Does rainbow sherbet ice cream have dairy?

Rainbow sherbet is a popular frozen dessert that features a colorful striped appearance and sweet, fruity flavor. Unlike traditional ice cream, rainbow sherbet has a lighter, icier texture due to its lack of cream. This leads many people to wonder – does rainbow sherbet actually contain dairy, or is it dairy-free?

What is rainbow sherbet?

Rainbow sherbet is composed of a sweetened fruit puree or juice, milk or milk alternatives, sugar, stabilizers, and colorful natural or artificial fruit flavors and colors. It contains 1-2% milkfat, much lower than the minimum 10% milkfat required for a product to be classified as ice cream. The most common fruits used in rainbow sherbet are:

  • Orange
  • Lime
  • Raspberry
  • Pineapple
  • Lemon

The fruit purees give rainbow sherbet its distinctive light, sweet citrusy flavor, while the milkfat contributes a slight creamy richness. The low fat content is what creates its icier, fluffier texture compared to premium ice cream.

Does rainbow sherbet contain dairy?

Yes, rainbow sherbet does contain dairy ingredients. While the dairy content is lower than ice cream, traditional rainbow sherbet relies on milk or cream as a key ingredient. Here’s a look at the typical dairy ingredients used:


Most rainbow sherbet recipes call for 2-3 cups of milk per batch. Whole milk, 2% milk, or skim milk are commonly used. The milk provides the base, contributing proteins, sugar, minerals, and a hint of rich creaminess. Condensed or evaporated milk may also sometimes be used.


Some recipes use heavy cream or half-and-half in place of milk. The higher milkfat content of cream lends a smoother, thicker consistency and more prominent creamy flavor.

Milk powder

Nonfat dry milk powder may be used to add an extra boost of dairy flavor and nutritional value. About 1/4 to 1/2 cup of powder is typically used per batch.

Sweetened condensed milk

Sweetened condensed milk is a popular ingredient in rainbow sherbet. It acts as a sweetener while also contributing rich dairy notes. Around one 14-ounce can is used per batch.


Buttermilk is sometimes used in sherbet for its extra tangy flavor. Around 1-2 cups would be substituted for regular milk.


For an extra creamy, thick texture, yogurt can replace part or all of the milk. Any plain yogurt works well, and Greek yogurt is an especially popular choice.

Sour cream

Some recipes call for a small amount of sour cream, around 1/4 to 1/2 cup per batch. This contributes a subtle tangy undertone.

Are there dairy-free versions?

While traditional rainbow sherbet contains dairy, dairy-free versions made with non-dairy milks and creams are available. Some popular dairy-free base ingredients include:

  • Almond milk
  • Coconut milk
  • Cashew milk
  • Oat milk
  • Soy milk
  • Rice milk

Coconut milk is widely used for its rich texture and flavor. Many sherbet recipes simply substitute one 13.5-ounce can of full-fat coconut milk for the dairy. Other plant-based ingredients like almond milk, cashew cream, or vegan yogurt can be experimented with as well.

It’s also possible to make dairy-free rainbow sherbet using only fruit purees and juices as the liquid base. The results won’t be quite as creamy, but this allows you to avoid dairy and dairy substitutes altogether.

When scanning store shelves, look for rainbow sherbet labeled as non-dairy, dairy-free, or vegan to ensure you’re choosing a version without milk ingredients. Popular dairy-free brands include So Delicious, Coconut Bliss, NadaMoo, and Sorbet.

Nutrition comparison

Here is a nutrition comparison between traditional rainbow sherbet made with dairy milk versus a dairy-free vegan version made with coconut milk:

Per 1/2 cup serving

Nutrient Dairy rainbow sherbet Dairy-free coconut milk sherbet
Calories 140 137
Total Fat 2g 9g
Saturated Fat 1g 8g
Protein 3g 1g
Carbohydrates 28g 16g
Calcium 107mg 14mg

As shown, the coconut milk version is significantly higher in saturated fat yet lower in protein and calcium. Depending on your dietary needs, one option may be better for you nutritionally. Those avoiding saturated fat or dairy would benefit from the non-dairy coconut milk sherbet.

Lactose content

Rainbow sherbet made with regular dairy milk contains lactose, the natural sugar found in milk. Lactose content can vary depending on the product, but on average rainbow sherbet contains about 4-6g of lactose per serving.

