Cutaway of ice cream containers.
Photo: Nigel Cox

Ice cream is one of America’s most popular desserts. Almost 90 percent of people surveyed by the market research firm Mintel said they had purchased it in the previous 6 months. As a cool finale to a Memorial Day cookout or a special sidekick to go with apple pie, it’s hard to beat. For health-conscious eaters, though, the high fat, sugars, and calorie counts prevent ice cream from being a regular snack—even during the dog days of summer.

But now, companies that make the “better for you” frozen treats that populate supermarket freezers want you to be able to dig into a pint of the creamy stuff every day without worrying about weight gain or other health consequences. With labels touting more protein, fewer calories, and less sugar, these cold treats sound downright nutritious. And consumers are scooping them up. In fact, Halo Top, an early leader in the “healthier” ice cream field, surpassed Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s to become the best-selling pint in the U.S. in 2017. Get the scoop on vegan ice creams, below.

More on Desserts

“There’s competition to offer consumers more than a tasty product,” says Lynn Dornblaser, Mintel’s director of innovation and insight. “Manufacturers are claiming that their products are healthier than their competitors’, or at least less unhealthy.”

Consumer Reports recently tested 13 of these frozen treats—a variety of “light” and low-fat ice creams, frozen yogurts, and nondairy frozen desserts, and one “traditional” full-fat ice cream. Each product was rated for taste and texture along with healthiness—including nutrition and ingredients—or the lack of it.

We found some decent options. “I still wouldn’t advise eating any of these every day,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a CR nutritionist and food tester. “But you can feel better about eating some of these products than others.”

The Low-Calorie Lure

Lower-calorie ice creams and frozen yogurts have been around for years, but the newer crop of treats boasts a more drastic reduction in calories, fat, and sugars. In fact, some “healthier” ice creams have about the same calorie count in a whole pint as just a half-cup of premium ice cream, such as regular Häagen-Dazs.

Prominently displaying the number of calories (some with less than 300 per pint) sends the message that you can plow through that container of ice cream in a single sitting without a serving of guilt on the side. And in case you don’t get the hint, the labels encourage you to “go for it” (Enlightened) or “stop when you hit the bottom” (Halo Top).

“People are easily influenced by the perception that a food is healthy,” says Keating. In fact, some studies show that having a “health halo” increases the likelihood that people will eat more of the food. For example, in a study from the University of Toronto, women ate 35 percent more when oatmeal cookies were described as a high-fiber snack than when they were described as gourmet cookies.

But just because you can down the whole pint doesn’t mean you should. “Eating oversized portions isn’t a healthy habit,” says Keating. “It encourages you to override your natural hunger and fullness cues, and distorts your idea of what a reasonable serving is.”

Protein and Fiber Promises

In its simplest form, ice cream has just four ingredients: milk, cream, sugar, and flavoring, such as vanilla. For many years, there were limited options in overall ingredients, composition, and flavor, says Scott Rankin, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the department of food science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Now we have ice cream alternatives with a very different range of ingredients and calories, fats, and sugar content,” he says. (There are also flashy flavors, such as caramel macchiato and glazed doughnut.) Ice creams can include gums, thickeners, protein concentrates, sugar substitutes, and even added fiber. Ingredients like those are meant to give low-calorie, low-fat products a taste and texture similar to regular ice cream. But in some cases, their presence allows manufacturers to make claims about lower calories and more protein and fiber.

That may sound like a good thing, but “it’s an example of a way to reduce nutrients you should limit, such as calories and saturated fat, by adding processed ingredients that may have minimal nutritional value,” Keating says.

What’s more, adding processed protein and fiber to a product doesn’t provide the same health benefits that you get when they’re from whole foods. “It’s similar to taking a vitamin pill instead of eating vitamin-rich foods,” Keating says. You miss out on all of the other nutrients found naturally in the food. And, she points out, we still don’t know the long-term effects of consuming these processed ingredients.

There’s no need to eat food—including desserts—pumped full of extra protein. “Most people need 50 grams of protein a day and easily get it,” Keating says. Some of the treats in our tests had 20 grams of protein per pint or more. “That’s roughly the same amount as in a single-serving container of plain low-fat Greek yogurt, and the yogurt is more nutritious.”

What Our Testing Found

CR’s tests focused on vanilla-flavored frozen desserts, the most popular flavor in the U.S. We chose 13 products that reflect the growing market. Four were dairy-free and made with coconut milk. (For more on these, see "The Scoop on Vegan Ice Creams," below.) We also included a regular ice cream and some frozen yogurts and light/low-fat ice creams that included “eat the whole pint” varieties. “We wanted to see how these newer products stood up to ice cream and frozen yogurt, both from a flavor and a nutrition perspective,” Keating says.

It turns out, not so well. At the top of our ratings are a frozen yogurt (Blue Bunny Vanilla Bean) and a traditional ice cream (Breyers Natural Vanilla) with the highest combined scores for flavor and nutrition. Both are recommended and are CR Best Buys.

