Ice Cream - a healthy treat?

Ice Cream is traditionally made from the ingredients milk fat, eggs, sugar, fruits or nuts. It is formed into a mixture, which is then slowly stirred while it is being cooled down. The stirring ensures that air is introduced into the mixture giving it a more creamy texture. More information about the whole process of making ice cream is available from the University of Guelph, Canada1.

The definition of ice cream varies between different countries. In the UK there is a requirement for ice cream to contain 5% fat and 2.5% milk protein (mostly casein and whey). In the rest of the European Union this requirement does not exist and so the definition of ice cream is somewhat broader. In North America the definition is that ice cream contains more than 10% fat and between 9-12% milk solids (snf)2. In the ice cream industry it is common to refer to solids that are not fat by the acronym "snf". The snf content of most ice cream exceeds the fat content. In general however, the more fat that is in the ice cream the higher quality and more expensive it is. The dairy fat will give the ice cream increased flavour, more smoothness and richness. It will not be so easy to whip however.

Is ice cream healthy?

This really depends on what type of ice cream you eat. The traditional ice cream made from dairy produce and sugar is the most healthy and also the most tasty in my opinion. Unfortunately it is all too easy to buy ice cream that contains plenty of additives in the form of sweeteners, colours and stabilisers.

Traditional ice cream.

Traditional ice cream contains plenty of sugar and saturated fats. These are fine as part of an all round balanced diet, but if eaten in large amounts would not be very good for long term health. Traditional ice cream is best if you want to stay healthy and enjoy the best taste.

Low fat ice cream.

These will typically contain 5% fats compared to 15% fats in full fat versions. The amounts of sugar are often similar. The difference is that low fat ice creams contain more water and air, and are made to have the same sort of taste and texture by the manufacturing process and addition of certain additives. In my opinion low fat ice creams are unlikely to be any better for your waistline, or health, than higher fat ice creams. Why? Well low fat versions may well leave you feeling more hungry, while the presence of extra saturated fat is unlikely to cause any damage to health as is discussed here.

Artificial ice cream and additives.

When buying ice cream from a tub, take a look at the list of ingredients. This will tell you all you need to know in order to assess if it is healthy or not. Common additives in cream include the following:

  • Flavour essences, such as vanilla, orange and mint, most of which are chemically very similar to the real thing, and as such are unlikely to have a negative impact on health. However flavour enhancers, such as glutamate - E620 and monosodium glutamate - E621,do get used also, and these can affect some people quite badly.
  • Artificial colours are in many cases bad for health. When it comes to yellow colours there are two that are good for health, turmeric - E100 and riboflavin E101, while most other are bad particularly tartrazine E102 and sunset yellow - E110, which are associated with hyperactivity in kids. Watch out for caramel colour - E150, for which strict quality controls are not in place. Some of the E150s could be carcinogenic. There are other colours which can be problematic for health including blue and red. If natural colours are used you should be OK.
  • Stabilisers are added to many ice creams. Most stabilisers are good for health, mostly being gums which contain healthy soluble fibre. 
  • Sweeteners are not used that often, but when they are they will likely increase appetite. The most commonly used sweetener other than sucrose (table sugar) is high fructose corn syrup - HFCS. It is similar to table sugar, but contains more fructose. It is generally considered to be less healthy. Corn syrup, dextrose and invert sugar also get used.
  • Emulsifiers are added to create a smooth, even mixture in the ice cream. In traditional ice cream this job is done by egg yolks. Often mono and di-glycerides - E471 are used. If these are produced from plant sources they may well contain trans fats. If they were produced from animal sources they probably don't. The problem is it is almost impossible to find out.
  • Trans fatty acids are likely to be present if your ice cream is "soft scoop". Also if you see sunflower oil or vegetable fat on the label then assume the worst. In the UK dairy ice cream has to contain dairy fats, and is less likely to contain as many additives as a product designated as just "ice cream". 

Random analysis of some popular brands.

Ben and Jerrys

Some products have more ingredients than others but in general the ingredients are the traditional ones and the additives are not generally harmful. The presence of sunflower oil is normally an indication that there are unhealthy trans fats present. Palm oil and coconut oil contain fewer trans fats due to their higher saturated fat content. Ben and Jerry's is actually part of the Unilever congolmerate as is Wall's.

