As you no doubt know by now, I’m a sucker for ice cream, or any other cold, frozen beverage remotely resembling ice cream, which is probably why even my morning superfood smoothie is essentially a giant acai-bowl-like ice cream slurry, albeit significantly lower calorie than the average bowl of ice cream, since I use tons of ice and a base such as bone broth. But, in fact, I’ve been whipping up homemade ice cream in my Vitamix blender, Nutribullet, and occasionally—when I’m not being lazy—even an ice cream maker for years, and I often toss in just about every healthy or interesting ingredient I can find for a kitchen-sink-like approach. This method, more often than not (although there have been some “nots”) turns out pretty dang delicious, allows for me to discover some pretty darn cool ice cream-esque recipes, and when messed up, is typically quite easily fixed with ample amounts of sea salt and stevia, a crappy ice cream chef’s best friend.
We all seem to like ice cream, don’t we?
It’s no wonder—young mammals are hardwired to crave the highly palatable combination of fat and sugar present in breast milk. Fast forward past the growing years, and that food that served an adaptive purpose is now just getting us fat. The highly palatable breast milk-like food that helps small mammals grow into larger mammals, helps larger mammals grow, well, more fat. And ice cream can be a perfect example of that, at least the average dairy, high-fat, high-sugar pints you’ll find at most grocery stores.
So up until just a few years ago, there was no such thing as “healthy” ice cream in the grocery store; just pints and tubs of frozen, hedonistic goodness, consisting of mucus-inducing cow’s milk and blood-glucose wrecking sugar.
And while I’ve always loved ending a delicious dinner with a spoonful all the way up to a whopping bowl of ice cream, I used to inevitably pay for it later in the form of wrecked digestion, gas, and bloating from the dairy and sugar combination. When it comes to the dairy in particular, the A1 type of casein, a tasteless white solid that’s the main protein in milk, is well-known to be associated with gastrointestinal problems. In contrast, as I discuss in my recent podcast with farmer Jordan Rubin, the A2 type of casein less commonly found in dairy sources in the US, is far less problematic and inflammatory, but rarely found in most ice creams, unless you’re buying your own A2 milk and making ice cream from it.” Thus, a couple years ago, I started upon a quest to perfect homemade ice cream so that I could “have my bowl and eat it, too”—and have since then shared a number of homemade healthy ice cream recipes.
However, as I’ve occasionally perused the aisles of joints such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Erehwon, and other grocery stores, I’ve noticed more and more “healthy ice creams” popping up these days: sugar-free, low-calorie, low-carb, high-protein, dairy-free, and even 100% plant-based varietals.
The truth is, like the grain industry and the gluten-free bread that you can now find just about everywhere, the ice cream industry is stepping up their game and creating healthier options for those that are lactose intolerant, Keto, Vegan, Paleo, or others that simply want to enjoy an occasional bowl of ice cream and not curse their decision a few hours later. So the fact is, there’s actually now some pretty decent store-bought ice cream options out there.
In this article, I’m going to break down for you what to look for in healthy ice cream, listing the “cream of the crop” (heh) when it comes to the healthiest ice creams out there, and how to choose the best one for your dietary or health needs. Plus, I’ll even be giving you two of my favorite DIY homemade ice cream recipes from my new Boundless Cookbook, (including one that may potentially rival Viagra in its ability to boost your sex life).
Ready? Then grab a big spoon, an even bigger bowl, and get ready for the ultimate “scoop” (couldn’t resist) on healthy ice cream.
By the way, after putting together the entire list below for you, at the last minute I experienced a head-slapping “how-can-I-have-forgotten-about-that-one” moment in which I remembered my friend Andy Hneale’s “Guardian Angel” brand ice cream that Jordan Rubin and I discussed in this podcast. That one, a dairy-free, allulose-sweetened, keto, collagen/Vitamin C, MCT, and probiotic-infused ice cream with addictively good flavors like salted caramel and pumpkin cinnamon ain’t a bad option either (admittedly, they are just now getting started and I don’t think they plan to start much shipping until a few months, but you can at least bookmark ’em!).
