As the temperature soars in the summer, who doesn’t crave a creamy cone of their favorite ice cream, whether at the beach or neighborhood park or while walking scorching city streets? Indeed, Americans have a love affair with ice cream, consuming some 22 pounds per capita a year, according to the International Dairy Foods Association.
It seems that this infatuation with icy desserts goes back to the time of Alexander the Great, who took time away from his conquering to enjoy mixing honey with snow. Marco Polo returned to Italy from his travels in Asia bringing with him treasures galore as well as a recipe for what would later be called sherbet. And, in the new American colonies, the summer of 1790 must’ve been a scorcher because inventory records reveal that George Washington spent quite a bit of money at that time—supposedly $200—on ice cream.
Your Ice Cream Glossary
What’s the difference between gelato and ice cream? Here’s a quick glossary to help you navigate the ice cream section at your grocery store.
But enjoying this luscious dessert fills many of us with guilt. After all, ice cream is usually loaded with calories, saturated fat, and sugar. Can you satisfy your craving for ice cream without guilt? Yes, if you follow a few simple tips.
1. Portion control is key
The official serving size of ice cream is a mere ½ cup, which is about the size of a tennis ball. Check out the freezer section of your supermarket for single-serving ice cream containers of, for example, Haagen-Dazs. These are 3.5 ounces, which is approximately half a cup. Small, indeed, and not what most people dish out when they have a large ice cream container (pint or greater) at home. Most of us serve double or triple the recommended ½ cup. To help control your portions if you have a large container at home, never eat right out of the container—instead serve yourself a ½ cup portion in a small bowl. (And, in an ice cream shop, don’t be afraid to ask for the kiddie cone.)
2. Avoid or limit premium brands
A ½ cup of Haagen-Dazs Belgian Chocolate, a super premium ice cream, has 330 calories, 21 grams fat (12 grams of it saturated) and 25 grams of sugar. You’re better off—financially and calorie-wise—buying standard varieties of ice cream. For example, 1.2 cut of Breyer’s Original Chocolate contains 140 calories, 7 grams fat (4.5 grams saturated), and 16 grams of sugar.
If you’re ultra calorie-conscious, you can try a reduced fat ice cream, although this often means sacrificing creamy texture and flavor. A serving of Breyer’s ½ The Fat Creamy Chocolate contains 100 calories, 3 grams fat (2 grams saturated) and 11 grams of sugar. A serving of Breyer’s Fat-Free Chocolate contains just 90 calories and 12 grams of sugar. Notice, though, that these low-fat products still contain quite a bit of sugar.
A better bet is slow churned ice cream, such as Dreyer’s Slow Churned Classic Vanilla, which has 100 calories per ½ cup serving, 3 grams fat (2 grams saturated), and 15 grams of sugar.
3. Consider frozen yogurt—in moderation
Most frozen yogurt is non- or low-fat, but it can be loaded with calories from added sugar that tames yogurt’s tartness. So stick with the recommended serving size of ½ ounce and original flavors like berry. More exotic flavors such as coconut and peanut butter often have more fat and sugar than the original flavors. All self-serve shops have their nutritional information available. If you don’t see it, ask the person behind the counter. (Note: Most frozen yogurt shops provide large cups: 16 ounces or more. Ask for a small size, a Dixie cup if possible.)
4. Check out sorbet—carefully
Sorbet doesn’t have any dairy, so it’s naturally fat free. But because sorbet is typically fruit- or fruit-juice based, it can be laden with calories from sugar. Consider Haagen-Dazs Mango Sorbet: ½ cup contains no fat but 150 calories and 36 grams sugar—more than regular ice cream. If you’re in the mood for sorbet, read the label carefully.
5. Limit candy and cookie toppings
Ice cream toppings add a wealth of calories, fat, and sugar to your ice cream. Some of the worst include hot fudge, caramel, crushed candy bars (such as Butterfingers and Reese's Pieces), M & Ms, crushed cookies (like Oreos), gummy candy,brownie bits, granola, sugary cereals (such as Cap’n Crunch or Fruit Loops), yogurt chips, sprinkles, dried fruit, mochi, whipped cream, fruit or walnuts in syrup, and marshmallows. And by all means avoid the chocolate shell that shops and ice cream trucks dunk your cone into. A mere 2 tablespoons of chocolate coating adds 210 calories, 15 grams of fat (7 grams saturated) and 16 grams of sugar to your ice cream.
6. Instead, choose healthier toppings
Think of toppings as something to add just a touch of flavor and texture to your ice cream. Chopped nuts are fine as long as you sprinkle on just a spoonful. Or sprinkle a few coconut shavings. Add a variety of colorful fresh fruit, especially nutrient-rich berries. Instead of hot fudge sauce, drizzle a tablespoon of chocolate syrup, or spoon on a few dark chocolate chips. If you’re at home, try some sesame seeds, crushed pretzels, or crystallized ginger—you may not find these as options in frozen yogurt or ice cream shops.
What about sugar-free ice cream?
Sugar-free or “no sugar added” ice cream often contain sugar alcohols and other artificial sweeteners. Such sweeteners, if eaten in sufficient quantity, can result in bloating, gas, and diarrhea. However, for some people, such as those with diabetes, sugar-free products are a great alternative. Of course, you could just serve yourself a smaller scoop of regular ice cream and skip high-sugar toppings. Another option is to use ice cream as a flavoring or as a topping itself, scooping a couple of tablespoons atop fresh berries. Yum.
Frozen Non-Dairy Desserts
If you are lactose intolerant and can’t eat ice cream, here are some non-dairy frozen desserts to help satisfy your taste buds.
Are non-dairy frozen desserts healthier?
These vegan “ice creams” are good for those who are lactose intolerant since they contain no dairy. But they can be high in calories, fat, and sugar. Those made from coconut milk contain saturated fat, although coconut milk and oil do not seem to have a detrimental effect on cholesterol levels like saturated fat from meat and dairy does. Almond- and cashew-milk-based frozen desserts contain healthy monounsaturated fats. And soy-milk-based frozen dessert may contain beneficial phytochemicals, albeit in small amounts.
The bottom line: Ice cream is a treat. So read the nutritional label—assess the calories, fat, and sugar—and behave accordingly. If you really have your heart set on a fat-laden premium brand, eat a small serving. It will likely be more satisfying than a non-fat frozen dessert.
Published July 26, 2016