Any way you scoop it, ice cream is a favorite dessert, whether it’s slowly melting over a slice of warm pie or providing the base for hot fudge in a sundae. But like most sweets, it can be indulgent, with high amounts of saturated fat and added sugar that mean a dish or cone enjoyed more than just occasionally is a bad proposition for your health. For those with a dairy intolerance, traditional ice cream is sadly off-limits.
But manufacturers have been experimenting with fresh takes on frozen treats. The brand Halo Top made a name for itself with the claim that you could devour an entire pint of its ice cream in one sitting without going overboard on calories, and other manufacturers have been rolling out low-sugar, organic, nondairy, and plant-based frozen goodies that only taste decadent.
Even among supposedly healthy ice cream brands, there are things to be cautious about. “Healthy can be a subjective word,” says Lauren Manaker, RDN, the author of Fueling Male Fertility. “Nondairy ice creams aren’t necessarily healthier for you. They can still be loaded with sugar, and in some cases include fillers, artificial ingredients, and other ingredients that you may be trying to avoid.”
One way a lot of brands try to cut down on added sugar is by using artificial sweeteners. But these low- or zero-calorie sugar substitutes have come under fire from groups including the World Health Organization (WHO), which advised against their use for weight control in May 2023. “For years, I have recommended opting for treats with smaller amounts of real sugar instead of products made with sugar substitutes,” says Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, a sports and performance dietitian in Los Angeles. “I recommend buying ice creams with simple ingredients that read like a recipe you could have made yourself.”
“It’s important to pay attention to the nutrition facts on the brands you are considering,” says Laura M. Ali, RDN, a culinary nutritionist in Pittsburgh. A 2/3 cup serving of vanilla dairy ice cream typically has around 182 calories, around 10 grams (g) of fat, and 19 g of sugar. Some dairy-free ice creams can top out around 250 calories with up to 35 g of added sugars, so it’s important to read the labels carefully.
In addition, Ali says, traditional dairy-based ice cream can provide some healthy nutrients along with fat and sugar. “It’s got protein, bone-building calcium, a little magnesium and zinc, and some important energy-supporting B vitamins,” she says. “So chilling out with a scoop once in a while isn’t all bad!”
Whether you opt for a traditional scoop or a nondairy variety, it helps to know what a proper serving looks like. The serving size of any ice cream or frozen dessert is 2/3 cup, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A pint usually contains three servings, so it’s a wise idea not to spoon it mindlessly directly from the container, because it’s easy to overeat. “An old-school ice cream scooper can be a great tool for portion control,” says Manaker. “One scoop is typically just enough for many people. Using a smaller bowl or dish can make the scoop appear more appealing and satisfying.”
If you find it tough to limit yourself to just one scoop, ice cream bars or sandwiches have built-in portion control, says Ali. “One bar is usually comparable to a scoop of ice cream, and when you are done, you’re done.”
Whether you like classic vanilla or something a little more indulgent, the dozen frozen treats below are sure to satisfy your sweet tooth and keep you in line with your health goals.