Is dairy-free ice cream actually dairy-free?

With the rise in popularity of dairy-free diets and veganism, dairy-free ice cream has exploded onto the market in recent years. Brands like So Delicious, Ben and Jerry’s Non-Dairy, Oatly, and more offer ice cream alternatives made from oat milk, coconut milk, almond milk, and other vegan ingredients. But can these dairy-free ice creams actually be considered free of milk products? Let’s take a closer look.

What makes ice cream “dairy-free”?

Traditional ice cream is made from dairy milk or cream, along with sugar and flavorings. Dairy-free ice creams swap out the dairy milk for plant-based milks instead. Common bases used are:

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

These provide the creamy texture and base without using any animal products. Many dairy-free ice creams also avoid eggs as well. So a true vegan dairy-free ice cream would contain no dairy, eggs, or other animal-derived ingredients.

Watch out for hidden dairy products

Reading the label is important when purchasing dairy-free ice cream. Some products that market themselves as dairy-free actually contain dairy-derived ingredients like milk proteins or cream. This could be problematic for those with dairy allergies or avoiding dairy for other reasons. Here are some common hidden dairy products to watch out for:

  • Milk protein
  • Milk powder
  • Casein
  • Whey
  • Lactose
  • Cream

To be completely dairy-free, the product should not contain any of these ingredients. Some people don’t consider small amounts of milk derivatives like casein to be problematic, while those with allergies need to strictly avoid them. Checking the labels and product information closely is key.

Are dairy flavors really dairy-free?

One question that comes up a lot with dairy-free ice cream is whether flavors like “cookie dough” or “mint chocolate chip” are actually dairy-free. Most dairy-free brands use natural flavorings to mimic the taste and texture of these flavors. For example:

  • Cookie crumbles and dough chunks could be made from crushed vegan cookies made without milk products.
  • Chocolate chips may be dairy-free dark chocolate or chocolate flavor made without milk.
  • Mint flavoring would come from natural mint extracts, not from any dairy products.

So while the flavors may taste similar to traditional ice cream with those inclusions, they are created in a vegan way without the dairy. However, it’s still smart to read ingredients lists carefully to ensure ingredients like chocolate chips weren’t processed on equipment shared with milk products.

Are all dairy-free ice creams vegan?

While most dairy-free ice creams are also vegan, there can be exceptions. Some dairy-free ice creams include honey or other animal byproducts like eggs or egg whites to mimic the texture and function of dairy. So egg-free does not always equal dairy-free when it comes to ice cream. Checking for statements like “100% vegan” or “vegan certified” can help identify ones avoiding all animal ingredients.

Brand Vegan?
So Delicious Yes
Halo Top dairy-free No (contains egg whites)
Ben and Jerry’s dairy-free Yes
Breyers dairy-free No (contains eggs)

This table shows some popular dairy-free ice cream brands and whether they are also vegan or contain other animal byproducts like eggs.

Watch out for cross-contamination risks

Even if all the ingredients in a dairy-free ice cream are vegan, there can still be a risk of cross-contamination with milk during manufacturing and processing. Some brands produce dairy and dairy-free options on shared equipment, which could result in traces of dairy getting into the dairy-free ice cream. Lots of dairy-free brands like So Delicious pride themselves on keeping their equipment and facilities 100% dairy-free to avoid this. But if you have severe dairy allergies, it’s smart to look for information about where and how the dairy-free ice cream was produced before consuming.

Does dairy-free ice cream taste different?

Dairy-free ice creams have come a long way when it comes to taste and texture. Early versions tended to be icy and less creamy than traditional dairy ice cream. But with innovations like using coconut cream, avocado, and other plant-based ingredients, many modern dairy-free ice creams taste very rich and creamy now. Each plant milk has a slightly different flavor – for example, coconut-based ice creams will have a tropical, coconutty taste. But many dairy-free ice creams today have minimal detectable flavor from the base and taste quite similar to regular ice cream.

Nutritional profile of dairy vs. dairy-free ice cream

Dairy-free ice creams have a different nutritional makeup than regular ice cream:

Nutrient Dairy ice cream (1/2 cup) Dairy-free ice cream (1/2 cup)
Calories 137 100-250
Fat 8g 5-17g
Carbs 15g 12-30g
Protein 3g 0-4g
Vitamin D 10% DV 0% DV
Calcium 10% DV 0-10% DV

The nutritional values can vary widely by brand. But in general, dairy-free ice creams tend to be lower in saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories than traditional dairy ice cream. They also contain little to no vitamin D or calcium unless fortified. Any vitamins and minerals come predominantly from the added plant milk ingredients.

