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Ice Cream - What's in a Scoop?

By Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D.
Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist
Colorado State University Extension
July 25, 2000

Kids love ice cream, and so do grown-ups. The United States is the ice cream capital of the world. On average, we eat 23 quarts of the creamy stuff per person per year. Now that's a lot of ice cream! It can also mean a lot of fat and calories, depending on the choices you make.

The calories in a cup of ice cream can vary anywhere from 180 to 600, depending on brand, fat content, sugar content and flavor. If you're watching fats and calories, it pays to read the label. Here are some tips on how to tell what you're getting when shopping for ice cream.

  • Nonfat or fat-free ice creams. True to their label, these contain virtually no fat. Vegetable gums are generally added to make them creamy, and mixtures are made in "soft serve" machines to whip in additional air and ice crystals. As for flavor, don't expect Haagen Dazs. Rich and creamy, they're not. But for a refreshing, fat-free frozen dessert, fat-free ice creams are a good choice. Most contain 90 to 100 calories per half cup, but not all. For example, Ben and Jerry's No Fat Vanilla Fudge weighs in at 150 calories per half cup due to its high sugar content.
  • Low-fat ice creams. By definition, they contain less than 3 grams (27 calories) of fat per half cup serving. What we used to purchase as "ice milk" is now often sold as low-fat ice cream. Though fat grams are regulated, calories vary greatly among brands, depending on the amount of sugar used.
  • Light ice creams. In the food labeling world, light is a relative term. For ice cream, it means the product has half the fat or two-thirds the calories found in the brand's regular version. As a result, light forms of premium ice creams, such as Haagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry's, may actually contain more fat and calories per serving than regular forms of basic ice creams, such as Lucerne, Borden and Sealtest.
  • Premium, grand or old-fashioned ice creams. These terms are not regulated. Generally, they mean anything but low fat. These ice creams range from 150 to 300 calories per half cup, in part from their 8 to 20 grams of fat. Regular ice cream contains around 140 calories and 7 grams of fat per half cup.
  • Frozen yogurt. Often billed as a health food, frozen yogurt can do as much damage to your arteries as most ice creams. They also can be chock full of sugar. For example, Ben and Jerry's yogurt boasts more than 175 calories per half cup, compared to 142 in a half cup of Sealtest regular ice cream.
  • Nondairy frozen desserts. Tofutti, Rice Dream, Ice Bean and Mocha Mix are all examples of nondairy frozen desserts. They're good choices for people who can't tolerate milk protein or lactose. They can be low or high in fat, depending on the variety. A cup of Ice Bean Fat Free contains 110 calories compared to 200 in a half cup of Tofutti.

Finally, as with all foods, consider serving size. The serving size listed on the label is only one-half cup. Gobble down half a pint and you've doubled the fat and calories listed on the label.

For more information, contact your local Colorado State University Extension office.

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Updated Tuesday, November 27, 2007.

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