What to Look for in a Healthy Ice Cream Part 1: Macronutrients
With the creation of new Keto and high-protein ice creams, it’s now possible to choose an ice cream that “fits your macros.” While I’m not a personal proponent of the IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) campaign—since it tends to advocate for eating whatever the heck you want as long as your protein/carb/fat numbers are met—I do understand that some people like to use counting macros as a health tool.
I won’t give exact protein, carbohydrate, and fat levels to look for in an ice cream here, as, based on genetics, health history, exercise, and the concept of biochemical individuality, everyone is individual in their needs, but here are a few pointers for different macro “categories” such as low carb, high protein, and low fat:
Keto ice cream lovers now have more choices than ever. Traditional ice cream is generally high in carbs, mostly from sugar, and contains around 20g carbs per ½ cup serving. Nowadays you can find ice cream that has less than 5g net carbs per pint! Remember how the sugar/fat composition of breast milk triggers craving? Eliminating the sugar part of the equation may serve as a means to prevent scooping that second (or third, or fourth) bowl.
In other words, you may want to avoid pounding a whole pint of Keto ice cream in one sitting… or the toilet is exactly where you’ll be sitting afterward.
Regular ice cream uses cream as its base (hence the name), while “high-protein” brands are usually made with skim milk along with whey or milk protein concentrate to increase protein content. However, they usually only contain around 6g protein per serving; but to be fair, that’s double traditional ice cream’s protein content (2-3g).
It should be noted that like low-carb ice cream, it’s important to read labels on high-protein brands to make sure there aren’t any nefarious ingredients added to replace the creaminess factor (such as gums or carrageenans). Additionally, if you’re lactose-intolerant or avoid dairy, it may be tougher to find a high-protein ice cream since many are dairy-based. The alternative, plant-based protein—like the pea protein in So Delicious—may be a gentler choice if your system is sensitive to animal proteins and may lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, but have a reduced essential amino acid content.
Traditional ice cream contains anywhere from 7-13g of fat per serving. Today, you can find quite a few ice creams lower than 5g of fat per ½ cup—and there are even brands with literally ZERO fat.
While some lower-fat ice creams are made with ingredients that could be considered “healthy,” I’m certainly not one to demonize fat and tend to eat a higher fat diet myself. Low-fat milk had its heyday for a while until a closer look brought into question whether it really was a healthier choice. Not to sound like a broken record, but it’s important to ask “Hey, what are they replacing that fat with to make this taste so good?” Most often, the fat that is removed from the milk is replaced with sugar, which we already know is a wrecking ball to a nutritious diet. Additionally, a lower-fat dairy product is less likely to satisfy you (due to the satiety properties of fat), making it more likely that you’ll consume a higher calorie and sugar load.
What to Look for in a Healthy Ice Cream Part 2: Sugar & Sweeteners
It’s no secret that regular ice cream is loaded with sugar, with anywhere from 12-24g of added sugar in ½ cup. So once you’ve had a few scoops (because if you’re anything like me, you’re not just going to eat a measly single serving), you may as well have just chugged an entire soda…with some heavy cream added in.
Today you can find dozens of low-sugar and even zero-sugar ice creams… but like those that are labeled “low fat” or “high protein,” it’s important to consider what they’re replacing that sugar with to make it taste better than just a tub of ice.
*Avoid/limit if these cause you digestive upset (gas, bloating, etc.)
Monk fruit extract
Natural fruits (e.g. banana, strawberries)
In summary, I would probably choose ice cream with a few grams of natural sugar over one that contains zero sugar, but instead loads of artificial sweeteners or bloat-inducing sugar alcohols.
What to Look for in a Healthy Ice Cream Part 3: Additives (Or Their Absence!)
Ice cream has a long history that may date back as early as the 6th century, and while the production process was laborious early on (think hand-cranked churn), the components have remained largely unchanged. Traditional ice cream—while rich in dairy and high in sugar, fat, and calories—contains a very simple list of real food ingredients: milk, cream, sugar, egg yolks.
