The Scoop on Ice Cream: The best and worst options for a cold summer treat

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You scream, I scream… we all scream for ice cream!

Don’t worry, I’m not here to tell you that your kids should never ever ever have ice cream.

It’s summer, and an ice cream cone on a hot day is definitely a classic part of childhood. But if cold treats happen regularly, or you find yourself entranced by the song of the ice cream truck, then you may want to arm yourself with knowledge about what exactly is in these summer treats so that you can make the best decision for you and your kids in the heat of the moment.

We’ll go over some facts and nutritional info about all your favourite cold summer treats to help you make more informed choices about what to choose and how often when it comes to summer cones.

Soft Serve Ice cream

This classic summer treat has been around since the 1930s. But whether you get it from an ice cream truck or a fast-food joint, soft-serve tends to contain a lot of less-than-desirable ingredients.

Soft serve starts as a liquid or powder mix that is put through a soft-serve machine which freezes it and mixes in air. It’s a highly processed food, full of artificial flavours, preservatives and additives.

Ingredients from food trucks, Dairy Queen, McDonald’s and other popular places include some or all of the following:

• whey
• corn syrup
• magnesium hydroxide (also used in antacids, laxatives and deodorant as a whitener; can interfere with absorption of crucial nutrients such as iron and folic acid)
• polysorbate 65 and 80 (some seriously yucky mice studies coming out about effects on reproductive health with these two)
• carrageenan (some studies are now coming out about how this seaweed extraction may cause nasty mitochondrial changes to your child’s gut bacteria, making them not function, die or produce unwanted and dangerous by-products)
• soy mono and diglycerides
• guar gum
• dextrose
• calcium sulfate (industrial-grade desiccant and coagulant, unrefined form is from gympsum and anhydrite, which is also used for plaster casts and drywall…yup)
• artificial flavours galore!
• cellulose gum
• artificial colours (Is there such a thing as “Good Artifical Colours Get Me Some”? Nope.)

Generally speaking, a small plain vanilla soft serve nets you 150 – 250 calories, approx. 5-15g fat and 20-30g sugar! More specifically, a small vanilla soft serve from McDonalds or Dairy Queen: About 230 calories, approx. 7g fat, and 26-28g sugar.

Bottom line: Resist the siren song of the ice cream truck, or keep it to absolutely occasional. This dessert is full of things you probably don’t want your little one eating regularly. Some of these ingredients have been implicated in changes to gut bacteria, and behavioural issues in children sensitive to those ingredients. So try and have it only rarely, or go for another dessert option with less artificial ingredients.

Hard ice cream

In order to be classified as “Ice cream” a dessert must contain at least 10% milk fat. If it has less than 10% milk fat it’s a frozen yogurt. Generally commercially available ice creams contain closer to 20% milk fat.

For one ½ cup scoop, you will net from 130 – 270 cals, with anywhere from 4 – 22g sugar.

Ingredients from very common commercial brands, such as Breyer’s, P.C. Brand, Kawartha Lakes Dairy, food vendor and retailer cases, Chapman’s and other popular brands include some or all of the following:

• Carrageenan
• Artificial flavours (because ice cream is stored at -15 C, the coldest temperature for any frozen dessert, it is often full of artificial flavours because it is hard for our taste buds to pick up more subtle/natural flavours at this temperature)
• Artificial colours (like E129 FD&C Red No. 40, E133 FD&C Blue No. 1.)
• Various types of gums and emulsifiers (guar, locust bean, xanthan, tara)

Bottom line: Keep this choice to a minimum. Of course, it may happen at birthdays, parties, etc., but most commercially available ice creams have ingredients you don’t want your child consuming regularly. You can also try and find a locally-made or “boutique” option – although it may be more expensive, it’s likely to have a much shorter ingredient list.

Black ice cream is an Instagram sensation that has recently taken Toronto by storm. It is glorified soft serve with activated charcoal added…try it if you enjoy food adventure or have a penchant for charcoal.

Just don’t go believing the charcoal is doing anything healthy for you! Or un-doing (“de-toxifying”) anything you have done to yourself. Probably not a great choice for kids, could cause stomach upset and in some very small babies the amount of charcoal could be significant to their body mass, and potentially harmful.

Bottom line: Probably best not to give your kids this one…

Frozen YogurtOh boy… if I had a nickel for every time someone says to me: ‘No, its way better, it’s healthier, because it’s “frozen yogurt.”

While actual yogurt is great for you, frozen yogurt like hard-packed ice cream’s wacky aunt… looks different at first, but in the end still definitely related, and has some bad traits of its own to boot!

