Is there such a thing as a 'healthy,' low-calorie ice cream? We explain

Summer may be winding down, but there's still time to squeeze in a few final beach days, camping trips and ice cream-filled evenings.

Ice cream is a staple of the summer, but it’s a part of the American dessert regimen all year. According to data from the International Dairy Foods Association, Americans eat roughly 20 pounds of ice cream every year.

Whether you’re in line at the ice cream stand or have the grocery freezer section door open, here’s what to know about health and ice cream, including non-dairy, low-calorie and frozen yogurt options.

Ice cream is an essential in the summer. How does it measure up with your health?
Ice cream is an essential in the summer. How does it measure up with your health?

What is the healthiest ice cream?

If you’re at the store, browsing through the frozen section, the first place you want to look for the healthiest ice cream is on the back label. The healthiest option money can buy is one with the fewest ingredients, says licensed dietitian nutritionist Abra Pappa.

“Ice cream is a very simple food and should be a simple food,” Pappa says. “To me, the healthiest ice cream is ice cream that really sticks to the original recipe.”

That’s usually milk, cream, sugar and some kind of flavoring, she says. Haagen-Dazs’ chocolate ice cream, for example, contains only cream, skim milk, cane sugar, egg yolks and cocoa.

But the best way to go, in Pappa’s opinion, is to choose a local ice cream company for your outdoor treats and take-home classics. Local ice cream shops often create their products from locally sourced ingredients, and eating local can limit your intake of highly processed foods and contribute to higher quality diet.

“It encompasses all the things that I love about it, including experience – it’s local, it’s nostalgic, it’s small-backed,” she says.

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Is ice cream bad for you?

Ice cream has a high sugar content, and as a dessert, many feel it doesn’t have a place in a healthy diet. To that, Pappa says, “What would life be without ice cream?”

The key is moderation – how much, and when, we’re consuming the dessert.

The nationally suggested recommendation is that Americans limit their intake of added sugars to less than 10% of their total daily calories. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 36 grams of added sugar for men and 25 grams for women. And if you’re cracking open a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, the serving size (about ⅓ of the pint) can have between 30 and 40 grams of added sugar.

This can especially be a concern for those who have cardiovascular disease, diabetes or other health conditions where they might need to cut down on their sugar or dairy intake. These groups should consult their doctor for condition-specific dietary guidelines.

When fitting ice cream into a healthy diet, Pappa suggests asking yourself why you’re consuming ice cream in the first place. An American Psychological Association survey found 38% of adults overeat or eat unhealthy food because of stress. “Emotional eating” can be triggered by anxiety-inducing or difficult life events, stress, depression, dieting or even seasonal stressors.

Reframing the way we enjoy ice cream can help develop a healthy relationship with food, Pappa says. Ice cream is a hyper-palatable food, which means its specific combination of fat, sugar and carbohydrates makes it rewarding and harder to stop eating.

“We're eating a food like ice cream to increase the joy of the experience, the tastiness of the experience and also to be able to be much more conscientious and tuned into our bodies cues of like ‘That was satisfying, I don't need to eat more,” Pappa says.

Is ‘healthy’ ice cream healthy?

Healthy, low-calorie ice cream pints dominate the frozen aisle at the grocery store, especially since the rise of the keto diet.

These ice creams are often made with sugar alcohol, which has a lower caloric value but may have adverse effects for those with digestive complications or IBS, like discomfort, bloating or diarrhea.

Some health ice creams market themselves as lighter but only because they have air whipped into them. A pint of Halo Top ice cream is about ⅔ lighter in grams than a pint of Ben and Jerry’s because it contains less sugar and fat, which is what makes ice cream creamy.

“It’s not going to have that same ice cream experience,” Pappa says. “If I’m going to have ice cream, I want ice cream.”

Is non-dairy ice cream better than regular ice cream?

Non-dairy ice creams are a great option for lactose or dairy-intolerant individuals or vegans, but they’re not inherently healthier. If you can tolerate dairy, you’re fine to stick with regular ice cream, Pappa says.

“It is far harder to get that texture using plant products like coconut, soy (and) almond,” she says. “To really mimic ice cream, they’re adding a lot of ingredients – they’re adding gels, they’re adding emulsifiers.”

Is frozen yogurt healthier than ice cream?

Frozen yogurt may be lower in calories, but its inherently sour flavor means it’s often packed with more added sugar than normal ice cream. Frozen yogurt may also contain gums or other emulsifiers to give it a creamy texture.

“It’s much harder, I think, to find a more pure frozen yogurt in a way you can find a really good, pure ice cream,” Pappa says.

But for those watching their caloric intake for health or dietary reasons instructed by a doctor, Pappa suggests trying frozen yogurt bars as a treat because they represent a single serving size.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Healthy ice cream: What to know about low-calorie picks.