Potential health benefits of dairy-free ice cream

Eating dairy-free ice cream offers some potential health upsides for certain people:

  • Lower in saturated fat and calories – Since coconut, nuts, and plant milks provide the healthy fats instead of animal-based dairy fats, dairy-free ice cream tends to contain less saturated fat and fewer calories per serving.
  • No lactose – Dairy ice creams contain lactose, a milk sugar that some people are intolerant to. Going dairy-free avoids lactose and may be easier to digest.
  • No cow’s milk allergens – Those with cow’s milk protein allergy can safely consume non-dairy ice cream without risk of reaction.
  • No hormone intake – Dairy cow’s milk often contains traces of hormones and antibiotics. Plant-based milks avoid transferring these hormones to humans.
  • Potentially less inflammation – Dairy is a common food sensitivity that can trigger inflammation or exacerbate conditions like acne, arthritis, and asthma. Eliminating dairy may reduce inflammation for some.

So for those with lactose intolerance, cow’s milk allergy, or trying an elimination diet to control inflammation or acne, dairy-free ice cream can allow enjoying “ice cream” without the unwanted effects of dairy. It provides a tasty alternative dessert option.

Downsides and risks of dairy-free ice cream

While enjoying dairy-free ice cream comes with some benefits, there are also some potential downsides to keep in mind:

  • Allergens like nuts and soy – Many dairy-free ice creams contain nuts like almonds, cashews, or coconut. Those with nut or coconut allergies need to avoid brands containing their allergen.
  • Added sugars – Dairy-free ice creams often add extra sweeteners like cane sugar to compensate for the inherent sweetness of dairy milk. Some contain 12-15g added sugars per serving.
  • Less protein – Dairy milk and cream provides more protein than plant-based milks and creams. So those looking for a high protein dessert may want to opt for a Greek yogurt-based frozen dessert instead.
  • Potential for B12 deficiency – Traditional dairy ice cream provides B12, a nutrient often lacking on plant-based diets. Dairy-free ice creams don’t provide B12.
  • Higher cost – Specialty dairy-free ice cream tends to cost $4-6 per pint, noticeably higher than regular ice cream. The treats can get pricey if consuming frequently.

Overall the concerns are relatively minor, and dairy-free ice cream can be enjoyed in moderation by most people. Those following vegan diets may just need to ensure they get B12 from supplements or other fortified foods.

Best dairy-free ice cream brands

Here is a sampling of top rated dairy-free and vegan ice cream brands to try:

Brand Bases used Notable flavors
So Delicious Coconut milk Salted Caramel Cluster, Chocolate Cookies ‘n Cream
Halo Top dairy-free Pea protein, coconut oil Peanut Butter Chocolate, Candy Bar
Ben and Jerry’s dairy-free Almond milk Chunky Monkey, Cherry Garcia
Cado Avocado Mint Chocolate Chip, Lemon Drop
NadaMoo Coconut milk Cookie Dough, Mint Chip

Taste preferences are subjective, but any of these highly rated dairy-free ice cream brands are solid choices for those seeking a quality non-dairy frozen dessert experience.

Recipes to make your own dairy-free ice cream

Interested in making your own dairy-free ice cream at home? It’s surprisingly easy with just a few simple ingredients and appliances like an ice cream maker or food processor. Here are a couple tasty plant-based ice cream recipes to try:

4-Ingredient Banana “Ice Cream”

  • 2 medium bananas, frozen
  • 2 tbsp almond butter (or peanut butter)
  • 2-4 tbsp plant milk
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla

Blend all ingredients in a food processor until smooth and creamy. Add plant milk as needed to blend. Scoop into a container and freeze for 1-2 hours before serving.

Easy Coconut Milk Ice Cream

  • 1 (14-oz) can coconut milk
  • 2/3 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • Pinch of salt

Whisk ingredients together, then process in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions. Spoon into a freezer-safe container and freeze 4+ hours before serving. Garnish with fruit, chocolate, or other toppings as desired.


Dairy-free ice creams provide a tasty, plant-based alternative to traditional dairy-laden ice cream. Most dairy-free varieties actually contain no trace of milk, cream, or other dairy ingredients. However, consumers need to read labels carefully since some “dairy-free” products do sneak in milk derivatives or non-vegan add-ins like eggs. Nutritionally, dairy-free ice cream tends to be lower in saturated fat and calories than regular ice cream, but also provides less protein. Those with food sensitivities like lactose intolerance or milk allergies can often enjoy non-dairy frozen desserts without issue. And recipe options let you easily whip up dairy-free “ice cream” at home too. Overall, going dairy-free doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the fun of ice cream.

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