Häagen-Dazs vs. Ben & Jerry's: Which Are You Down With?


Häagen-Dazs vs. Ben & Jerry's—it's the ice cream battle of our time. It's like the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, Ali vs. Liston, or the Knicks vs. the Heat in the old days. There's plenty of bad blood—or should I say curdled cream?—between them. Older ice cream eaters might remember that in 1984 Häagen-Dazs tried to limit distribution of Ben & Jerry’s in Boston, prompting Ben & Jerry’s to file suit against Häagen-Dazs's parent company, Pillsbury, in its now famous “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?” campaign.

Every ice cream lover I know chooses sides in this war, and make no mistake about it, this is a battle royale. Who you pick says a lot about who you are and comes perilously close to making a fashion statement. This choice is most assuredly a value and values judgment.

So pick your pleasure. Are you down with Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry's? Life's full of tough choices, and this is certainly one of them.

To help you, we're going to supply a little background info on each. At Serious Eats, an educated consumer is our most important product.

Häagen-Dazs was the brainchild of Reuben Mattus, a Polish immigrant and small-time ice cream maker in the Bronx. In 1959, he found his business squeezed for shelf space and wildly undersold by larger national brands like Sealtest and Borden. About to go out of business, he decided to risk it all on a high-butterfat, no-additive ice cream. So he created Häagen-Dazs, giving it a name that sounded European, downright continental, but that in actuality had no meaning in any language.

But doesn't Haagen-Dazs sound tony, sophisticated, and downright elegant? Mattus's ice cream back then, as now, had very little air pumped into it, lots of butterfat, and used high-quality ingredients to create simple, classic flavors like Rum Raisin and Vanilla Almond. Then, as now, it is the only widely available ice cream made without any artificial or natural stabilizers like guar gum or carrageenan.

Remarkably, though Mattus sold the company in 1983 to Pillsbury (which in turn was acquired by General Mills in 2000), Häagen-Dazs remains as true to its roots and its commitment to quality as it was when Mattus owned it. It is perhaps the finest example of a small food company being swallowed up by a corporate giant that has maintained its standards and commitment to quality.

Ben and Jerry's, on the other hand, was started in Burlington, Vermont, by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, two Long Island, New York, refugees with a decidedly countercultural bent.

Armed with the knowledge gained by a $5 ice cream–making correspondence course and $12,000, Cohen and Greenfield opened the first Ben & Jerry's in a renovated gas station in 1978.

Cohen and Greenfield's pro-social, granola-saturated personalities came to be synonymous with their brand. Perhaps inspired by the legendary Steve's Ice Cream in Waltham, Massachusetts, Ben & Jerry's became synonymous with elaborately concocted flavors with wacky names like Cherry Garcia and later, Chubby Hubby. The ice cream itself was also a high-butterfat superpremium product made with lots of mix-ins like Heath Bars, cookies, and even cookie dough.

Unlike Häagen-Dazs, it has always had stabilizers like guar gum. Like its more urbane competitor, Ben & Jerry's was also sold to a huge corporation—in 2001, Unilever, a multinational company, purchased the brand and neither Ben nor Jerry still work there full-time.

So what will it be? The cool, urbane, sophisticated Häagen-Dazs or the tie-dyed, bearded, back-to-nature Ben & Jerry's?

I'll admit it. I'm a Häagen-Dazs man. I've done many a direct comparison in basic flavors like vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and coffee, and I have found the Häagen-Dazs flavors to be cleaner and truer to their basic ingredients. But I might be able to be convinced otherwise.