The Skinny on Ice Cream

July 13th, 2009

ice creamIce cream is one of summer’s simple pleasures. It comes in every imaginable flavor, and is always a hit with kids. But not all frozen treats are created equal. Many ice cream brands contain hidden calories. Often, the closer you look, the more you find dubious chemicals and questionable processing practices. To cap off a healthy Meatless Monday meal, why not try some flavorful, nutritious alternatives!

Ice cream can be traced back to the 4th century B.C. and was popular in the courts of Roman emperor Nero and King Tang, who ruled China during the Shang dynasty. Back then ice cream was made from unpasteurized cream, ice and fresh fruit. Today, ice cream is more popular than ever, but the ingredients have changed. Our modern versions contain high levels of fat and sugar, and even “all natural’ brands contain products you won’t find in nature.

Check the nutrition label on a container of ice cream, you may be surprised by the numbers. On average, one serving contains 8 grams of fat and 15 grams of sugar. That doesn’t sound too bad, until you realize a serving is just a ½ cup. That’s about the size of one scoop. If you eat a pint of ice cream by yourself, you’ve consumed about 32 grams of fat and 60 grams of sugar (well over daily recommended levels)!

Commercially produced ice cream also contains a variety of food additives. If you enjoy chocolate, your favorite flavor was probably created with the help of Alkali. This is used to neutralize the natural acidity of cocoa beans, which, over time, would lead to flavor changes (it’s also used in the production of aluminum, glass and household cleaning products!).

Carrageenan is a thickening agent found in many products, including ice cream. It’s derived from red seaweed — thus technically a natural additive — but when concentrated and used in food processing it can be a dangerous carcinogen. Studies performed by The International Agency for Research on Cancer (1982) and The University of Iowa’s College of Medicine (2001) found that carrageenan causes ulcers and cancer in the gastrointestinal tracts of animals. The dangers of carrageenan have been known since 1972, when the FDA considered but ultimately chose not to ban it.

High levels of fat and sugar, coupled with processing additives, make ice cream a treat to be enjoyed in moderation. As a nutritionalist, I recommend that ice cream be consumed only once or twice a week. Thankfully, there are many healthier alternatives that can be enjoyed all week long!

Making your own frozen treats at home ensures you’re consuming fresh, natural ingredients. Pick up your favorite fruit at a local farmer’s market and blend it with ice and agave sweeteners for a dessert that’s tasty and healthy! If you want something creamier, try making your own ice cream with rice or nut milk (prepared by soaking nuts like almond or cashew in water and then using a blender).

Another wonderful alternative is goat’s milk. Goats aren’t raised like industrialized milking cows, so their milk tends to be fresher and hormone free. Goat’s milk is also easier on the digestive system and contains less fat, casein protein and lactose than cow’s milk. Many farmer’s markets offer freshly made, organic goat’s milk ice cream.

This Monday, try making delicious fruit freezes at home. It’s the perfect kitchen activity to share with your family or friends. Here are some wonderful recipes they’re sure to love!

Lemon Sorbet
Italian Ice
Fresh Strawberry Freeze

Meredith Sobel is the founder and director of Sobel Health Advisors, LLC, a health and nutrition consulting firm. Meredith studied public health at Harvard and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Currently she’s a candidate for a master of science in nutrition at Columbia’s Teachers College. Visit or email for more information.