However, in order to create “healthier” ice creams that tailor to specific diets or health needs, many of these basic ingredients get swapped out for alternatives, some of which may be benign, while others are anything but healthy.
This one is pretty ubiquitous. A large majority of natural or healthy ice creams add “natural flavors” to enhance taste and flavor without adding calories. But hey, they’re natural, right?
Not always…”natural flavor” is a blanket term for any plant- or animal-based ingredient that a company wants to keep proprietary. However, the FDA hasn’t officially defined the term and doesn’t regulate it, so it’s a bit of a crapshoot on whether or not you’re actually consuming something natural or a synthetic chemical. Sometimes the only way to know is to actually contact the manufacturer.
In general, while most “natural flavors” won’t kill you in moderate amounts, I’d look for ice cream brands that use legitimately natural flavoring ingredients (like cinnamon, cacao, peppermint, etc.), and also list them all on the label.
Gums, Stabilizers, and Thickeners
Look at most healthy or dairy-free ice creams, and you’ll notice the presence of gums such as xanthan gum, guar gum, locust bean gum, acacia gum, or carob bean gum. These are added to prevent the formation of ice crystals, which is key to a rich, creamy, smooth ice cream. While these gums are generally thought to be safe, they are in essence soluble fibers that the body can’t break down, so for some people, such as folks with Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) or leaky gut problems, they can cause digestive upset.
Another very common stabilizer is carrageenan, which is an extract of red edible seaweed. It’s commonly used in ice cream due to its gelling, thickening, and stabilizing properties. However, it should be avoided as some animal studies link it to inflammation, diabetes, and even cancer.
What to Look for in a Healthy Ice Cream Part 4: Quality & Dietary Considerations
There are a few other markers of quality, as well as dietary preferences, you might want to consider when selecting the healthiest ice cream for you. Here are some terms you’ll want to look out for on ice cream labels:
Organic (especially important for dairy-based ice creams)
Vegan or Plant-based
What to Look for in a Healthy Ice Cream Part 5: Taste & Texture
Even if an ice cream passes the test with macronutrients, sweeteners, and additives, along with quality and dietary considerations, you probably won’t want to eat it unless it tastes good, right?
Fact is, both the ingredients and processing methods will affect the taste, and of course, what even tastes good depends on individual preference. Your kid may want the sweetest ice cream out there while you may prefer a less cavity-inducing taste. Healthy ice creams also tend to be somewhat more limited in flavors—for obvious reasons, you won’t find Reese’s, Heath, or Thin Mint on this list (hit up Breyer’s for those)—but there are way more flavor options now than there were even a year or two ago.
The other big factor when it comes to which healthy ice cream you scoop up over and over is texture. The texture of ice creams can vary quite a bit even amongst traditional brands, and even more so with the healthier brands given the different compositions of the ice creams. Most people want a creamier texture—regardless of whether or not there is any actual dairy in the ice cream—which is the result of higher fat content. And back to candy-filled ice creams above…it is less common to find healthy ice creams with pieces of anything in them because those “anythings” would likely sabotage the health factor. Texture has been shown to have a significant impact on ice cream sales, so getting it right is a high priority for manufacturers.
Finally, there can be quite a variation in the time it takes for different ice creams to thaw. If you’re a planner and can remember to take the ice cream out of the freezer, oh, 15 minutes or so before you want to eat it, then thaw time may not matter. But I’m willing to bet that when most of you want to eat ice cream you’d prefer to eat it right then and there (and if you have kids, no way do they want to wait!). An avocado base vs. a banana base vs. a coconut milk base vs. a dairy base, etc. are all going to have different ideal thaw times, different mouth feel, and different texture, and typically the “lower fat” the ice cream is, the more difficult it is to achieve the smooth, creamy texture one typically looks for in ice cream, and the longer it takes to thaw.
Alright, enough theory! Let’s dig in (pun intended) to some of the best, legitimately healthy ice cream brands.
The 10 Best Healthy Ice Cream Brands of 2021
After searching natural grocery store shelves, and even the new online ice cream world (yes, you can actually buy ice cream online, who knew?), I’ve discovered what I believe to be the top 10 healthy ice cream brands you can find right now.
