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15 Diet-Friendly Ice Cream Choices

Get the Scoop on Picking a Healthier Ice Cream

-- By Leanne Beattie, Health Writer and Stepfanie Romine, Staff Writer

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.
<pagebreak> 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: <pagebreak>
  • 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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