Today there are more vegan ice creams than ever before. Are any of them as good as traditional dairy ice cream?
Published Mar. 15, 2021. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 22: Breakfast Baking
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...
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Carolyn is a senior editor for ATK Reviews. She's a French-trained professional baker.