For ice cream lovers, the freezer aisles at your local grocery store are a wonderland of different flavors and interesting ice cream treats, from sweet sandwiches to individually-portioned pints. But if you quite literally want the cream of the crop when it comes to those craveable frozen scoops, just know that not all ice cream brands are created equal.
What exactly separates a high-quality ice cream from a low-quality ice cream? The fewer ingredients the better, according to Melissa Mitri, MS, RD, nutrition writer and owner of Melissa Mitri Nutrition. Registered dietician and author Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, agrees that the best ice creams start with just a few signature ingredients like milk, cream, sugar, and flavorings. Additionally, London notes that when indulging in ice cream, something that's "too low in calories is usually a good indicator that it might not be as satisfying as the real deal."
Of course, not all of the highest-quality ice cream brands limit their ingredient lists to just cream, milk, sugar, and flavorings. Still, there are certain low-quality ingredients that dietitians like London and Mitri say are better avoided, including artificial flavors and colors, sugar substitutes, sugar alcohols, and certain thickeners.
If you're looking for a top-quality, artisanal scoop of the sweet stuff, look elsewhere beyond these 12 brands.
Blue Ribbon Classics
Not only are the frozen treats from Blue Ribbon Classics not actually ice cream (the brand describes them as a "frozen dairy dessert"), but the ingredient list contains several red flags. For starters, the brand's "Homemade Vanilla" uses artificial flavors, as well as several iffy thickening agents: cellulose gel, cellulose gum, and guar gum. Mitri said those artificial flavors and thickening agents mean the ice cream may not taste as natural and the quality and texture won't be as good.
"Cellulose gels and gums can also be tough to digest and can cause unpleasant digestive side effects in some people," Mitri says.
Other flavors from Blue Ribbon Classics, like the Neapolitan, contain artificial dyes like Red 40 and Blue 1 that Mitri says are best to avoid when possible. Though the Food and Drug Administration approved both these dyes for use in food, Red 40 was linked to bowel diseases in mice in a study published last year.
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For calorie-conscious consumers, it may be tempting to reach for Nick's Swedish-style light ice cream. These colorful pints fall between 200 to 400 calories for the entire container and some flavors provide up to 11 grams of protein.
However, these diet ice creams aren't as harmless as they might seem. Nick's frozen desserts include guar gum, one of the thickening agents that can indicate a lower-quality texture.
Nick's ice creams also contain the sugar alcohol erythritol, which London says can trigger gas, bloating, abdominal pain, and sometimes diarrhea when consumed in higher amounts. Since these lighter ice creams are typically lower in fat than the traditional frozen treat, consumers may also feel less satisfied after one serving and overcompensate by eating the whole container (and more erythritol as a result), London says.
Some of the same ingredient issues plaguing Nick's ice creams are present in the frozen treats from the brand Rebel, which sells full-fat, keto-friendly ice creams. The packaging on Rebel pints touts the fact that there's no added sugar in the ice cream, but it makes up for that lack of sugar with more erythritol.
Guar gum also makes another appearance in the Rebel ice creams. In addition to the potential textural issues linked to guar gum, the thickening agent may also trigger digestive problems like bloating and gas, according to WebMD. Between the erythritol and guar gum, consumers with particularly sensitive stomachs may be better off leaving this option in the freezer aisle.
There's a growing pattern among these ice cream brands with low-quality ingredients. Both the regular and premium lines of ice cream from dairy brand Kemps feature a recurring villain: guar gum. Kemps' regular ice creams also use high fructose corn syrup, which can contribute to weight gain, insulin resistance, and high blood pressure, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
To top it all off, certain Kemps flavors utilize artificial dyes like Red 40 and Blue 1 that Mitri says are better avoided. Just one look at the lengthy ingredient lists from some of these flavors should indicate that you're far away from the simple combination of milk, cream, and sugar that makes a good-quality ice cream.
Halo Top is a popular ice cream brand that positions itself as healthier than regular ice cream, thanks to a lower sugar and fat content. However, the appeal of Halo Top is slightly lessened when you peruse the ingredient lists. For one, many varieties contain erythritol, cellulose gel, and cellulose gum. If people consume the whole pint, which Halo Top suggests is okay with their lower-calorie ice cream, people could experience some elevated digestive side effects from those potentially problematic thickening agents.
Take a look at the packaging of most Blue Bunny "ice cream" flavors and you'll see the conspicuous absence of the words ice cream. Instead, you may see terms like "frozen dairy dessert." Why? Because many of their products are technically not ice cream. The brand is also guilty of relying on certain artificial flavors. You'll also see qualifiers like "vanilla-flavored" instead of just vanilla, because, again, it's often a version of the flavor created by using low-quality artificial ingredients.
Beloved by many a generation—largely for showing up on a truck at just the right time on hot summer days—Good Humor's ice cream products may be popular, but they're not high-quality. Take the company's classic Strawberry Shortcake Bar, for instance. The lengthy ingredient list includes guar gum and artificial dyes like Red 40 and Red 3. The latter is approved by the FDA for use in food, but studies have shown that in very high doses, the dye can cause cancer in animals.
Friendly's may not fit the bill if you wanted to stick with the philosophy that less is more when it comes to ingredients in a good quality ice cream. And if the guar gum, whey protein concentrate, whey, thickening agents, and emulsifiers don't turn you away from the brand, maybe the fat and cholesterol will. A 150-calorie serving of Friendly's Classic Chocolate flavor has 11 grams of total fat, five grams of saturated fat, and 13 grams of sugar.
Here's another classic and beloved frozen treat that might be best left unexamined. These chocolate-dipped ice cream cone treats are made with pretty inferior ingredients. Let's name just four of the 25-plus ingredients you'll find in the classic vanilla Drumstick flavor: dairy product solids (that's the first, FYI, not cream or milk), cellulose gel, cellulose gum, and guar gum.
Sure, Baskin Robbins is one of the most successful chains out there, and yes, you probably loved it as a kid, but not even the nostalgia can make up for a few unsavory additions on the brand's ingredient lists. In the brand's Cotton Candy flavor, for example, you'll once again find undesirable thickening agents like cellulose gum and guar gum that can lead to uncomfortable digestive issues. These likely won't be the most natural-tasting ice creams either, since several Baskin Robbins varieties include artificial flavors.
Blue Bell Ice Cream has a popularity problem: according to a Mashed survey, a majority of people find it to be the worst store-bought ice cream. Maybe that's because the brand has a quality ingredient problem, too. The company's Homemade Vanilla flavor features high fructose corn syrup, cellulose gum, and guar gum. Other flavors add in modified food starch, artificial colors, mono and diglycerides, and more. How about just regular milk, cream, and sugar?
Turkey Hill's ice cream may be one of the more recognizable grocery store ice cream brands, but the sizable list of ingredients in the company's frozen treats are anything but high quality. The Original Vanilla flavor, for example, again lists those potentially problematic cellulose gums and gels, plus artificial flavors. Other flavors rely on artificial dyes for their color.
An earlier version of this article was published in September 2022. It has been updated to include new information.