Ice cream. It’s a mix of dairy ingredients, sweeteners, and flavors, often with stabilizers and emulsifiers. By federal law, it must generally be at least 10 percent milkfat by weight (8 percent with a mix-in) and weigh at least 4.5 pounds per gallon. Light has at least one-third fewer calories or half the fat of the full-fat version. Low-fat has 3 grams of fat or less per serving. “Premium” is a marketing term, with no federal definition. But premium ice cream tends to contain more fat and less air than others.
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Cold Comfort Food – What We Found
Gelato. It has an intense flavor and is served semi-frozen. Italian-style gelato is denser than ice cream, with less air. Typically, gelato has more milk than cream and contains sweeteners, egg yolks, and flavoring, according to the International Dairy Foods Association.
As you go down the Ratings, the ice creams tend to be a bit gummier or have a flavor that’s generic or less pronounced.
No one would claim that ice cream is great for your health, but some have half the calories, fat, or sugar of others. The listed nutrition information is for an official serving: a half-cup, which is almost mythical. Nutrition scores are based on calories, sugars, fat, and other nutrients.
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.
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 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 point” 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.
“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.
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.