These days, almost every grocery store carries at least one vegan ice cream flavor, even though its presence in the freezer aisle is still relatively new.
While it seems like tons of options just popped up overnight, vegan ice cream actually has a pretty interesting history — here’s the scoop on its origins, the current market, and what it’s made from.
A Brief History of Vegan Ice Cream
In 1899, Almeda Lambert a Seventh-day Adventist from Battle Creek, Michigan, released her vegetarian cookbook “Guide for Nut Cookery.” Recipes included nut-based meats, nut butters, dairy-free cheese, and ice cream made from peanuts, almonds, pine nuts, and hickory. Two out of her three bases contain eggs, but one is entirely vegan — here’s the recipe for Ice Cream No. 2:
“Take 1 quart of rich nut cream, either almond or peanut. If made from peanuts, the nuts should not be roasted very brown, only yellow color. Add 1 cup granulated sugar and 2 teaspoonfuls of vanilla. Turn the cream into a double boiler and cook for 20 or 30 minutes. Add the sugar before cooking, then cook, and add the vanilla, and freeze.”
According to the Soy Info Center, Arao Itano, a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts, was the first to conceive the idea of soy-based ice cream in his 1918 article “Soy Beans As Human Food.” In 1922, Indiana resident Lee Len Thuey filed the first patent for soy ice cream, “Frozen confection and process of making same.” In 1930, the first soy ice cream, a honey-sweetened treat available in chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla, was created by Seventh-day Adventist Jethro Kloss.
Even automobile maker Henry Ford’s researchers explored the possibilities of dairy-free ice cream made from soy. The 1951 ice cream Chill-Zert, created by Robert Rich, a man who learned from Ford’s team, was seized by the USDA, which claimed it should be labeled “imitation chocolate dessert” — sound familiar? Rich fought back, state by state, and won the right to label his confection “ice cream.”
In the following decades, three more dairy-free ice creams came to market — Heller’s Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert, Ice Bean, Ice-C-Bean, Soy Ice Bean — and in the early 1980s, two names that are still part of the dairy-free ice cream world today were invented: Tofutti and Rice Dream. In 1985, Tofutti’s stocks hit $17.1 million — one of the most popular stocks on Wall Street at the time.
Its success inspired imitators (26 in 1985, to be exact), looking to capture the consumer interest in the perceived health benefits of tofu-based ice cream, but only Tofutti remained. Marketers at the time spun soy-based ice cream as a health food, highlighting its high protein content and lack of cholesterol. A lot of early dairy-free ice creams — including Tofutti — weren’t actually vegan. Eggs and honey were common ingredients.
In 2001, a newcomer would make its mark on the industry — Purely Decadent Soy Delicious, the first “premium” vegan ice cream. By 2004, it was the best-selling brand of ice cream — dairy or otherwise — in the natural foods channel and in 2005, it was renamed to So Delicious Dairy Free.
Dairy-Free on the Rise
The vegan ice cream market is set to surpass $1 billion globally, according to research from Grand Market Insights. Experts predict that health concerns over cow’s milk, the rising interest in plant-based food as well as the “better-for-you” trend are set to help the market grow.
The report notes that familiar brands will help grow the market. A number of established dairy brands have launched vegan options in recent years, including Ben & Jerry’s, Häagen-Dazs, Breyers, Cornetto, and Magnum. But dairy-free brands like Texas-based NadaMoo!, Swedish Glace, and brands using innovative base ingredients such as hemp, avocado, or fruit are also expected to help drive demand.
Is Vegan Ice Cream Healthier?
“Undoubtedly,” Susan Levin, director of nutrition education at PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) told LIVEKINDLY in an email. “There are components of dairy that are inherently unhealthful, which are absent from plant-based products. However, any product high in total fat and saturated fat should be minimized. And of course added sugar brings no value to your diet either.”
Does this mean vegan ice cream is off limits? Not at all. “Find the ones lowest in fat and added sugars. In short — better than dairy but not a health food,” Levin said.
