How Healthy Is Your Frozen Dessert?

photo of ice cream flavors

Ice Cream

We’ve been screaming for it since 1851, when the American ice cream industry began. (Early versions of the frozen treat first appeared in the 1500s). In a poll, 90% said they’d bought some in the past 6 months. U.S. standards are strict: Ice cream must weigh at least 4.5 pounds per gallon, have at least 20% milk solids — protein, carbs, and minerals — and have at least 10% milkfat.

photo of scoop of vanilla ice cream

Watch Your Substitutions

Ice cream isn’t exactly great for your bottom, er, line. A half-cup serving of plain vanilla packs 207 calories, 11 grams of fat, and 21 grams of sugar, with almost 24 grams of carbs. If you want to ditch one of these, lots of choices line the frozen dairy case. But for every ingredient you want to shun, others sub for them to make up the fat, texture, or sweetness. Read nutrition labels to see just what you’re getting.

photo of light ice cream label

Solving the Dairy Case

New terms abound in modern ice cream. (Remember the ice milk in Grandma’s fridge? It’s been rebranded as “reduced fat” and “light.”)

  • “Reduced fat” ice cream must have at least 25% less total fat.
  • “Light” — or “lite” — must have at least 50% less total fat, or 33% fewer calories.
  • “Lowfat” can have up to 3 grams of total fat per half-cup serving.

“Nonfat” must have less than 0.5 grams of total fat per serving.

photo of strawberry gelato


Italy’s frozen specialty isn’t really “fancy ice cream.” The two treats do share most ingredients. But gelato has less air spun in, which makes it smoother and creamier. It has less butterfat too — 3.5% to 9%, compared to ice cream’s 10-plus. It’s also served a bit warmer, which fans say lets your taste buds enjoy flavor instead of going numb. Gelato has 139 calories and 17.72 grams each of sugar and carbs per half-cup serving.

photo of frozen custard

Frozen Custard

What sets this Midwestern fave apart? Eggs. While ice cream must be less than 1.4% of egg yolk solids, frozen custard should feature at least that. Slower churning makes it dense and creamy and sharply cuts down on air. (Air makes up 30% to 50% of ice cream’s total volume.) The eggs bump the fat to 24.5 grams per serving, though. At 314 calories, 18 grams of sugar, and about 23 grams of carbs, consider frozen custard a “special treat.”

photo of soft serve ice cream

Soft Serve

It comes straight from the freezer, so you won’t find soft serve in the store ice cream case. Lots of air gives the treat its fluff, while it’s served cold enough so those swirls stay stiff long enough — usually — to eat. It’s a bit warmer than ice cream, at 21 F, vs. its colder cousin’s 10.4. One cup of chocolate soft serve has 222 calories, 13 fat grams of fat, and 21 grams of sugar. Its carb count is lower than ice cream: about 22.

photo of frozen yogurt

Frozen Yogurt

It’s made in the same way as ice cream, but yogurt — milk fermented with yogurt cultures — is the star ingredient. While it has less than 3 grams of fat, froyo’s sugar content can top 17 grams. A 6-ounce serving has 162 calories and just over 32 grams of carbs. Also, treats from dispensers don’t come in neat FDA-monitored packages. Researchers have found that some soft-serve “nonfat” frozen yogurt was actually low-fat or even full-fat.

photo of mango sherbert


Marco Polo brought an ancestor of this skim milk-based dessert to Italy from his Far East travels. Usually flavored with citrus juice, such as lime or orange, sherbets are leaner than ice cream, at 1% to 2% butterfat. But the juice can make the sugar content soar to nearly 26 grams for a half-cup serving. This gives you almost 34 carbs and 141 calories.

photo of coconut ice cream

Nondairy Treats

In a recent poll, 45% of frozen treat buyers said they go for vegan “ice cream” versions more than they used to. But alternative “milk” — like coconut, cashew, or soy — still pack a lot of saturated fat. One tofu brand’s chocolate version has nearly 15 grams of fat, 20 grams of sugar, and 25 grams of carbs per 1-cup, 237-calorie serving. But nondairy frozen desserts tend not to have as many additives as light or low-fat ice cream.

photo of italian ice

Sorbet and Italian Ice

Sorbet is a bit like sherbet, minus the dairy. It’s made of fruit juice, water, and sugar. Then it’s churned like ice cream, which nails the scoop factor. The big difference from Italian ice, or granita, is texture. Italian ice is scraped, not stirred, into icy flakes. A half-cup of these frosty treats will set you back only 61 calories with zero fat and only about 11 grams of carbs. As for the 14 grams of sugar — blame it on the juice.

photo of frozen latte

Frozen Coffee Drinks

Iced coffee has long been a thing. So it wasn’t a long stretch before frozen caffeine-fueled super-sellers hit the coffee and doughnut chains. One cup of the frozen drink counts for 166 calories, 2.3 grams of fat — and a whopping 33 grams of sugar (but “only” 13 grams of carbs). Oh, and 82 milligrams of caffeine — just a mite shy of the 95 grams in a cup of brewed coffee.

photo of ice pops

Ice Pops

These fruit-flavored pieces of ice on a stick might be a slightly better bet for your sweet tooth than most frozen desserts, at 79 calories, about 13.5 grams of sugar, and 0.24 grams of fat. (The fruitiness does bump the carb content up to around 19 grams.) Remember the double-stick kind that you can break apart? They were invented during the Great Depression, so two kids could share one for only a nickel.

photo of slushie machines


Take fine ice crystals like melting snow, drizzle with neon colors, and blend to slushy goodness. That’s the slushie, a generic name for the frozen treat you find in convenience stores and county fair midways everywhere. But watch out for the sugar bomb. While an 8-ounce slushie will only cost you 211 calories and 0 fat grams, you’ll get a whopping 40-gram blast of sugar and about 22 grams of carbs from all that high-fructose corn syrup.

photo of milkshakes


A milkshake is a frozen blend of milk, ice cream, and flavoring spun thick enough to just barely sip with a straw. The classic malted version has 127 calories, 12.5 grams of sugar, and 6.3 grams of fat with 14 grams of carbs. But don’t confuse the “real thing” with certain drive-thru versions — one famous burger chain’s small vanilla shake packs 490 calories, 14 grams of total fat, and 59 grams of sugar.

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