I thought about ranking this list in terms of “ideal ice cream” from 1-10, but there are so many different considerations when it comes to choosing your favorite healthy ice cream that I didn’t want to decide for you. I believe all of these are much better choices than most standard storebought brands and should serve as a handy list for your next trip to the grocery store or online splurge.
P.S.: “Ice cream” is a bit of a misnomer for some brands on this list, as they in fact don’t contain cream at all. A more accurate phrase is “frozen desserts”—but that’s just not as fun, is it?
I have to admit, So Delicious Dairy Free Coconutmilk has nailed it in terms of taste and creaminess when compared to regular ice cream. That’s probably why it’s also the highest on the list in terms of calories and sugar content, with a whopping 710 calories and 63g of sugar per pint. While the ingredients are decently clean, it’s definitely a sugar-bomb, and for that reason, I wouldn’t say this isn’t a good pick for everyday scooping. However, it may be worth the splurge if you’re looking for a decadent dessert.
So Delicious also has almond and cashew milk dairy-free ice creams. While these others seem to contain less desirable ingredients, they do taste freaking amazing, like Snickerdoodle Cashewmilk, Chocolate Cookies ‘n’ Cream Cashewmilk, and Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl Coconutmilk.
Oat milk is about as hot as avocado toast these days. Oatly is one of the most common oat milk brands, and now they’ve branched out into ice cream. Their Strawberry flavor is pretty delicious and while there are a few questionable ingredients such as rapeseed oil, according to their chuckle-inducing website, Oatly has “no synthetic flavors dressed up as strawberries or cream or pirates or whatever.” However, it’s also right up there with So Delicious in terms of high sugar and calorie content, so maybe stick to the actual serving size with this one.
So what’s the oat part all about, anyway? Oatly says they use locally sourced oats, which may sound good, but what that really means for a product that is sold nationwide is something of a head-scratcher. To make oat milk, the oats are first mixed with water to be milled. Then, enzymes are added to break the oats down and the bran is separated from the oat base. All Oatly products are gluten-free, but not all oat products are so it’s important to check for gluten-free certification if you have a gluten allergy or intolerance.
Ingredients: Oatmilk (Water, Oats), Strawberry, Sugar, Coconut Oil, Dextrose, Dried Glucose Syrup, Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed Oil. Contains 2% or less of: Mono- and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids, Locust Bean Gum, Guar Gum, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sea Salt.
High in sugar
Contains vegetable oils
Some people don’t digest oats well
Other Notable Flavors:
Oatly has several flavors with similar ingredients and macronutrient profiles, of which Coffee, Chocolate Chip, and Fudge Brownie all deserve a try.
I distinctly remember finding out about Dairy-Free Halo Top several years ago. In fact, it was the first ice cream I’d bought from the grocery store in over a decade, and I was mind-blown by the relatively clean ingredients, high protein, and low-calorie content. Furthermore, the fact that it was dairy-free was a big plus as I had plenty of concerns with milk quality at that time. Needless to say, I fell in love. My wife and I destroyed a pint while lying in bed watching a dodgeball competition on TV in a Florida hotel TV (not joking). My obsession didn’t last too long though, as I found that the combination of erythritol (a sugar alcohol) and inulin (a plant-derived fiber) was a one-two punch that resulted in gas and bloating. I’m not alone there; both erythritol and inulin can cause gastrointestinal distress for certain people, so if that’s you, you’ll want to steer clear of Halo Top.
Ingredients: Coconut Milk (Water, Coconut Cream), Inulin, Sugar, Erythritol, Fava Bean Protein Concentrate, Peanuts, Vegetable Glycerine, Contains 1% or Less of Natural Flavors, Sea Salt, Pea Protein Isolate, Peanut Oil, Salt, Cellulose Gel, Cellulose Gum, Sunflower Lecithin, Stevia Leaf Extract (Reb M), Caramel Color.
