Organic Ice Cream: Back to Basics

Organic Ice Cream: Back to Basics
Each year, the average American polishes off more than 10 half-gallon cartons of ice cream and/or frozen ice cream substitutes. You might find it hard to imagine a world without ice cream, but it’s a food with a short history. Although Roman Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar was said to have sent slaves into the mountains for ice to freeze the fruit drinks he cherished, it was King Charles I who served up frozen cream at his banquets. The story goes that Charles, so intent on coveting this delicious treat, paid his chef a royal sum to never divulge the recipe; he obliged until the day the King was beheaded in 1649.

The governor of Maryland introduced ice cream to his guests (and America) in 1700, and rumor has it that George Washington spent $200 every summer on ice cream alone. The popularity of this rich dessert grew steadily until peaking in 1946, a year marked by end of war celebrations and no mandated sugar rations. Unfortunately, the quality of ice cream at this time, based on the agricultural changes that have occurred since, also was at its peak.

20th Century Agricultural/Processing Changes
Our grandparents ate organic ice cream because large-scale agriculture had not yet become mainstream. Since the 1940’s, dairy cows have moved from pastures to structures, have switched from a grass diet to grain and animal by-products (including pork and chicken), have been bred to produce more milk, are routinely given antibiotics, and more recently, may be injected with a growth hormone (BGH) to further increase milk production.

1946 Cow
Ate grass
Milk output: 1-2 gallons per day
Average lifespan: 5 15 years
No antibiotics
No growth hormones

2005 Cow
Eats grain / animal by-products
Milk output: 6-8 gallons per day
Average lifespan: 18 months
Treated with antibiotics
15% - 30% given hormone

Many of the regular ice cream options and reduced-fat frozen desserts in the supermarket contain fillers, chemical additives and preservatives. Compare the list of ingredients below:

1946 Vanilla Ice Cream Ingredients

Organic cream, organic whole milk, organic sugar, organic vanilla

2005 Vanilla Ice Cream Ingredients

Milk and cream, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, corn syrup, whey and whey protein concentrate, cocoa, nonfat dry milk, guar gum, vegetable mono & diglycerides, xanthan gum, polysorbate 80, carrageenan, natural flavors, and artificial flavor (vanillin).
Natural food stores, recognizing a growing demand for foods produced the “old-fashioned” way, offer a variety of organic and natural ice cream products, both made from dairy and non-dairy ingredients. The US government established industry standards (called standards of identity) that define ice cream and other frozen desserts as follows:

Ice Cream. Made from a mixture of milk, cream, and nonfat milk combined with sweetening agents, flavorings, fruits, nuts, stabilizers, emulsifiers, and other ingredients. Ice cream must contain a minimum of 10% milk fat and 20% total milk solids by weight. Premium ice cream products on the market today often exceed 12% milk fat. Other defined standards include:  

  • Reduced-fat ice cream: contains 25% less fat than regular ice cream.
  • Low-fat ice cream: contains 3 grams of fat or less per serving.
  • Light ice cream: contains 50% less fat than regular ice cream.
  • Fat-free ice cream: contains less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.

Frozen Yogurt. Made from a mixture of milk, sweeteners, and emulsifiers that are cultured after pasteurization. Frozen yogurt may or may not contain live, active cultures. At present, there are no national standards of identity for frozen yogurt.

Sherbet. Made from a mixture of fruit or other flavors, between 1%-2% milk fat, and 2%-5% total milk solids. Sherbet contains more sugar than ice cream.

Sorbet. Similar to sherbet but does not contain dairy ingredients. 

Non-Dairy Ice Cream/Non-dairy Frozen Yogurt. Made from a mixture of oil, sweeteners, emulsifiers, etc. to resemble ice cream and frozen yogurt. Available in pints and quarts, and as frozen sandwiches, fudge pops, and fruit pops.

Nutritional Considerations
There are four main nutritional considerations regarding ice cream: 1) dairy proteins/lactose, 2) calories, 3) sugar, and 4) saturated fat. Dairy proteins and the milk lactose are a problem for those allergic to milk or who are lactose intolerant. As you can see from the chart that follows, ice cream is incredibly calorie-dense and perhaps the easiest way imaginable to consume 1000 calories in a single sitting. The sugar content hovers around 20 grams (5 teaspoons) per 1⁄2 cup, a little higher for sorbet. The high saturated fat content of ice cream is a concern for those with high cholesterol levels. It is recommended that saturated fat intake particularly from animal products as opposed to quality tropical oils should be kept to a moderate level of 20 grams or so. While our traditional diet included butter, cheese, and other animal fats, a closer look reveals that we consumed small quantities of these rich foods. Establish a healthy saturated fat intake by maintaining moderation with or avoiding whole milk, whole milk yogurt, red meat, cheese, butter, and ice cream.

Non-dairy frozen desserts
A great way to avoid animal fats, and bypass the concern for the associated chemicals (pesticides, environmental toxins, and hormones) stored there is to buy premium non-dairy frozen desserts. While none compare to the creaminess of real ice cream, you may find one or two that hit the spot for less than half the calories. Compare a few natural food store favorites below:

Ice Cream/Frozen Dessert 
(1⁄2 cup serving)


Total Fat

Saturated Fat


Organic Dairy

Organic Stonyfield After Dark Chocolate






Julie’s Organic Mocha Java






Soy Delicious Chocolate Obsession






Rice Dream Cocoa Marble Fudge






WholeSoy Swiss Chocolate






Natural Choice Organic Mango Sorbet






Hippie Wisdom

Higher quality ingredients found in premium ice cream and other frozen desserts inevitably will cost more. Chances are, you’ll think the taste is worth it. Anytime that you’re buying ice cream, take a quick look at the ingredient list. Buy those that contain simple ingredients and avoid those with hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, and when possible, non-organic dairy.

- Greg Hottinger, MPH, RD