  • Banansplit: Cream, Skim Milk, Water, Liquid Sugar (Sugar, Water), Sugar, Strawberries, Walnuts, Egg Yolks, Bananas, Cocoa (Processed With Alkali), Coconut Oil, Chocolate Liquor, Butter (Cream, Salt), Cocoa, Guar Gum, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Natural Flavor, Butter Oil, Soy Lecithin, Carrageenan. DrDobbin says "OK".
  • Chocolate: Cream, Liquid Sugar, Skim Milk, Water, Cocoa (Processed With Alkali), Egg Yolks, Guar Gum and Carrageenan (vegetarian alternative to gelatin). DrDobbin says "OK".
  • Coffee crunch: Cream, Skim Milk, Liquid Sugar (Sugar, Water), Water, Sugar, Coffee Extract, Egg Yolks, Palm Oil, Cocoa Butter, Butter (Cream, Salt), Almonds, Chocolate Liquor, Milk Fat, Lactose, Salt, Carmelized Sugar, Vanillin (Artificial Flavor), Soy Lecithin, Guar Gum, Carrageenan, Sunflower Oil. DrDobbin says "avoid".

Wall's ice cream 

The Dark chocolate Magnum has minimal trans fats, but contains caramel colouring which can contain carcinogenic components3. Others, such as the Carte D'or Light and cornetto products will contain plenty of trans fats in the vegetable fat used in its manufacture. The cornetto is notable in containing the most additives. It is the lowest quality product in terms of health, of the 3 listed. The colours include caramel and it has added salt - why? Wall's is actually part of the Unilever congolmerate as is Ben and Jerry's.

  • Magnum Dark Chocolate: Milk, Cream, Sugar, Whey, Mono and diglycerides, Locust bean gum, Vanilla bean gum, Vanilla bean specks, Carrageenan, Natural flavour, Caramel colour, Annatto. DrDobbin says "iffy".
  • Carte D'or Vanilla Light: Water, Sugar, Reconstituted Skimmed Milk, Dextrose, Oligofructose, Vegetable Fat, Whey Solids, Stabilisers (Locust Bean Gum, Guar Gum, Carrageenan), Emulsifier (E471), Flavouring, Vanilla Bean Pieces, Colours (Annatto, Turmeric). DrDobbin says "avoid".
  • Cornetto Classico: Reconstituted Skimmed Milk, Vegetable Fat, Sugar, Wheat Flour, Glucose-fructose Syrup, Hazelnuts, Fat Reduced Cocoa Powder, Whey Solids (From Milk), Emulsifiers (E471, E322, E442), Skimmed Milk Powder, Stabiliser (E401), Salt, Wheat Fibre, Egg White, Colours (E150b, E160a), Flavouring,  DrDobbin says "avoid".

Haagen Dazs

The Dark chocolate Magnum has minimal trans fats, but contains caramel colouring which can contain carcinogenic components1. Others, such as the Carte D'or Light and cornetto products will contain plenty of trans fats in the vegetable fat used in its manufacture. The cornetto is notable in containing the most additives. It is the lowest quality product in terms of health, of the 3 listed. The colours include caramel and it has added salt - why?

  • Vanilla: Cream, Skim Milk, Sugar, Egg Yolks, Natural Vanilla. DrDobbin says "OK".
  • Chocolate: Cream, Skim Milk, Sugar, Egg Yolks, Cocoa Processed with Alkali. DrDobbin says "OK".
  • Coffee: Cream, Skim Milk, Sugar, Egg Yolks, Coffee. DrDobbin says "OK".

Whipped ice cream from ice cream van's

Here in the UK the ice cream that is used to fill cones from most ice cream vans is whipped and often contains vegetable fat, meaning that it also contains trans fats. Traditional ice cream, which is high in saturated fat is hard to whip. As a consequence vegetable oils are used for easy to whip ice cream. DrDobbin says "avoid". 

In general the ice cream tubs showing lots of ingredients are most likely to be unhealthy. Basically ice cream should be made of dairy cream and milk, sugar, egg yolks and a source of flavour. Haagen Dazs actually seem to be doing that, although I naturally incline towards smaller companies using the traditional formula.

Dairy allergens in ice cream.

The milk solids that are used in quality ice cream products contain whey, casein, lactose and various minerals. The lactose and casein are common allergens, and are the reason why some people will need to avoid ice cream to avoid having allergic reactions.