If you feel like you’re seeing non-dairy ice cream all over the place lately, you’re not wrong. These dairy-free treats have been popping up in grocery store freezer sections and trendy ice cream shops alike, offering a welcome alternative to low-calorie ice creams that leave us with an empty, unsatisfied feeling and sometimes a stomach-ache.
With coconut, almond and oat milk bases and natural(ish) sugars, the vegan ice cream options of summer ‘19 seem to come with a wellness stamp of approval, giving us a license to eat as many bowls or cones as we want. But like most foods, all non-dairy ice cream options are not created equal—and some are much better than others, both taste and nutrition-wise. Want to make the best choices for your tastebuds and health? Here’s how five popular vegan ice cream brands rank (from least to most healthy), according to nutritionists and health experts.
Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy Ice Cream
While a non-dairy version of your favorite ice cream brand may seem like a dream come true, the experts advise against it. Health coach and Self Care In The City author Michelle Cady says that while she loves the intention behind an almond milk-based ice cream, she can’t get on board with the ingredients list.
“Liquid sugar, corn syrup solids, wheat flour, and sunflower oil are all inflammatory to the system, plus it has a crazy amount of sugar at 26 grams per serving and 78 grams per pint. Don't go here!”
Nutritionist Tamar Samuels agrees. “It's sweetened with some questionable ingredients like corn syrup solids and corn syrup, and also has sugar and barley malt. It also has some food additives like guar gum and locust bean gum—none of which are organic like some of the other vegan ice creams made with food additives. This product also has some added oils like soybean oil. Who needs soybean oil in ice cream?”
Oatly Vegan Ice Cream
You’ve likely heard of Oatly by now, the creamy Swedish oat milk brand that helps craft the very best oat milk lattes. But how does their vegan ice cream stack up? Not too well, apparently.
“I love Oatly oat milk and was initially very excited to hear they made ice cream,” says Samuels. “Their brand is very transparent about their ingredients and really makes an effort to avoid additives in their products. Unfortunately, it looks like their ice cream doesn't follow those practice standards. This product has three different sweeteners: sugar, dextrose (a simple sugar made from corn), and glucose syrup. It also has a few emulsifiers like mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, and thickeners and binders like locust bean gum and guar gum. It also has some low erucic acid rapeseed oil, which is a man-made oil.”
Halo Top Dairy-Free Ice Cream
Halo Top is probably the most popular low-calorie ice cream out there, both nutrition and taste-wise. So how does its non-dairy version do? Not too shabby, according to Karina Heinrich, nutritionist and founder of The Karina Method.
“Halo Top has moderate amounts of protein and calcium, but it also contains cane sugar, sugar substitutes, and undisclosed natural flavors and colors,” she says. “The plus is that Halo Top has lower added sugars that may not increase your blood sugar as much as the same exact serving of ice cream.” Heinrich cautions against eating the whole pint though, which is something Halo Top suggests based on how few calories it has compared to regular ice cream. “It has very few nutrients and should still be looked at as a dessert and eaten in moderation," says Heinrich.
Luna & Larry’s Coconut Bliss Vegan Ice Cream
Now we’re getting into the healthy territory: Heinrich, Samuels, and Cady all agree that Coconut Bliss ice cream has a solid list of ingredients. “I love the simple and short ingredient list, and it shouldn't cause any stomach upset because there are no sugar alcohols,” says Cady. “But keep your scoops small—one serving has 16 grams of sugar from agave sugar (which is still sugar) and the entire pint is 800 calories and has 48 grams of sugar.”
Heinrich adds that taste-wise, you have to really like the taste of coconut, as it’s pretty obvious what this ice cream is made out of. “But if you do, this is the vegan ice cream for you!”
Van Leeuwen Ice Cream
When it comes to vegan ice cream, Van Leeuwen’s is the clear winner. “I love Van Leewuen vegan ice cream from both a flavor and ingredient perspective,” says Samuels. “In my opinion, this product tastes the most like dairy ice cream without any unnecessary additives. It's made with coconut cream and cashews instead of milk and uses organic cane sugar as a sweetener. As an added bonus, the chocolate used in their vegan chocolate ice cream (Michel Cluizel chocolate) comes from a small family-run French company that uses raw cacao from eight single biodynamic and organic plantations—no added soy lecithin either!”
Of course, even when consuming the very best of the best vegan ice cream, no nutritionist would be doing their job if they didn’t point out that vegan ice cream, no matter how great the ingredient list, is still a treat to be enjoyed in moderation. “No matter how organic, sustainable, nutty, oaty, coconutty this new version of ice cream is, it’s still ice cream, and meant to be savored in tiny quantities,” says Heinrich. “Just as I wouldn’t encourage you to eat an entire pint of ice cream in one sitting, the same rules apply to the vegan variety. Don’t get blinded by the marketing.”
Next up: Want to cut out dairy? Here's how.