Healthy Ice Cream 101

Written By: Gloria Tsang, RD

Title: Founding Registered Dietitian

Alumni: University of British Columbia

Last Updated on:

Are you overwhelmed by the variety of frozen desserts available on freezer shelves? Terms like “premium,” “low-fat,” “fat-free,” “sugar-free,” “non-dairy,” and so on can be very confusing. So how should you go about choosing an ice cream product that you can indulge in every day? Let us show you.

Go For the Natural One

Traditionally, ice cream is made with cream. Some premium brands provide close to 300 kcal per half cup! If you eat ice cream once in a while, it’s absolutely fine to eat these premium brands. In fact, I recommend these premium brands most often as they are made with natural ingredients, usually with only 5 or 6 ingredients. However, if frozen dessert treats are something you eat every day, you may want to find something different. But what?

Low-Fat or Fat-free Ice Cream?

A few brands have mastered the technology of making lower-fat ice cream taste good without so much fat. However, they have actually added quite a few additives to achieve that. Eat these additives every day? I don’t think so.

Let’s take a look at the above ingredient list for Breyers Fat Free Vanilla ice cream:

Ingredients: Milk ingredients, modified milk ingredients, sugar, glucose, polydestrose, maltodextrin, natural flavor, propylene glycol, monoesters, mono- & diglycerides, cellulose gum, carob bean gum, guar gum, color, carrageenan.

There are just so many emulsifiers and thickeners here to replace the removed fat!

What to be Wary About

  • Extras: Added cookies or chocolate chips add extra calories and bad fat – specifically, trans fat. If you would like to add some zest to your frozen dessert, try adding cut-up fruits such as berries or melons.
  • Coating: The rich, crunchy chocolate adds texture, but may also add a ton of fat. That’s because the shiny coating is mostly oil.
  • “Sugar-Free” or “No Sugar Added”: How do you make a sweet treat with no sugar? The answer is artificial sweeteners. Artificially sweetened ice cream may not be an ideal choice for healthy people without diabetes.

What About Frozen Yogurt?

Let’s set the record straight: Frozen yogurt does not have the same tartness found in yogurt. Indeed, frozen yogurt tastes more like ice cream than yogurt. If you feel the lower-fat ice cream is not creamy enough, you will be delighted with frozen yogurt! Half a cup of frozen yogurt usually contains 100 kcal and less than 2 grams of saturated fat. No only does it fit the calorie bill, it also claims to be the only frozen treat that contains beneficial active bacterial culture.

Western Classic Frozen Yogurt

Ingredients: Modified milk ingredients, sugar, glucose, cream, raspberries, skim milk, mono and diglycerides, guar gum, locust bean gum, carrageenan, boysenberries, modified corn starch, pectin, citric acid, tartaric acid, carboxymethyl cellulose gum, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, natural and artificial flavor, color, bacterial culture.

However, not all frozen yogurts are that natural. I came across the above frozen yogurt, and when I look at the ingredient list, it appears very similar to the fat-free ice cream shown above. So always read the labels.

Non-dairy Frozen Desserts for Vegans?

There are options for vegans. Mostly sugar and fruit, sorbet is a fat-free frozen dessert alternative. Soy or rice ice cream is naturally lower in fat. It is important to note, though, that not all non-dairy desserts are necessarily low in calories. I notice that their ingredients are generally cleaner, that is, they have fewer additives. Always read labels to double check.

Popsicles = Sugar

Popsicles are available in various versions from regular to fat-free to sugar-free. Some contain dairy; some are only made with sugar and ice. It always pays to read the Nutrition Facts label and ingredient list. Look for real fruit juice on the ingredient list. For a healthier popsicle version, make home-made popsicles by freezing real fruit juice or yogurt in popsicle molds.

Is the Gelato at the Ice-cream Parlor Low in Fat?

This Italian frozen dessert is popular. Gelato has less air whipped into the product than traditional ice cream. More importantly, it is usually made with milk instead of heavy cream. And yes, theoretically, it is lower in fat and hence calories than traditional ice cream. Since different parlors use different recipes in making gelato, you can simply ask if they use whole milk or low-fat milk in their production.


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