Ice cream is a favorite American treat. We love all kinds of flavors, all kinds of ways -- in cones, sundaes, and shakes and atop pie, cobbler, and cake.
One thing we don't love about ice cream is how fattening it can be. But thanks to new churning technologies being used by manufacturers such as Dreyer's/Edy's, Breyers, and Häagen-Dazs, we can now enjoy the taste of super-creamy ice cream for a fraction of the fat and calories. (Of course, you'll still need to keep portions reasonable if you want to keep calories under control.)
Ice cream manufacturers have long been in search of a healthier frozen dessert with all the taste and texture of the full-fat product. For years, you've been able to find products lower in fat, sugar, calories, carbs, made from soy, or dairy-free, in your grocer's freezer case. And remember ice milk?
Yet many consumers felt the taste of most of these lighter products just didn't measure up. In the past, most lower-fat ice creams used lower-calorie ingredients, such as milk instead of cream, along with added gums, air, gels, and other ingredients to improve and stabilize the texture.
The Scoop on the New Technologies
Enter the new churning technologies, which enabled manufacturers to use the same ingredients as in full-fat ice creams while still reducing fat and calories.
In 2004, the largest ice cream manufacturer in the United States, Dreyer’s (Edy’s on the East Coast), introduced its top-secret method of blending. Its trademarked Slow Churned process allows the company to produce a premium-tasting ice cream with half the fat and one-third fewer calories.
"Our Slow Churned blending process pushes the fat molecules through a very small space, stretching them out so the ice cream tastes like it contains more fat," says Dreyers' Kim Goeller-Johnson. "In essence, a little fat goes a long way, allowing for the taste and texture of full-fat ice cream in a lower-fat product."
The process occurs at very low temperatures, which helps reduce the size of the fat and ice crystals. Thus, Dreyer's/Edy's can now make ice creams with around 5 grams of fat taste as rich as ones with 15 grams of fat. Today, the company offers more than 30 flavors in its Slow Churned line.
Other companies have since developed their own blending technologies. Häagen-Dazs uses "a proprietary European process of low-temperature blending" for its light ice creams, while Breyers' process churns the ice cream twice for a creamier texture. Breyers' Double Churned Extra Creamy products include regular as well as light flavors.
Read the Small Print
Even when purchasing one of the new light ice creams, it's important to read the small print on the label to determine how healthy the product really is, dietitians say.
"By looking at the first five ingredients on the list of ingredients, you can get a good feel for what is contained in the product," says Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, a cookbook author and WebMD’s "Recipe Doctor."
Her review of the ingredients on a carton of Edy’s Slow Churned mint chocolate chip (listed in order of volume) found the product contained milk, skim milk, cream, sugar, and corn syrup, among other things. Going a step further, she checked the nutritional facts panel to learn that this flavor has 120 calories in a half-cup portion, with 43% of the calories from sugar and 34% of the calories from fat.
"I give it thumbs-up because it is lower in fat and calories, tastes great, and uses good ingredients," Magee says.
Many of the plain flavors of light ice cream, such as chocolate and vanilla, are around 100 calories per half cup, while flavors with add-in goodies may be 120 calories-130 calories per half cup. Breyers' Double Churned No Sugar Added vanilla has only 80 calories per serving, and also includes 4 grams of fiber (which can help keep you feeling full).
It's important to note that, even among the "healthy" ice creams, some products --- including some Häagen-Dazs light flavors -- contain as many as 250 calories per half-cup serving.
Tips to Help Control Cravings
Light ice creams made with these new technologies are smooth as silk, coating your tongue just like a full-fat ice cream and making a small scoop seem satisfying.
To add to its satisfying ability, use small dishes and spoons, and really take your time to savor the taste and texture. Magee suggests buying attractive custard cups and dessert spoons.
"Changing utensils and serving dishes helps change behavior, so instead of using the big bowl, use a smaller one, and eat the ice cream slowly so the small portion will be much more satisfying,” she says
After all, says Magee, the first five bites of any food are the best; after that point, you don’t taste with the same enjoyment or intensity.
And make sure you eat your healthier ice cream (or other portion-controlled treat) at the time of day you crave it most.
"You can control your cravings by planning a small piece of chocolate or half-cup of ice cream when you want it most and enjoy your small treat without sabotaging your diet," says Magee.
Churning Out Sales
Since the first of the new churning technologies was introduced in 2004, consumer demand has led grocers to devote more and more freezer space to these ice creams.
"Dreyer’s/Edy’s Slow Churned sales nearly doubled its debut year, and increased another 80% to 90% the following year," says Goeller-Johnson. "The momentum has continued at a stellar pace, with sales this year already up 50% over the same period last year."
Consumers seem to be convinced. According to Dreyer’s, in blind taste tests across the country, eight out of 10 people selected Slow Churned over full-calorie ice cream.