Contains sugar alcohols
Contains undigestible fiber
Contains “natural flavors”
Other Notable Flavors:
Halo Top has dozens of other dairy-free flavors to choose from, all with pretty similar macronutrients, though you’ll want to read ingredients as they can vary widely.
Rebel Ice Cream is the latest option for hardcore Keto dieters, and it claims to be “the lowest net carb ice cream on the market.” Mint Chip is their most highly-rated flavor and touts less than 4g net carbs per pint. It’s the perfect creamy consistency with a good dose of chocolate shavings. There’s no sugar added to Rebel, but this is another one that contains erythritol, so (like Halo Top) won’t be the right pick if you’re sensitive to gas and bloating from sugar alcohols.
Other Notable Flavors: Triple Chocolate, Butter Pecan, Peanut Butter Fudge, and Cookie Dough are other highly-rated Rebel flavors. You can order an 8-pack of assorted pints right on Amazon if you want to decide on your own favorite.
When Ripple debuted their plant-based milk products, pea protein was all of a sudden a trend. Peas are easily digestible (I actually use a super high quality, easily digestible pea protein in the Kion Clean Energy Bar, which incidentally, tastes amazing broken into chunks and sprinkled on just about any ice cream) and the use of pea protein keeps Ripple products nut-, glucose-, soy-, and lactose-free. I do think that Ripple’s Cinnamon Churro is one of the most interesting flavors on this list. If you’re a fan of ice creams with “chunks” (for lack of a better word), you’ll appreciate the pieces of churro cookie throughout this cinnamon-flavored frozen dessert. As cookies generally do, though, the churro pieces contain wheat flour, so you’ll want to avoid this flavor if you have a gluten allergy or sensitivity. You’ll also want to avoid Ripple if you’re watching your calorie intake it has the most of any on this list.
Cado is the ice cream for guacamole lovers across the world (Cado… avocado… get it?). While the ice cream doesn’t really taste like avocado, the avocado itself lends a creamy texture that many non-dairy ice creams lack, so it doesn’t require as many stabilizing or emulsifying additives and therefore has a pretty clean list of ingredients, most of which are also organic (in fact, they even point out which ones aren’t!). However, it’s pretty high in calories, carbs, and sugar.
Enlightened has several other ice cream lines, including keto and light ice cream, but as I’ve mentioned, I stick with dairy-free. If you’re also avoiding dairy—or even if you’re not—and you love coffee, Enlightened’s Triple Shot Espresso is worth a shot (heh). The coffee-flavored ice cream contains espresso chips and is also laced with ribbons of espresso. Enlightened uses broad beans as their protein base. Legumes such as broad beans offer nutritional benefits such as being low in fat and high in vitamins and antioxidants, but they also contain “antinutrients” which can negatively impact the digestion of nutrients and cause digestive upset in some folks.
Enlightened has an impressive selection of dairy-free flavors, including Monkey Business (banana with chocolate and peanut butter swirls), Chocolate Almond Macaron (almond macaron batter with a chocolate ganache swirl), and Ooey Gooey Cinnamon Bun (cinnamon bun ice cream with a cinnamon sugar glaze).
NadaMoo! if you can’t guess by the name, is a dairy-free, certified vegan ice cream that uses organic coconut milk as its base, which makes for an incredibly creamy, decadent dessert. It’s slightly high in calories and sugar (and they do often use agave syrup), but hey, that’s probably what makes it so delicious, right? Pistachio Nut is one of their cleanest flavors, but when branching out you’ll definitely want to read labels, as the ingredients vary widely and may include things like canola oil, soy, and maltodextrin.
Arctic Zero prides itself on providing non-dairy ice creams with less than 160 calories per pint. Their base is from faba bean protein (a.k.a. fava bean), which is another kind of legume that—like broad beans—contains antinutrients. Fava beans do also offer nutritional benefits though, including amino acids and nutrients such as zinc, magnesium, and potassium. The sweetness is Arctic Zero comes from allulose, or psicose, a naturally derived low-calorie monosaccharide. Much of today’s allulose, though, is made from corn, which raises concerns about GMOs. And unfortunately, the flavor and creaminess of Arctic Zero aren’t as great as other brands, but it’s a decent alternative if you’re really watching your caloric intake.