For comparison, the lactose content per serving of other dairy products is:

  • Whole milk: 12g
  • Ice cream: 6-12g
  • Yogurt: 5-8g
  • Butter: 0.5g
  • Hard cheeses: less than 1g

So rainbow sherbet is lower in lactose than milk or cream but similar to other dairy desserts like ice cream and yogurt.

Those with lactose intolerance can likely tolerate small portions without issue. But for people with more severe lactose intolerance, sticking with lactose-free dairy or non-dairy versions is best.

Cost comparison

On average, rainbow sherbet costs:

  • Dairy rainbow sherbet: $3.49 per pint
  • Dairy-free rainbow sherbet: $4.99 per pint

The dairy-free versions tend to cost about $1.50 more. This premium is due to the higher cost of ingredients like coconut and almond milk versus regular dairy milk.

For larger quantities, dairy rainbow sherbet averages:

  • 1 quart (4 servings): $4.99
  • 1.5 quarts (6 servings): $5.99
  • Half gallon (8 servings): $6.99

Meanwhile, dairy-free rainbow sherbet averages:

  • 1 quart (4 servings): $6.49
  • 1.5 quarts (6 servings): $7.99
  • Half gallon (8 servings): $9.49

Again, you’ll pay around $1.50-$2 more for the non-dairy versions. But costs can vary widely across brands and retailers. Choosing store brand over name brand can help lower the price. Sales and coupons can also make dairy-free affordable and comparable to regular dairy cost.

Taste comparison

When it comes to taste, dairy-based and dairy-free rainbow sherbets are quite similar. Both feature the same sweet, fruity punchy flavors and creamy-icy texture.

However, there are some subtle differences in flavor and mouthfeel:

  • Dairy rainbow sherbet – Milky, creamy background flavor with a fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth texture.
  • Non-dairy coconut milk sherbet – Hints of coconut and slightly more icy texture.
  • Non-dairy almond milk sherbet – Subtly nutty, not quite as creamy.

So while all tasty, the dairy-free alternatives have slightly different flavor profiles and a less creamy melt-in-your-mouth quality. But the core sherbety fruity flavor remains largely the same. Personal taste preferences will determine whether you find the non-dairy versions equally delicious or not.

Quality comparison

Both dairy and non-dairy rainbow sherbets are produced by reputable established brands and go through rigorous quality control checks.

When stored properly in the freezer, they have comparable shelf lives. Unopened, rainbow sherbet lasts 4-6 months past its printed expiration date whether dairy or non-dairy. Once opened, it will maintain best quality for 1-2 months.

Non-dairy sherbets do tend to have a slightly icier texture that becomes grainier towards the end of being open. The dairy versions retain their creamy softness a bit longer. But both remain safe to eat within the same 1-2 month opened shelf life.

As far as food safety, both dairy and non-dairy sherbets produced commercially stick to proper manufacturing guidelines. There are no significant differences in risk when choosing between the two styles.

Environmental impact

There are some important environmental considerations when choosing dairy versus non-dairy sherbet:

  • Water usage – Dairy production requires significantly more water than plant-based milks. It takes around 100 times more water to produce dairy milk than the equivalent amount of almond milk.
  • Land usage – More land is needed for raising dairy cows versus producing dairy-free milk alternatives which rely more on agriculture.
  • Carbon footprint – Dairy production generates 2-3 times more greenhouse gas emissions compared to non-dairy milk.

So from an environmental standpoint, non-dairy rainbow sherbet made with plant-based milks has less impact. Choosing coconut, almond, or oat based over dairy can lower your carbon footprint.


While traditional rainbow sherbet relies on dairy ingredients like milk and cream, dairy-free alternatives made from plant-based milks provide a tasty option for those avoiding dairy. Coconut milk sherbet in particular makes an indulgent non-dairy substitute.

Cost and nutrition profiles are fairly comparable, with some differences in fat and protein content. Non-dairy versions are better for the environment though pricier. And the dairy-free options differ slightly in flavor but remain similarly sweet and fruity.

Ultimately, personal dietary needs and preferences determine whether traditional dairy or dairy-free rainbow sherbet is the right choice for you. Both provide the nostalgic, colorful striped frozen treat to enjoy.

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