Nutrition Articles

15 Diet-Friendly Ice Cream Choices

Get the Scoop on Picking a Healthier Ice Cream

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream! We are a society of ice cream lovers, with the average American licking her way through almost 5 gallons of the creamy confection each year, according to the Canadian Dairy Info Centre. (Only New Zealanders, at 6 gallons a year, eat more!) With their bright packaging, catchy names and convenient pint-size containers, premium (full fat) brands are readily available in your grocer’s freezer. However there are plenty of reduced-fat and even dairy-free selections to satisfy your cravings. These diet-friendly varieties make it easier to enjoy the occasional scoop while still watching your waistline.

An Ice Cream Primer
Before we figure out which brands are best, let's get the scoop on ice cream, fro-yo and all those other icy treats you know and love.
  • Frozen yogurt is yogurt that is frozen using a technique similar to soft serve. While lower in calories and fat than ice cream, not all frozen yogurt is made with live and active cultures the way that standard yogurt is. To make sure that a frozen yogurt contains "yogurt" and a significant amount of live and active cultures, look for the National Yogurt Association (NYA) Live & Active Cultures seal. Without that seal, frozen yogurt does not contain any probiotics.
  • Gelato. This Italian ice cream doesn't have as much air as traditional ice cream, so it has a much denser texture.
  • Ice cream. As if you needed an explanation, this frozen treat is made from milk or cream, sugar and flavorings. The FDA requires that ice creams with solid additions (nuts, chocolate, fruit, etc.) contain at least 8 percent milk fat, while plain ice creams are required to have at least 10 percent milk fat. "French" ice cream is usually made with a cooked egg custard base.
  • Ice milk is made with lower-fat milk than ice cream, making it less creamy. However, it does contain fewer calories than ice cream.
  • Italian ice (also called Granita) is a mix of juice (or other liquid like coffee), water and sugar, usually in a 4:1 ratio of liquid to sugar. The ices are stirred frequently during freezing to give it a flaky texture. These are almost always fat-free, contain minimal additives and are the lowest in calories of all frozen desserts.
  • Sherbet has a fruit juice base but often contains some milk, egg whites or gelatin to thicken and richen it. It's a creamy version of sorbet (see below).
  • Slow-churned (double churned) ice cream is made through low-temperature extrusion, to make light ice cream taste richer, creamier, and more like the full-fat variety. Look for the terms "cold churned," "slow churned" or "double churned" on the label, which refers to the extrusion’s churning process. Extrusion distributes the milk fat evenly throughout the product for added richness and texture without adding extra calories. By law, "light" ice cream must contain at least 50% less fat or 33% fewer calories than regular full-fat varieties.
  • Soft-serve is a soft "ice cream" that contains double the amount of air as standard ice cream, which stretches the ingredients and creates a lighter texture. It's lower in fat and calories, but it often contains fillers and additives.
  • Sorbet, softer in consistency than a sherbet, is usually fruit and sugar that has been frozen. Its texture more "solid" and less flaky than Italian ice.
Nutrition Facts
A little research (and label reading) is in order if you want to keep ice cream as a regular part of your diet. Here's what you need to know.
  • While ice cream does contain bone-building calcium, you're better off getting calcium from other food sources since ice cream contains about half the calcium as an equal serving of milk, which is lower in fat and calories. Don't fool yourself into thinking you're eating healthy by getting calcium from Haagen-Dazs or Ben and Jerry’s—both of which can pack more fat per serving than a fast food hamburger!
  • Some ice creams, especially "light" varieties are sweetened with artificial sweeteners instead. Using artificial sweetener in place of some or all of the traditional sugar can reduce calories, but these sweeteners aren't for everyone and may cause stomach upset when eaten in high quantities.
  • In general, regular (full-fat) ice cream contains about 140 calories and 6 grams of fat per 1/2 cup serving. Besides the fat content, premium brands pack more ice cream into each serving because they contain less air—they are denser and harder to scoop than regular brands—meaning more calories, fat and sugar per serving. Low fat or "light" ice creams weigh in at about half the fat of premium brands but they still contain their fair share of calories thanks to the extra sugar added to make them more palatable.
  • Toppings such as chocolate chips, candies and sprinkles send the calorie count even higher, and don't offer any nutritional benefits. Choose vitamin-packed fruit purée (not fruit "syrup"), fresh fruit, or nuts, which contain healthy fat, protein and fiber. While chocolate does have some health benefits, most choices like chips and syrup are usually full of fillers with very little actual chocolate. If you want extra chocolate, use a vegetable peeler to shave dark chocolate over the top of your serving.
  • If animal-based products aren’t part of your diet or you can't stomach dairy, you can choose from a wide variety of non-dairy frozen desserts such as soy, coconut or rice "cream." These desserts cut the saturated fat because they don’t contain milk or cream, but can derive around 50% of their calories from fat (usually by adding oil to the product for smoothness or “mouth feel”).
Indulge in a Better Ice Cream
So what should you look for when you want to indulge in a creamy dessert but not go overboard? SparkPeople dietitian, Becky Hand, recommends checking the nutrition label and choosing a frozen dessert that meets these guidelines per 1/2 cup serving:
  • 120 calories or less
  • 4g of total fat or less
  • 3g of saturated fat or less (sorbet, sherbet and low-fat ice cream usually fit the bill)
  • 10mg of cholesterol or less
  • 15g of sugar or less (this is equal to about 3 teaspoons of actual table sugar)
Remember to keep portions small. A pint of ice cream is not a single serving; it's FOUR servings. If you eat an entire pint, you have to multiply the number of calories, fat grams, etc. listed on the label by four. Stick to portions the size of half a tennis ball, and always scoop your ice cream into a small bowl instead of eating it directly from the container to prevent overeating. And use a teaspoon rather than a tablespoon to take smaller bites.

