Even the most conscientious healthy eater occasionally likes a treat that’s more about fun than nourishment. Case in point: We all scream for ice cream.

We all know it’s not a health food. It’s generally packed with sugar, loaded with calories and filled with artificial additives. But you can make wise choices that allow you to enjoy ice cream and stay healthy.

Here’s how…

  • Look for a minimum of ingredients and no additives, emulsifiers or binders including vegetable gums, carrageenan or glycols (more below).
  • Go for a high butterfat content. (We’ll tell why below!)
  • Don’t eat ice cream as a snack, but do eat it as dessert at the end of a meal.

Here’s why…

Ice cream can be made with a few simple ingredients, including, of course, milk, cream and sugar. Many local farm-to-table brands follow that route—and so do some national brands. But many commercial brands include a long list of additives.

These include propylene glycol, used to prevent water content from crystallizing during inevitable thaw/freeze cycles during transport of commercial goods. While the FDA considers propylene glycol to be safe—not even requiring manufacturers that use it to include it in ingredient labels—the ingredient may cause a laxative effect for people with sensitive gastrointestinal tracts. Many mass-market ice creams also contain emulsifiers (substances that give ice cream a smooth texture and protect against ice crystals forming), including carrageenan, which the FDA also considers safe but that may increase gut inflammation and interfere with beneficial bacteria.

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame can also mess with good-for-you bacteria. While negative health effects aren’t proven, the prudent thing to do is to choose ice cream with no filler substances or additives and no artificial sweeteners.

Why go for a high-butterfat ice cream? Fat slows down digestion of the naturally occurring lactose and any added sucrose (cane sugar). That makes it easier to digest and leads to a gentler blood sugar rise—compared with low-fat or fat-free ice cream with the same amount of sugar. Yes, butterfat is rich in saturated fats, but science now has vindicated the historical “whipping boy” of saturated fats and pronounced them heart healthy in moderation—especially those found in dairy foods.

Of course, you still want to keep an eyeball on calories and sugar. Reduced-sugar or sugar-free ice cream products made with natural high-intensity sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit are good choices. If you choose conventionally sweetened ice cream, go for cane sugar but eat small portions. A “serving size” of ice cream is, technically, only a half cup. That’s not much on its own, but as a topping on a bowl of peaches or other fruit it’s pretty satisfying. To make it a tad healthier, have some at the end of a meal rather than as a snack. Why? It helps slow the digestion of everything that you’ve already eaten, giving your body more time to digest everything more fully.

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