“Our nutrition score factored in not just calories, sugars, fats, and other nutrients per serving [a half-cup or two-thirds cup] but also the number of added processed ingredients, such as isolated protein and fiber,” Keating says. Of course, none of the lighter offerings could match the rich, creamy texture of premium full-fat ice cream. But perhaps the real surprise was that about half of the products we tested received sensory scores of Very Good.

“Personally, I’d rather have a small amount of traditional ice cream,” Keating says. “But these lighter products can help you cut back on calories and sugars. Still, you should stick to a reasonable serving size.”


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The Scoop on Vegan Ice Creams

The market for vegan ice creams, more accurately called nondairy frozen desserts, may not be as widespread as eat-the-whole-pint-style ice creams, but it’s getting there. The market research firm Nielsen says “nondairy” was the fastest-growing frozen dessert category in 2017, increasing 49 percent over the previous year’s sales.

Nielsen says this growth is due to a desire for wellness—even when it comes to dessert. But how do vegan frozen desserts stack up against full-fat and low-calorie ice creams?

We looked at four brands made with coconut “milk,” the most popular dairy alternative for frozen desserts. (Others include cashew milk, soy milk, and pea protein.) Like whole cow’s milk, coconut milk is high in saturated fat. “Many people think coconut milk is healthier than whole cow’s milk, but there isn't enough evidence to support this,” says Amy Keating, R.D.

The nondairy desserts had 2 to 14 grams of saturated fat per serving; the full-fat ice cream had 4 grams of saturated fat. Sugars also varied, from 4 grams up to 16 grams per half-cup serving. Still, the nondairy products we tested tended to lack many of the additives found in the light/low-fat ice creams. And they were tasty, too, with three getting Very Good sensory scores.

“If you’re vegan or have trouble digesting dairy, these are great substitutes for ice cream,” Keating says. “Just don’t think they’re healthier for you than regular ice creams.”


CR Time Traveler: Ice Cream

1923

Good Humor founder Harry Burt patents the first ice cream treat on a stick.

1928

Candy maker Joseph Edy and ice cream maker William Dreyer create Edy’s and Dreyer’s Ice Cream. A year later, the company creates the iconic flavor “Rocky Road.”

1939

CR reports that some ice cream is not clean. Of the 196 samples we test, 27 percent contain "bacteria associated with sewage."

1944

We perform blind taste tests on 12 brands of at-home ice cream mixes—made from powder or concentrate. A few, such as Jell-O Freezing Mix, taste good, but other brands, including a Kool-Aid Mix, are “unacceptable.”

1959

We perform lab tests on “America’s favorite dessert” (above, our lab is set up to weigh ice creams). Then, with the help of dairy experts, we rate 45 brands; Sealtest, Hershey’s Early American, and Dolly Madison provide the best quality.

1978

Ben & Jerry's opens its first ice cream shop in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vt.

1989

Adults are buying more than a billion dollars’ worth of frozen ice cream novelties a year. In CR’s blind taste test of 27 ice cream bars, Dove and Häagen-Dazs trounce the competition.

1992

We test soft-serve nonfat frozen yogurt and reveal that frozen yogurt sold as nonfat is sometimes the low-fat or even the full-fat version.

2013

More Greek frozen yogurt is appearing in stores, CR reports, but the four we test have “big sour-dairy flavor and don't taste very good." However, regular vanilla fro-yo passes our tests—with Häagen-Dazs and Blue Bunny products taking the lead.

2019

Breyers earns one of our top ratings for its rich vanilla taste. For more see our ice cream and frozen desert ratings and buying guide.

1923

Good Humor founder Harry Burt patents the first ice cream on a stick.

1928

Candy maker Joseph Edy and ice cream maker William Dreyer create Edy’s and Dreyer’s Ice Cream. A year later, the company creates the iconic flavor “Rocky Road.”

1944

We perform blind taste tests on 12 brands of at-home ice cream mixes—made from powder or concentrate. A few, such as Jell-O Freezing Mix, taste good, but other brands, including a Kool-Aid Mix, are “unacceptable.”

1959

We perform lab tests on “America’s favorite dessert” (above right, our lab is set up to weigh ice creams). Then, with the help of dairy experts, we rate 45 brands; Sealtest, Hershey’s Early American, and Dolly Madison provide the best quality.

1978

Ben & Jerry open their first ice cream shop in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vt.

1989

Adults are buying more than a billion dollars’ worth of frozen ice cream novelties a year. In CR’s blind taste test of 27 ice cream bars, Dove and Häagen-Dazs trounce the competition.

1992

We test soft-serve nonfat frozen yogurt and reveal that frozen yogurt sold as nonfat is sometimes the low-fat or even the full-fat version.

2013

More Greek frozen yogurt is appearing in stores, CR reports, but the four we test have “big sour-dairy flavor and don't taste very good." However, regular vanilla fro-yo passes our tests—with Häagen-Dazs and Blue Bunny products taking the lead.

2019

Breyers earns one of our top ratings for its rich vanilla taste. For more see our ice cream and frozen desert ratings and buying guide.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.