I scream, you scream, we all scream for . . . nondairy frozen dessert? So-called vegan ice cream is, well, hot. Offerings from premium brands such as Ben & Jerry’s and Steve’s Ice Cream are popping up in supermarket frozen food aisles everywhere. Almost 45 percent of consumers say they buy vegan frozen treats more often today than they used to, according to the market research firm Mintel. One reason may be that vegan ice cream sounds like a better-for-you way to satisfy your summertime craving; Mintel research shows that about 25 percent of people think it has fewer calories or less fat or sugar than regular ice cream. But are nondairy options really a better choice? We took a close look at the “vegan ice cream” flavors introduced recently by Ben & Jerry’s, evaluating them for taste and nutrition (see chart below). But there are a few important facts you need to know about the category in general, too.  

Vegan Ice Cream Isn’t Really Ice Cream

Vegan ice cream is a misnomer. The Food and Drug Administration defines ice cream as a frozen, pasteurized product made from dairy that contains at least 10 percent milkfat. As a result, a similarly prepared dessert created with almond, coconut, soy, or other cow-less milk gets saddled with a clunky name like “nondairy frozen dessert.” The Ben & Jerry’s products are made with almond milk and coconut oil and pea protein. These ingredients add texture and replace some of the fat and protein in milk.

It Probably Won’t Fool a True Dairy Lover

People who avoid dairy because they are lactose intolerant or for other reasons might be thrilled to have something decent to scoop into a cone, and many nondairy frozen desserts are tasty, but in most cases you can tell you’re not eating “real” ice cream.

Take, for example, the results of our blind tasting of the four Ben & Jerry’s nondairy flavors: Chocolate Fudge Brownie, Chunky Monkey, Coffee Caramel Fudge, and PB & Cookies. They all tasted okay—our testers judged them all to be good in overall quality. PB & Cookies was the best of the four, with big roasted peanut flavor, crunchy peanut bits, and soft Oreo-like cookie pieces, followed by Coffee Caramel Fudge. But Chunky Monkey and Chocolate Fudge Brownie were inferior to the ice creams of the same name. Chunky Monkey ice cream had genuine banana flavor and high-quality chocolate chunks but the banana flavor in the vegan ice cream tasted artificial, and the chocolate was a bit chalky. And instead of fudgy brownie pieces and a creamy, dense texture, the vegan Chocolate Fudge Brownie was gummy and had slightly dry, cakey brownie chunks. 

It Might Not Be Easier on Your Stomach

You won’t get any lactose, the natural sugar in milk that causes digestive upset in many people. But several of the nondairy frozen desserts on the market use guar gum, which can have a laxative effect, to stabilize and retard ice crystal growth. Others improve texture with inulin, a soluble fiber that can cause gas and bloating in some people, especially those with irritable bowl syndrome.

It’s Still a Dessert

Coconut milk-based frozen desserts tend to be higher in saturated fat. If nut milks such as almond or cashew are used as the creamy base, you could be getting a hit of heart-healthy plant-based monounsaturated fat. But it would be a stretch to call nondairy “ice cream” a health food. For example, a half-cup serving of Ben & Jerry’s nondairy Chunky Monkey has 260 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 8 grams of saturated fat per half-cup, only a bit better than the 300 calories, 18 grams of fat, and 10 grams of saturated fat in a half-cup of the company’s ice cream of the same name. Plus there’s 8 percent less calcium and half the protein in the nondairy dessert.

As for sugar, it depends on flavor and brand. Nondairy Chunky Monkey has about 6.5 teaspoons (26 grams) of sugars per half-cup; the ice cream has 7 teaspoons (28 grams). The Chocolate Fudge Brownie flavor also has an ice cream counterpart. In this case the sugar grams (and calories) in the nondairy dessert are quite a bit lower. Other nondairy products have even less sugar, like So Delicious Dairy Free Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert almond milk vanilla with 2.5 teaspoons per serving. So if you're concerned about your sugar intake, check the Nutrition Facts label.  

How the Flavors Stack Up

According to our trained food tasters, all four Ben & Jerry's nondairy frozen desserts were good, but their flavor and texture is no match for full-fat ice cream. The best of the bunch by far was P.B. & Cookies, followed by the other three, which were similar in quality. Nutritionally, these nondairy frozen desserts aren't much better than Chunky Monkey and Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice creams (included below).

FlavorCaloriesFatSaturated FatSugars1
Ben & Jerry's P.B. & Cookies Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert29017g8g22g
Ben & Jerry's Coffee Caramel Fudge Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert24012923
Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert26014826
Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert20011616
Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie Ice Cream26013827
Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey Ice Cream300181028
  1. All nutrition values are per 1/2-cup serving.