It also depends on what kind of ice cream you go for. Are you going for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s vegan ice cream, which has a low overrun (that’s ice cream industry terminology for how much air is injected into the mix) or something lighter, like NadaMoo!, which has a relatively low sugar content (a pint of its Dutch Chocolate contains only 8 grams of sugar). There are also an increasing number of brands making low-calorie options, including So Delicious, Halo Top, and Enlightened.
What Is Vegan Ice Cream Made From?
While dairy-based ice cream is limited to milk from animals, the options for vegan ice cream have evolved beyond the golden age of soy-based ice cream and are now seemingly limited. Here’s a run-down of what you’ll find.
Almond milk still remains the most popular dairy-free variety, so it’s no surprise that so many companies have chosen to work with it. Iconic Vermont-based brand Ben & Jerry’s makes its dairy-free ice cream from almonds because it provides a neutral flavor and similar mouthfeel to its dairy-based ice cream. So Delicious, Swedish Glace, and Almond Dream also make vegan almond milk ice cream. Target also makes almond milk ice cream under its private label brand, Archer Farms. Low-calorie brand Enlightened makes its non-dairy pints and bars from almond milk. Well-known dairy brand Breyers also opted for an almond milk base for its flavors.
Soy-based ice cream wasn’t just a trend of the ’80s. Vintage brand Tofutti is still around to this day as is So Delicious’ (neé Soy Delicious) dairy-free soy treats. Other options include Soy Dream, European brand Swedish Glace, vegan Cornetto, and some varieties of Trader Joe’s vegan ice cream.
Coconut is another popular vegan ice cream base. Texas-based brand NadaMoo! has been making its coconut milk ice cream since 2004. Other options include organic brand Coconut Bliss, So Delicious, and Swedish Glace. Cult-hit low calorie ice cream brand Halo Top makes its light vegan ice cream from coconut milk as well.
So Delicious is currently the only major vegan ice cream brand to use cashews as its base. But, artisanal brand Van Leeuwen, which has scoop shops in NYC and LA and sells its pints in select stores across the US, makes its decadent dairy-free base from a blend of cashews, coconut cream, and cocoa butter.
After taking the dairy-free milk world by storm, oat-based ice cream is making its way onto store shelves. Oat milk pioneer Oatly has been selling its vegan ice cream in Europe for some time and is gearing up for a U.S. launch. So Delicious launched its “Oatmilk” ice cream in three flavors earlier this year. One hundred year-old ice cream brand partnered with dairy-processor-turned-vegan Elmhurst to launch “Oats Cream” this year.
Pea protein is the new darling of the vegan meat world, but it’s also making its way into ice cream. Ben & Jerry’s and Halo Top both add the legume-based protein to their vegan ice creams. Magnum, which recently launched vegan ice cream bars, makes theirs from pea protein and coconut oil. And 70-year old dairy brand McConnell’s also relies on pea protein to create a creamy texture.
Avocado ice cream was once a thing of homemade and local dairy-free treats. But avocado-based brand Cado hit Whole Foods Market stores last summer, showing off the true versatility of vegan ice cream. According to the company, it’s lower in sugar compared to other brands and rich in “good” fat thanks to avocados.
There are still more ways to make vegan ice cream. Dairy-free brand SorBabes does make sorbet — but co-founders Nicole Cardone and Deborah Gorman also take a page out of the “Guide for Nut Cookery” by crafting rich, creamy desserts using nut butters like pistachio, peanuts, almond, and hazelnut.
Häagen-Dazs’ nondairy flavors use sugar and corn syrup to recreate its iconic dairy base. Portland-based parlor The Little Bean uses chickpea milk as a base. Toronto-based company The Chufa Co uses tigernuts, a small tuber best known as the key ingredient in horchata. And the “Dream” family of brand makes Rice Dream, a rice-based vegan ice cream that comes in pints and ice cream sandwiches. Taking a page from homemade “nice cream,” paleo vegan brand Snow Monkey relies on bananas to create a creamy texture.