, for example, or disease outbreaks or income inequality or economic shifts.
I also believe science communicators shouldn’t stretch their metaphors, and I think I’m cutting it close on that one. Please know that I didn’t begin this project looking to analyze how we measure anything—it all started because I was honestly curious about New England’s ice cream proclivities.
And, of course, because it’s July (for another 3 hours or so), a month dedicated to the celebration of ice cream ever since it was proclaimed “National Ice Cream Month” by President Regan in 1984. And that, so they tell me, is a fact.