Why? The main difference between frozen yogurt and ice cream is fat content.  Frozen yogurt is lower in milk fat compared to ice cream but not necessarily lower in sugar or the other nasties! The problem here is LESS FAT ALWAYS MEANS MORE SUGAR! And MORE sugar..from added sources is definitely not better.

Plus most frozen yogurt places are all about the toppings, and depending what you choose this can push the sugar content into the stratosphere.

Bottom line: Frozen yogurt SEEMS like a healthier choice, but its not. It has all the artificial additives of hard ice cream, plus extra sugar and sugary toppings.  I’d put it in the same or worse category than hard-packed ice cream. Have it once in a while, but choose other options more often. A quick rule is for kids, healthy FAT is always a better choice than SUGARS.


Born in beautiful Italy, gelato is usually denser than ice cream, so comparing scoop to scoop means gelato is higher in fat, sugar and calories, but gram for gram gelato is in fact lower in fat, calories and sugar than the same amount of ice cream.

Gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream (generally between -10 C and -5 C) so it tends to need less artificial flavouring, as our taste buds are better at picking up on flavour at this temperature.

Commercial gelatos found ready-made in stores, often contain undesirables like:

• Carrageenan
• Various types of gums and emulsifiers: guar, locust bean, xanthan, tara

That being said, the BEST part of gelato? It’s very on-trend…and there are many small batch makers around town, such as Ed’s Real Scoop, Dream Gelato, Dolce Vita, and the list goes on.  These craft-gelato makers are making fresh and flash freezing their product, so there are no fillers, colours, preservatives, just the good stuff!  (Yes, of course there is still fat, salt and sugar…but that’s the whole point of dessert isn’t it?).

A scoop of gelato will net you 90 to 100 kcal, 3 to 5 grams of fat and about 10 to 15 grams of sugar…not too shabby compared to some of the other options out there!! Also, for some reason, anecdotally, many kids find a smaller portion much more satisfying and filling…BONUS POINTS!

Bottom Line: This is your winner, especially in the case of locally made, freshly made options at your nearest gelateria. There are so many amazing flavours and niche-angles to choose from! And way less of the bad stuff compared to other dessert options. Skip the toppings, as you will see below, let the beauty and richness of fresh gelato shine through!

popsicleWhile not directly part of the ice cream family, these desserts are often chosen as summer treats.  Popsicles and freezies usually contain no or little fat, but lots and LOTS of sugar. And LOTS of additives and colours!!!

On average popsicles will have between 10-20 grams of sugar, usually from high-fructose corn syrup, and a variety of food dyes.

The problem with this is for those children that are sensitive to these things (you don’t need a special diagnostic test, it often becomes very clear very quickly), these things amp up poor behavioural reactions, irritability, and sometimes even violent and aggressive behaviour.

If you want a healthier option, making your own popsicles is very easy and is cheaper by far then buying them at the store. There are hundreds of popsicle recipes out there to try, and it’s a great cooking activity to involve the kids in! Try freezing pureed fruit so you still get the fibre of whole fruit with natural sugars.

Bottom line: Popsicles contain a lot of sugar, and artificial colours. Consider making your own!

Ice cream syrupDips and toppings are tempting but they are often not even a real food (eg, what food makes up sprinkles???)  and are usually the least healthy part of having an ice cream!

Toppings like chocolate syrup and candy are high-sugar additions that drastically increase the calorie count and sugar content.

They’re also full of ingredients like

  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Corn syrup
  • Sugar
  • E330 citric acid
  • E405 propylene glycol alginate
  • E412 guar gum
  • E413 tragacanth
  • E414 acacia
  • E415 xanthan gum
  • modified corn starch
  • E296 malic acid
  • E211 sodium benzoate & E202 potassium sorbate
  • artificial flavours
  • artificial colours such as E129 FD&C Red No. 40, E133 FD&C Blue No. 1.

The bottom line: Avoid dips, syrups and toppings, they really can ruin the flavour of decent ice cream, are soooo not worth it!!! Opt instead for real food options like fresh fruit, shaved or curled genuine real chocolate, and chopped nuts! MMMM chopped peanuts anyone!??

Ice cream and cold treats are an inevitable part of summer, but next time you indulge your kids try and opt for gelato, or home-made popsicles to avoid the laundry list of additives, dubious ingredients and food colours that get added to most commercially-made cold treats!

– Nish

Nishta Saxena is a Registered Dietitian, Paediatric and Family Nutritionist, founder of Vibrant Nutrition, and proud Mama of two.  In her practice she helps families through all stages of nutrition.  Nishta believes that nutrition can transform lives, and it is her goal to change lives through her work!

Click here to contact Nishta about an appointment.


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