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The Science Behind Ice Cream Without the Cream

The Science Behind Ice Cream Without the Cream

There was a time when the words, “non-dairy ice cream” would have elicited nothing but odd looks, but today it is the norm. Discover the alternatives to diary ice cream and what makes for the best scoop.
By Edward Lee

The Science Behind Ice Cream Without the CreamShutterstock: Lisovskaya Natalia

There was a time not too long ago when the words, “non-dairy ice cream” would have elicited nothing but odd looks and accusations of being oxymoronic. But we are in a new age now, in which a wide variety of formerly obscure dietary restrictions are influencing the market. Food companies, both big and small, have started producing more products that cater to people who adhere to kosher, dairy-free, gluten-free and vegan guidelines.

Dairy-free dessert enthusiasts, for example, can now celebrate the fact that there is an ever-increasing selection of frozen sweet treats available that are safe for those who cannot eat dairy products.

Because many who avoid dairy did not necessarily grow up doing so, seeing the non-dairy section of your grocery’s store ice cream aisle grow is sweet relief. If you miss the creamy treat you enjoyed as a child and long to taste it again, these options will probably not be a perfect match, but they will fulfill your craving in many ways. Keep in mind that you may not love the first one that you try, so you may have to do some taste testing to find a milk-substitute, flavor and brand that you like best.

Soy Milk

As soy milk is one of the most popular alternatives to cow’s milk, it’s no surprise that soy-based ice cream is a popular choice and often considered the granddaddy of non-dairy ice creams. If you like soy milk, this is a good choice as there can be a noticeable soy taste. Some companies overcompensate for this by making their flavors too intense or sweet, but major brands continue to refine and perfect formulas that have a pleasant mouth feel and taste.

The Science Behind Ice Cream Without the CreamShutterstock: Yulia-Bogdanova

Coconut Milk

Since coconut oil solidifies at lower temperatures than the other milk alternatives on this list, many say that this treat has a thick and creamy mouth feel that most closely mimics the real deal. However, because the base has its own distinctive flavor, this option may not be for you if you’re averse to the taste of coconut. Some coconut milk ice cream makers address this issue by amping up the featured flavors so that the coconut taste doesn’t come across as strongly.

Nut Milks

Some manufacturers are making frozen desserts that use nuts as a substitute for the milk base. Common varieties include almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts and macadamia nuts. The advantages are that nuts create very smooth and creamy butters and milks, and their taste tends not to overpower the flavor of the ice cream. Almond milk ice creams are the most common and, according to many, the most similar to traditional ice cream.

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If you’re not very familiar with the non-dairy ice cream options out there, you might be surprised to find out that a hemp ice cream even exists. Hippie jokes aside, this is a viable alternative – hemp seeds produce a compound that’s similar to gelatin, which becomes thicker when chilled. Furthermore, the flavor is quite neutral, so it won’t detract from the overall taste the way that some feel that coconut or soy does. On the downside though, the consistency can be a bit grainy, so some brands add coconut or avocado as an additional fat source.

The Science Behind Ice Cream Without the CreamShutterstock: Anna_Pustynnikova


If none of these milk substitutes sufficiently convince your palate, you can always go back to the old standby of fruit sorbets and sherbets, which don’t rely on any type of animal product for their smooth deliciousness. Nearly all varieties and brands of sorbet are entirely vegan, but you should still check the label to be absolutely certain.

Many who stay faithful to special diets are happy with the great choices that safely fit within the restrictions, but ice cream is one thing that people tend to miss when their diets exclude it. The good news is that as more people choose to follow vegan, kosher and dairy-free diets, either by choice or necessity, there are more and more truly mouth-watering options out there that don’t make you feel deprived of the things you love.

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