If you want total control over what goes into your ice cream, consider buying your own ice cream maker. Experiment with the recipes that come in the package, adding your own fresh fruit to create a treat that tastes good and is good for you at the same time.

SparkPeople's Picks
The following frozen desserts make good choices; they most closely meet the guidelines above, but several other brands and varieties might also fit the bill, even if not listed here.

Frozen Dessert (and Serving Size) Calories Fat
Whole Fruit No Sugar Added Sorbet (1/2 cup) 60 0
Healthy Choice Fudge Bars (1 bar) 80 1
Breyers Double Churned 98% Fat Free ice cream (1/2 cup) 90 2
Dreyer’s or Edy’s Fat Free frozen yogurt (1/2 cup) 90 0
Blue Bunny Fat Free frozen yogurt (1/2 cup) 100 0
Turkey Hill Fat Free frozen yogurt  (1/2 cup) 100 0
Skinny Cow Low-Fat Fudge Bars (1 bar) 100 1
Breyers Double Churned Light ice cream (1/2 cup) 100 4
Dreyer's or Edy's Slow Churned Light ice cream(1/2 cup) 110 4
So Delicious Dairy Free Neapolitan frozen dessert (1/2 cup) 120 3.5
Haagen-Daz Sorbets (1/2 cup) 120-130 0
Good Humor Sherbet (1/2 cup) 130 1
Skinny Cow Ice Cream Sandwiches (1 sandwich) 140 1.5-2.5
Rice Dream non-dairy frozen dessert (1/2 cup) 150 6
Tofutti Premium non-dairy frozen dessert (1/2 cup) 170 9

Ice cream is by no means a health food or a vital component of a healthy diet. But it is a simple pleasure most people wouldn't want to give up. Remember these tips next time you plan to indulge to keep yourself in check.

This article has been reviewed and approved by Licensed and Registered Dietitian, Becky Hand.

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Member Comments

  • Interesting Article, Thank!
  • These all look good to me
    I am addicted to Halo Top and Enlightened frozen dessert. They run between 60-90 calories for 1/2 cup and have around 7 grams of protein, 3-5 grams of fiber and usually under 7 g of sugar.
  • Going to need to check out the freezer area at the grocery store soon for healthy options. I don't buy a lot of cold treats in the winter, but I know without air conditioning I will like to have something cold on hand to
    cool me off.
  • Thanks for this interesting article!
  • I loved the Healthy Choice Fudge Bars and use to get them where we use to live. Unfortunately, the stores around here don't carry it and in fact, they carry very few of the healthy options listed. I would enjoy a little ice cream every once in a while, but now I just skip it entirely since I can't find healthy choices where we now live and I have even made requests at customer service, but that didn't help. Oh Well, I am probably better off without it anyway.
  • http://www.haloto

    Halo Top was recommended to me. I am trying to get my supermarket to offer it.

  • I care more about limiting added sugars and I don't worry about healthy fats. A lot of the ice cream substitutes given here are really high in added sugar.

    I make a really nice coconut milk ice cream with two cans of full fat coconut milk, 1/3 cup cocoa powder and 1/4 cup honey. Mix and pour into an ice cream maker.

    Or I make an "ice cream" with frozen strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. Maybe half a ripe banana but no added sugar.
  • When I have desert generally only have a piece of fruit for desert and its really helping me (GROAN),.
  • I always keep overripe bananas and freeze them to make ice cream at home quick! I love So Delicious, but to save money and time I keep the frozen bananas and then add strawberries or chocolate almond milk (just a splash) and maybe some vegan chocolate protein powder. No it's not as fatty as ice cream, but it's definitely delicious and MUCH better for your body!
  • Article states, "If you want total control over what goes into your ice cream, consider buying your own ice cream maker."

    The only way I have "total control" over ice cream is by not having it in my house. ;)
    Frozen bananas taste like frozen bananas, not satisfying at all. We keep Skinny Cow bars at home at all times! It's our daily 7:00 PM treat, keeps us sticking to our diet plan. Healthy food is really not that tasty, why do you think people feel the need to indulge ourselves often, truth be told, having some daily ice cream helps a lot.
  • You don't need to get frozen yogurt with live bacterial cultures, because freezing the yogurt will kill the bacteria. Don't bother. If you really need probiotics in your diet and you're short of funds, skip the frozen yogurt and go for the kind in the refrigerator case.
  • My only thought was whether or not the Kiwis and the US were converted into the SAME gallon. The US gallon is NOT the same as the one the "rest" of the world uses (mainly Commonwealth countries) we use (or used to use) the Imperial gallon.
  • Stepfanie's recipe for the frozen banana dessert is as good or better than ice cream - and much healthier!!! (and this is coming from a real ice cream lover who ran an ice cream business where we made our own wonderful ice creams)

About The Author

Stepfanie Romine Stepfanie Romine
A former newspaper reporter, Stepfanie now writes about nutrition, health, fitness and cooking. She is a certified Ashtanga yoga teacher who enjoys running, international travel and all kinds of vegetables. See all of Stepfanie's articles.