The Ultimate Guide to Dairy-Free Ice Creams

Enjoy Your Favorite Non-Dairy Flavors

Show Article Table of Contents

Strawberry banana ice cream in a bowl topped with goji berries and cacao nibs

The Picture Pantry/Getty Images

Don’t let a milk allergy, lactose intolerance, or vegan diet stop you from enjoying your favorite flavor of ice cream. When the temperature starts to creep up and you’re craving that cold treat, simply reach for a dairy-free ice cream. Products are popping up everywhere that are made from coconut milk, cashew milk, soy, avocado, and other plant-based ingredients—no dairy necessary.

Non-Dairy Frozen Desserts

When you head to the store to scope out your options, you might be surprised to find that dairy-free products are not actually labeled as ice cream. The FDA requires that ice cream contains at least 10 percent milk fat. So anything made without dairy automatically loses the claim to the “ice cream” name.

Instead, you’ll see these products labeled as “non-dairy frozen desserts”.  It might not sound as alluring as ice cream but rest assured that you can find great tasting products in this category.

One important note: don’t assume that any carton stamped “frozen dessert” is dairy free. Some desserts don’t meet the milkfat standards as described by the FDA, but still contain dairy. If you have a milk allergy or follow a vegan diet, be sure to look for the “non-dairy frozen dessert” designation, and double check the ingredients on the label as an extra precaution.

Types

Dairy-free ice creams are made with a variety of ingredients, but there are typically only a handful that make up the primary base of the recipe.

Let's take a look at the eight most common dairy-free bases, along with popular brands that manufacture each one.

Coconut Milk Ice Creams

The coconut milk base for these products is derived from the flesh of the coconut. It’s grated and soaked in hot water, and then strained through cheesecloth. This creates a rich liquid with a similar consistency to whole cow’s milk.

Because of this, ice cream made from coconut milk has a texture quite similar to traditional dairy-based ice cream. The high fat content creates that smooth, rich mouthfeel that most of us are accustomed to in dairy counterparts.

If you’re not a coconut fan, though, prepare yourself as the coconut flavor can be a bit overpowering depending on the brand and flavor.

Popular Brands:

  • Halo Top Dairy-Free Options
  • Luna & Larry's Coconut Bliss
  • NadaMoo
  • SO Delicious

Coconut Cream Ice Cream

Coconut cream undergoes a process quite similar to coconut milk, but typically less water is used. This creates a thicker, richer product that can give a very creamy, delectable texture. The coconut flavor can be prominent in these products as well.

Popular Brands:

  • FoMu
  • Perfectly Free
  • Steve’s Ice Cream

Almond Milk Ice Cream

Almond milk is made by soaking almonds in water, then grinding them up in a blender with water. This mixture is strained through cheesecloth to create the almond milk used for cartons as well as ice creams.

Most varieties of almond milk ice cream will have an extra oil—like coconut oil or vegetable oil—added to the base. This adds fat and prevents an overly icy texture.

Popular Brands:

  • Almond Dream
  • Ben and Jerry’s
  • Breyers Non-Dairy Options
  • SO Delicious

Cashew Milk Ice Cream

The process for making cashew milk is nearly identical to that of almond milk, just with cashews. Cashews naturally have a bit of a buttery flavor, so cashew milk ice creams tend to be a fan favorite—especially if you're not keen on a heavy coconut flavor.

Popular Brands:

  • SO Delicious
  • Van Leeuwen (combination of cashew milk and coconut milk)

Soy Ice Cream

While soy seems to have garnered a bad reputation, most people can safely consume soy products (and soy may even have some health benefits). Some soy ice creams are made with soy milk, while others are made using tofu.

Popular Brands:

  • Double Rainbow Non-Dairy Options
  • SO Delicious
  • Soy Dream
  • Tofutti

Rice Ice Cream

Before almond milk and cashew milk hit the shelves, rice milk was one of the only dairy-free beverage substitutes widely available. Unfortunately, the rice taste in these ice creams is sometimes overwhelming, but you might find that it works for you.

