By Julie Upton, R.D.
If you follow a dairy-free lifestyle, you no longer need to suffer from FOMO when it comes to enjoying a scoop of ice cream. Whether you’re a part-time flexitarian, lactose intolerant or a strict vegan, grab your spoon because it’s now easy to find oodles of nondairy options that lack animal products – but not flavor.
Nondairy is now the fastest growing segment of the frozen dessert category; chances are, your supermarket ice cream case features many different dairy-free flavors as well as numerous novelties like ice cream sandwiches and bars.
The rise in dairy-free frozen desserts is based on one thing: demand. Significantly more Americans are seeking to follow a more plant-based diet. The reasons for living dairy-free are many, but according to consumer data from Mintel, nearly half of those surveyed believe that plant-based proteins are healthier. However, not all nondairy frozen desserts are healthier than regular ice cream, and some may even be worse for your health.
Here’s why: Dairy-less frozen desserts replace milk and cream with an alternative like coconut, soy, almond or cashew milk. Almost all of the other ingredients remain the same between commercially available dairy ice creams and their dairy-free counterparts. Coconut is popular among manufacturers because its saturated fat makes for rich and creamy vegan frozen desserts – but it can pack in more saturated fat than a dairy version of your favorite frozen treat. Pints made with almond, soy, cashew or other nut milks tend to be lower in saturated fat and calories than those made with coconut cream or milk.
While great for creating creamy frozen treats, coconut’s high saturated fat count may elevate harmful LDL cholesterol levels, increasing risk for heart disease. Some coconut-based brands can have up to 250 calories, 15 grams of saturated fat and 20-plus grams of sugar per 1/2-cup serving. For context, “regular” dairy-based ice cream has on average up to 150 calories per serving, 2 to 5 grams of saturated fat and 10-plus grams of sugar.
If you’re looking for a better-for-you vegan scoop, choose one with less than 200 calories and 5 grams saturated fat and no more than 16 grams of added sugars per 1/2-cup serving. Brands like So Delicious and Almond Dream have healthier nut-based choices, and Halo Top has some of the most diet-friendly pints in the category. Halo Top’s dairy-free options weigh in at 70 to 90 calories, with low saturated fat counts and less than 8 grams of sugar per 1/2-cup serving. (Halo Top uses calorie-free stevia and sugar alcohols to keep calories and sugar counts low.)