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Tricks for choosing the healthiest ice cream

On a hot summer’s day, few things beat sinking your teeth into an ice cream. But should you? And how do you make it healthy? Here’s a quick cheat sheet to beat frozen treat traps. (It’s trickier than it sounds.) 

Have you noticed that the world of ice creams has exploded in recent years? Where once it was a simple choice between vanilla or chocolate (or Gaytime and Paddle Pop), now we are bombarded by an overwhelming array of specialised ‘healthy’ varieties, from soy-based ice cream to low-carb, protein options. At the same time, the category of premium, ‘indulgent’ ice creams has also multiplied. So how do you choose? Let’s break it down.

The simple bit

The two most ‘unhealthy’ ingredients in regular frozen treats are sugar and fat. In theory, the healthiest options are those with the lowest amount of fat and sugar per 100 grams. On this basis, it makes sense to favour the new breed of protein ice creams such as Halo Top and Fro Yo. However, it’s not quite that simple. While these nouveau contenders have miraculously low kilojoule counts, there may be drawbacks. 

Between the lines

Swapping out ingredients such as sugar and fat may backfire. For instance, the artificial and plant-based sweeteners used may cause gastrointestinal upset for some people (especially if you eat the whole tub because, hey, it’s only 300 calories). Ice creams and other foods and beverages made with sugar substitutes may also encourage overeating and stimulate cravings for high-kilojoule, high-fat sweet foods. There are also other reasons to believe ‘virtuous’ options may be false economy. Some research suggests that consuming ‘diet’ or ‘healthy’ foods can cause us to over-indulge on other foods, either due to a sense of deprivation (whereas a small serve of creamy, indulgent ice cream is satisfying, in part due to the fat and richness, a substitute may leave you wanting) or a sense of permission to ‘make up for’ or ‘compensate for’ your ‘savings’. Then there are ‘low-fat’ ice-cream varieties, which sound virtuous but may contain extra sugar to compensate for missing fat. They may also, as a result, be less satisfying. Frozen yoghurt is, on the face of it, healthy. Yet flavoured frozen yoghurts can also pack a tonne of sugar. So what’s the solution? 

The takeaway 

Frozen treats are just that, treats. They can contribute significant kilojoules, fat and sugar with little nutritional merit and should be consumed occasionally (yes, even the ‘healthy’ versions). Rather than getting caught up in numbers, choose what appeals to you and what you will find satisfying, and focus on sensible portions. If your favourite summer treat is a creamy gourmet scoop, order a children’s scoop and make a point of eating it mindfully (paying close attention to the feel of the cold, creamy texture on your tongue and the way the flavours emerge as you roll it around your mouth). This helps your brain to register the experience and promotes satisfaction with a smaller portion. You may even find you don’t want to finish it. (Really!)

Nutrition pro’s tip: Between indulgent occasions, create your own frozen desserts or snacks with nutritious ingredients such as fresh fruit and frozen yoghurt. For instance, try whizzing up frozen banana in a blender with healthy flavourings such as cacao or nut butter or adding these to plain frozen yoghurt. Plain frozen yoghurt can also be blended with fresh berries or pieces of fresh fruit such as banana, watermelon or honeydew for a delicious summer treat you can enjoy regularly, guilt free.

Ice treat cheat sheet

If you are looking for healthier ice cream options, save these tips and cues.

At the supermarket freezer

Look for: 

  1. Plain frozen yoghurt (add your own fruit).
  2. Options lower in fat and sugar (look at both).

Watch for: 

  1. ‘Low-fat’ claims, which may mean extra sugar and ‘no sugar’.
  2. ‘Sugar-free’, ‘no sugar’ or ‘low carb), for example on protein ice cream, which can contain artificial and plant-based sweeteners that may cause stomach upset or bloating and could stimulate cravings for other sweet foods.

At the corner store

Look for:

  1. Small, fruit-based bars (e.g. Weis).
  2. Low-kilojoule items (e.g. Icy Pole or Paddle Pop).

Watch for:

  1. ‘Premium’, oversized, chocolate-covered ice creams, which can contain as many kilojoules as a main meal. Creamy ice creams contain extra fat. Combined with their large portion size, it’s a double-whammy.
  2. Items laced with ‘sauce’ or ‘syrup’ (e.g. caramel), which is concentrated sugar.

At the ice cream parlour

Look for:

  1. Items made with fresh fruit (e.g. yoghurt and berry blitz).
  2. Plainer flavours (without syrup or added pieces of candy or chocolate).

Watch for: 

  1. Large scoop sizes. Store scoops often contain multiple servings. Opt for a children’s scoop, cone or cup.
  2. Cones. They seem incidental, but many ‘gourmet’ cones -especially waffle cones with a sugar coating – contain significant kilojoules and sugar. 

Please note, general nutrition advice may not account for your personal health goals and needs. For personalised advice, consult an accredited practising dietitian (APD). 

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