Probably my go-to healthy ice cream right now—because it’s what happens to be in my freezer and the company sent me like a dozen pints of the stuff—is from Good Kind. Their entire flavor line has a maximum of 7 organic ingredients, using banana and date for natural sweetness. It’s essentially free of all the downsides of normal “healthy” ice cream, and the high vitamin and mineral content of all the whole-food ingredients make it a nutrition powerhouse in addition to being completely delicious. My favorite flavor is Peanut Butter (which I like to drizzle with NuNaturals chocolate syrup), with Mint Chip being a close second. One downside: because of the banana base, this stuff takes forever to thaw, so I have to try to remind myself to take it out of the freezer in advance (my impatience with this process nearly resulted in my thumb being nearly sliced off as I hacked at the carton…I do not recommend you try that at home).
Good Kind is it’s not currently available in stores, so you have to have it shipped to you. But don’t worry, it arrives on your doorstep perfectly frozen—perhaps even more so than store-bought ice cream you have to race home before it melts into a puddle of muck.
Now, no “healthy ice cream guide” would be complete without a few DIY recipes you can make from the comfort of your own home.
Below are just two of my favorite homemade ice cream recipes from my Boundless Cookbook, easily made with a blender, and chock-full of ingredients specifically tailored for a) gut health, and b) mind-blowing sex.
Gut-Nourishing Keto Ice Cream
This is a simple, delicious low-carb ice cream that doubles as a fantastic gut nourishing recipe, chock full of compounds and superfoods that help to seal the lining of the gut and make your gut actually feel better after a decadent dessert. I’m lazy, so I don’t use an ice cream maker, though you could if you have one. I just use a big ol’ blender (Vitamix is good).
Blend on high for 2-3 minutes, until everything is mixed well. Refrigerate overnight for a “pudding” texture or freeze overnight for an “ice-cream” texture.
If opting for the frozen version, I like to pull it out of the freezer 30-60 minutes before consuming (e.g. before dinner) to soften.
Nitric oxide dilates your blood vessels, and acts almost like a “full-body Viagra.” After I pondered on all the nitric oxide-inducing ingredients one could have, I whipped up a batch of this ice cream on a whim and—whoa —say goodbye to the little blue pill and say hello to screamin’ sex!
This stuff packs a punch for blood flow for both him and her, so it’s a fantastic dessert on a hot date night or before slipping away to the bedroom. Because of the blood flow benefits, it can also be used as a pre-workout, too.
The ingredients for this recipe are a little more involved, but I promise, the pay-off is worth it! Plus, you really only need ½ cup to get the effects.
To recap, not all “healthy” ice creams deserve the title. Many have long lists of ingredients that look more like a chemistry textbook than a food label, and contain things like artificial sweeteners, “natural flavors,” undigestible fibers, gums, and other stabilizers. To be fair, it’s not easy to replicate the sweet creaminess of traditional ice cream without milk, eggs, or loads of sugar while trying to make a low-carb, low-calorie, dairy-free, or sugar-free alternative.
However, after scouring the grocery store shelves and inter-webs, I’ve discovered what I believe to be the top 10 healthiest ice cream brands in 2021 that manage to minimize artificial ingredients while maximizing taste and macronutrients (the macros provided are for the specific flavors listed above, and may vary across flavors). Also, since serving sizes may vary, I’ve listed the contents for an entire pint.
73g net carbs
75g net carbs
59g net carbs
4g net carbs
97g net carbs
68g net carbs
76g net carbs
54g net carbs
25g net carbs
10.8g net carbs
That’s it!—You’re now officially equipped to top off a hot summer night with delicious, good-for-you ice cream that won’t leave you feeling bloated, gassy, and absolutely wrecked.
Now excuse me while I take a quick visit to my freezer…
What about you, have you tried any of these ice creams? What’s your personal favorite? Am I missing any healthier options? Let me know in the comments below!