Girl with ice cream cone

There are two main schools of thought about choosing a “healthy” ice cream, according to Scott Rankin, Ph.D., a professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “On the one hand, you have consumers who want the fewest ingredients possible,” he says. “On the other, you have customers who want their ice cream to have specific ‘attributes,’ such as no sugar added or nonfat."

But why do these lighter options often have longer ingredients lists? To give them the familiar flavor and texture of regular ice cream, Rankin says, and to address factors you might not think of, such as how fast the product melts.

To help you understand what you’re eating, we’ve listed some common processed ingredients in various types of light ice cream you’ll find in stores.

Agave, Rice Syrup, or Tapioca Syrup
These plant-based sweeteners may sound healthier than sugar, but your body processes them the same way. As with other forms of added sugars, eating too much of them can raise the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other conditions.

Carob and Guar Gums
Gums are used as stabilizers, which reduce ice formation and give the product a smooth texture. Carob gum (also called locust bean gum) is from the seeds of the locust bean tree, and guar gum comes from guar beans, which are legumes. But these plant-based gums can be chemically processed. In large doses, some gums (like other nondigestible fibers), could cause abdominal discomfort.

More on Desserts

Extracted from seaweed, it’s used as an emulsifier, a stabilizer, or a thickener. That may make you think it’s better for you. But some research suggests that it causes inflammation, and some people with inflammatory digestive conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, report symptom relief when they avoid carrageenan.

One of the types of sweeteners known as sugar alcohols, it’s 60 to 70 percent as sweet as sugar and has 0.25 calories per gram vs. 4 calories per gram of sugar. Sugar alcohols can cause digestive upset, especially when eaten in large amounts. But erythritol is less likely to do that than other types of sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol and xylitol.

Derived from fat (animal or vegetable), it can help prevent ice-crystal formation in ice cream. It also may add sweetness.

Milk Protein Isolates
These powders, which are at least 90 percent protein, are added to some low-fat and light ice creams to boost protein or improve texture. Whey protein is a similar ingredient. It’s always preferable to get your protein from whole foods.

Natural Flavors
The Food and Drug Administration requires that these come from natural sources, but they can be extracted in a lab. Processing aids, such as solvents, and preservatives may be used in the production of flavors; these don’t have to be disclosed on a product’s ingredients panel.

Soluble Corn Fiber
This fiber is added to improve texture, providing thickening and gelling. Other added fibers include inulin and chicory root fiber. The FDA recently said these ingredients could legally be called dietary fiber, but CR’s nutritionists recommend getting your daily fiber from whole foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Stevia or Monk Fruit Extract
These plant-based sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and have no calories. But there's no good evidence that they (or other sugar substitutes) help with weight loss.

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

Correction: A previous version of this story said that erythritol was 60 to 70 percent sweeter than sugar. It is 60 to 70 percent as sweet as sugar.