Delicious as it is, ice cream can be difficult to fit into a low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet. Many varieties are loaded with sugar, starchy fillers and high-calorie mix-ins like cookies or caramel. Luckily, some ice cream brands have targeted the low-carb market and now offer flavors that can fit into these meal plans.
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Milk contains natural sugars, so there's really no such thing as a zero-carb or sugar-free ice cream. Plant-based ingredients used in dairy-free ice creams, like coconut or almond milk, contain natural carbohydrates as well.
With that in mind, however, choosing an ice cream advertised as "no sugar added" will still cut back significantly on the number of carbohydrates per serving — often without altering flavor or texture. Here's how companies are able to make low-carb desserts that still taste delicious, and a few to look for on store shelves.
Net Carbs and Sugar Alcohols
On packaged food products branded as low-carb, you'll often see a number of "net carbs" advertised on the label. Net carbs are the total grams of carbohydrates in a product minus the grams of fiber and sugar alcohol — two types of carbohydrates that aren't fully absorbed by the body and therefore don't significantly affect blood sugar levels.
Sugar alcohols, such as mannitol and sorbitol, are commonly used in low-carb products. While sugar alcohols do lower the grams of carbs and sugar a food contains, they can also have a laxative effect or cause other gastrointestinal discomfort for some people, according to an October 2016 report published in the International Journal of Dentistry.
On many low-carb diets, you'll be advised to stick to a certain number of net carbs per day, rather than total carbs. Depending on the diet, that could be anywhere from 20 to 130 or more grams of net carbs per day. (That's opposed to a more traditional balanced diet which, according to the Mayo Clinic, should include between 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates a day.)
4 Low-Carb Ice Creams to Try
Halo Top ice cream offers a portfolio of more than 25 flavors, from key lime pie to birthday cake, and each pint contains between 280 and 360 calories. A half-cup serving has just 70 to 90 calories, 6 to 8 grams of net carbs and 6 to 7 grams of sugar. The ice cream is sweetened with the sugar alcohol erythritol and with stevia extract. It's also higher in protein than regular ice cream, thanks to the addition of milk protein concentrate.
Halo Top also makes 14 flavors of dairy-free ice cream and four flavors of ice cream pops. The dairy-free flavors are made with coconut milk and have calorie and carb levels similar to the regular pints, while the pops contain 50 to 60 calories and about 4 grams of net carbs each.
Buy it: HaloTop.com; Price: $46 for 4 pints
This line of ice cream and frozen desserts is designed specifically for those watching their carbohydrate intake, and its products are made with sorbitol (a sugar alcohol) and polydextrose (a manufactured ingredient used to replace sugar and increase fiber content). Breyers offers vanilla, chocolate and peanut butter ice cream all with 90 to 150 calories, 3 to 5 grams of sugar and 10 to 13 grams net carbs per half-cup to two-thirds-cup serving.
The CarbSmart line also includes four ice cream bars: vanilla, fudge, vanilla and almond and mint. Each ice cream bar contains 70 and 160 calories, 4 to 6 grams of sugar, and 5 to 10 grams of net carbs.
Store locator: Breyers.com; Price: About $3 for 48 ounces; varies by store
Blue Bunny Sweet Freedom
Blue Bunny makes a no-sugar-added Sweet Freedom ice cream line in eight flavors, along with fudge bars, ice cream sandwiches, ice cream bars and pre-packaged mini cones.
Products in this line are sweetened with maltitol, a sugar alcohol. Each half-cup of ice cream provides between 90 and 150 calories, 10 to 13 grams of net carbs and 4 to 6 grams of sugar.
Store locator: BlueBunny.com; Price: About $4 for 46 ounces; varies by store.
Edy's No Sugar Added
The Edy's brand offers five flavors of no-sugar-added ice creams in their slow-churned line. Each half-cup contains between 90 and 120 calories, 8 to 11 grams of net carbs and 3 grams of sugar.
Read more: 6 Keto Diet Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs
In comparison, one half-cup of Edy's Classic Vanilla slow-churned ice cream contains 100 calories, 15 grams of net carbohydrates and 12 grams of sugar. The no-sugar-added flavors are sweetened with Splenda, and also contain maltitol syrup, a sugar alcohol.
Store locator: Edys.com; Price: About $4 for 56 ounces; varies by store
Fitting Ice Cream Into a Low-Carb Diet
For people on very low-carb diets, like the keto diet or Phase 1 of the Atkins 20 diet, even just one serving of ice cream — even those listed here — may have too many carbs to be a regular treat. But if you're past the initial, very strict stage of your diet, or you're following a more moderate low-carb meal plan, you can certainly enjoy small portions of ice cream for dessert.
The emphasis on "small" in portion size is key, says Amy Goss, PhD, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Even if there are only 300 calories in an entire pint, that's still too many carbs and calories to be eating in one sitting," says Goss. "You still need to pay attention to serving sizes, and remember that most of your carbs should still be coming from whole foods like vegetables, not from sweets."
Finally, skip the cone and enjoy that scoop of ice cream in a bowl. One sugar cone contains more than 8 grams of net carbs, according to the USDA — more than some of these ice creams themselves.
- Mayo Clinic: "Carbohydrates: How Carbs Fit Into a Healthy Diet"
- HaloTop.com: "Halo Top Ice Cream"
- Calorie Control Council: "Polydextrose"
- Breyers.com: "Carb-Smart"
- BlueBunny.com: "Sweet Freedom"
- Edys.com: "Slow-Churned"
- Atkins 20, "Phase 1: Induction"
- The University of Alabama at Birmingham Nutrition & Obesity Research Center: "Amy Miskimon Goss, Ph.D."
- International Journal of Dentistry: "Gastrointestinal Disturbances Associated with the Consumption of Sugar Alcohols with Special Consideration of Xylitol: Scientific Review and Instructions for Dentists and Other Health-Care Professionals"
- USDA: "Nutrition Facts for Ice Cream Cones Sugar Rolled-type"