Popular Brands:

  • Rice Dream

Pea Protein Ice Cream

Yellow pea protein is used in quite a few allergen-friendly foods, thanks to its neutral flavor and ability to add texture and mouthfeel. Though several companies include this as a minor ingredient, some companies are innovating dairy-free ice creams with pea protein as the primary base.

Popular Brands:

  • McConnell’s Dairy Free Options

Avocado Ice Cream

Not just for your morning toast, avocado is trending everywhere—including ice cream. The creaminess and fat content create a good mouthfeel in a dairy-free product. You might find the flavor is less overpowering than a coconut milk base, yet you’re still treated to that velvety texture.

Popular Brands:

  • Cado

Other Ingredients

In addition to the bases above, you’ll find other ingredients in dairy-free ice creams that you may not come across in regular ice cream. Don't get scared though. Most of these may sound unfamiliar but are simply ingredients added to help with quality.

Guar Gum

Guar gum is a polysaccharide derived from legumes and is used to thicken products and prevent ice crystal formation. Though large amounts can cause stomach upset, small amounts are well tolerated.

Locus Bean Gum

Similar to guar gum, locust bean gum is a thickening and gelling additive. You may also see it on labels listed as carob bean gum. It is derived from the seeds of the carob tree, with a flavor somewhat reminiscent of chocolate.

Research has not connected locus bean gum with any adverse health consequences when consumed in small amounts; in fact, there may be some health benefits.

Inulin

Inulin is a type of prebiotic fiber that’s naturally found in plants but is also added as a functional ingredient to foods. In dairy-free ice creams, it’s often added because it has a unique ability to absorb water and form a gel-like texture. Combined with other ingredients and textures, this can improve the overall mouthfeel, especially in some of the lower-fat bases.

However, inulin can cause gas and bloating in some individuals. So if you find yourself with an upset stomach after your dairy-free ice cream, consider looking for a variety without inulin.

Healthiest Options

You’ll need to dig deeper and look at all the ingredients and nutrition facts across each type and brand to determine the healthiest dairy-free ice cream. There is no clear winner.

For example, while coconut bases tend to be higher in calories and saturated fat compared to other dairy-free bases, the overall nutrition breakdown will vary with the proportions of all the other ingredients. Brands also vary in how heavy-handed they are with ​​added sugar, ranging from moderate all the way up to your entire daily added sugar allowance.

Here’s a quick glance at the nutrition facts for a half cup serving of one brand from each of the eight categories:

  • Luna & Larry’s Coconut Bliss Chocolate Chip Cookie (coconut milk) – 250 calories, 15 grams saturated fat, 14 grams sugar
  • Steve’s Burnt Sugar Vanilla (coconut cream) - 280 calories, 5 grams saturated fat, 25 grams sugar
  • Almond Dream Chocolate (almond milk) – 180 calories, 1 gram saturated fat, 17 grams sugar
  • SO Delicious Cashewmilk Very Vanilla (cashew milk) – 150 calories, 1 gram saturated fat, 18 grams sugar
  • Double Rainbow Very Cherry Chip (soy milk) – 200 calories, 1 gram saturated fat, 27 grams sugar
  • Rice Dream Vanilla (rice) – 160 calories, 0.5 grams saturated fat, 14 grams sugar
  • McConnell’s Dairy Free Cookies and Cream (pea protein) – 230 calories, 8 grams saturated fat, 14 grams sugar
  • Cado Mint Chocolate Chip (avocado) – 170 calories, 2 grams saturated fat, 13 grams sugar

Regardless of which type of dairy-free ice cream you choose, remember that it’s still a dessert. Terms like dairy-free and vegan sometimes elicit a health halo, but many of these products are still calorie dense and should be dished out in portion-controlled amounts.

Was this page helpful?
View Article Sources