My love affair with ice cream began at a young age and continued until I begrudgingly accepted years later that I was sensitive to lactose, the sugar found naturally in milk. I’m not alone—between 30 and 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant and many avoid eating foods containing it, including ice cream. Many others choose to minimize or eliminate their intake of animal products. In short, there are a lot of consumers, including me, looking for delicious vegan ice cream. Supermarket frozen-food aisles are filled with options, but the question remains: Are any vegan ice creams comparable in texture and flavor to dairy ice creams?
We rounded up 10 nationally available vegan ice creams, priced from about $0.27 to about $0.75 per ounce. (There’s some debate about whether they can be called ice cream because they don’t contain dairy, but we’ll refer to them as vegan ice creams for simplicity.) We focused on chocolate because it was the most common flavor among available brands. Three of the products in our lineup contained additional ingredients such as brownie or cake pieces or fudge truffles. The products in our lineup also contained a range of ingredients, from almond milk to coconut cream to pureed avocado, apple, and banana.
As we tasted the ice creams, we quickly realized how drastically their textures differed. Some were so icy and hard that scooping them was “like driving a wedge into cement.” Other ice creams’ textures were silky and smooth, very close to that of a traditional dairy ice cream.
We know from years of researching the production of ice cream that sweeteners and fat play important roles in creating its creamy texture. Both prevent large ice crystals from forming, so without enough of either, ice cream can become icy and hard. The ice creams in our lineup incorporated a variety of sweeteners, from sugar or powdered sugar to agave syrup and corn syrup, with most products containing at least two types. Each of those sweeteners has a unique effect on the texture of the end product. The amount of sugar per 100-gram serving of the ice creams ranged from 9 to 26 grams of sugar. The two ice creams with 11 grams or less of sugar per serving were “hard” and “icy.”
Fat content also varied. In dairy ice cream, fat comes from milk or cream. In the vegan ice creams in our lineup, fat came from nondairy milk or cream, pureed avocado, chocolate, and/or added oil. The products we tasted contained 0 to 16 grams of fat per serving, with the silkiest, creamiest ones containing at least 11 grams of fat. The textures of the ice creams that contained 4 grams of fat or less were “really hard” and reminded tasters of “bad frozen ice.”
We also noticed that some of the ice creams tasted more chocolaty than others. Every ice cream contained cocoa powder, which is a source of strong chocolate flavor. But one ice cream was made with both cocoa powder and chocolate; it had an especially “intense” chocolate flavor that tasters loved. It turned out that the bits of fudge or cake weren’t the secrets to good chocolate flavor; rather, they were more of a bonus for already chocolaty ice creams.
Base ingredients were important, too. We liked several ice creams made with base ingredients that tasted pleasant and didn’t overpower the chocolate flavor, such as coconut milk or cream or oat milk. Light, natural-tasting coconut flavor (from the coconut milk or cream) came through clearly in two of our highly rated samples, but we found that it complemented the chocolate flavors. One ice cream made with coconut milk, however, was "heavy on the coconut to the point [that] it ruined everything.” It tasted “artificial” and “manufactured.” The strong flavors of the banana puree and apple puree concentrate in another ice cream were overpowering and “didn’t work with the chocolate at all.” An ice cream made with pureed avocado also stood out. According to one taster, “you're not really ready for the avocado flavor to accompany chocolate ice cream.”
Sodium also played a role in flavor. The sodium levels ranged from 5 to 171 milligrams per serving, with most samples containing 40 to 80 milligrams. The top two samples, however, contained significantly more sodium, with 122 and 171 milligrams, respectively. Sodium helps bring the flavors of other ingredients to life and balances sweetness. In this case, the additional sodium improved the flavors of our favorite ice creams.
We’re thrilled to name two winners: Jeni’s Dairy-Free Texas Sheet Cake Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert and Häagen-Dazs Non-Dairy Chocolate Salted Fudge Truffle Frozen Dessert. Made with a base of coconut cream, the ice cream from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams won tasters over with a “phenomenal” texture “that was very close to dairy ice cream.” In addition to providing plenty of fat for a “smooth” and “decadent” texture, the coconut cream contributed a pleasant flavor. It’s a great option for people who like the combination of “big chocolate and coconut flavor.”
Tasters also loved the Häagen-Dazs ice cream, which is the only one in our lineup to include chocolate in addition to cocoa powder. The combination provides a “really delicious,” “rich cocoa flavor.” The base of this ice cream didn’t introduce any competing flavors, allowing the chocolate flavor to shine. One of our tasters raved, “It's not just good for vegan ice cream; it's good—period.”