As the temperature rises, it’s tempting to cool off with an ice cream cone, fro-yo or a nostalgic frozen novelty. Beating the heat with frosty treats is about as American as baseball and BBQs. According to the USDA, in 2012, Americans ate nearly 1.6 billion gallons of ice cream and other frozen desserts—that’s equal to more than 20 quarts per person!
Below are nutritionists’ picks for the healthiest summer licks. They’re perfect for when you’re craving a refreshing but sweet treat—but can’t afford the calories of a more decadent dessert. Many are less than 100 calories and sugar counts, saturated fat are low so they won’t send your blood sugar, cholesterol or triglycerides through the stratosphere.
Light Ice Cream
Since premium ice cream can pack in more than 250 calories per ½ cup and 11 tsp of sugar, look for lighter options. By law, “light” versions will have at least 50% less fat or 33% fewer calories compared to regular ice cream. Brands don’t always use the term “light” on their labels so you’ll need to look at the Nutrition Facts panel. Look for options with up to 120 calories per serving, no more than 2 grams of saturated fat and up to 16 grams of sugars (4 tsp).
Edy’s/Dreyer’s Slow Churned Classic Vanilla has 100 calories, 3.5 grams fat 2 saturated) and 12 grams (3 tsp) sugar per ½-cup serving. Breyer’s Creamy Vanilla weighs in at 100 calories, 3 grams fat (2 saturated) and 14 grams (3 ½ tsp) sugar.
Soft-serve “fro-yo” shops are popular among the most health- and body-conscious sweet seekers. Fro-yo is more diet friendly than full-fat ice cream because it’s made with nonfat or lowfat yogurt and skim milk, so it has more protein and calcium than ice cream. They also have beneficial gut-friendly probiotics. However, fro-yo still can have high sugar counts and popular toppings can pile on more calories and sugar than the yogurt. The lowest calorie fro-yos have about 20-30 calories per ounce, but if you help yourself to 8 ounces, that’s160-240 calories–no longer a swimsuit-friendly choice. Keep portion sizes small, skip the toppings and save it for special occasions rather than your everyday obsession.
Red Mango’s Madagascar Vanilla (1/2 cup) has just 80 calories, 18 grams sugar (4 ½ tsp) and 2 grams protein and PinkBerry Original (1/2 cup) has 100 calories, 20 grams sugar (5 tsp) 3 grams protein and is a good source of calcium. For a DIY option: “Just buy fruit flavored Greek yogurt and put it in the freezer. It’s high in protein and calcium and lower in added sugars than soft-serve,” says Wesley Delbridge, RD, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Many adults (like me!) love ice cream sandwiches. If you need proof, just look at all the gourmet and artisan options on dessert menus and gourmet ice cream shops and trucks. If you’re calorie-conscious, portion-controlled minis from the supermarket are your best option.
Non-dairy versions of this quintessential treat are going to be the lowest in calories and saturated fat. So Delicious Almond Milk Non-Dairy Sandwiches have 90 calories, 2.5 grams of fat and just 6 grams (1 ½ tsp) sugar. And Soy Dream Vanilla Lil’ Dreamers have 100 calories, 7 grams (1 ¾ tsp) sugars. For a dairy-based choice, try Skinny Cow Vanilla sandwich, which has 150 calories, 2 grams of fat, 3 grams fiber, 4 grams protein and 14 grams sugar (3 1/2 tsp).
If you want a chilly treat but are on a tight calorie budget, go with popsicles as they usually have less than 100 calories per serving. The best options are made with water, fruit juice and fruit purees and don’t have any added sugars.
“For a refreshing sweet treat, try Outshine Fruit Bars because they’re just 70-80 calories, and contain real fruit ingredients with no artificial sweeteners or colorings,” says Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, LDN.
And, Outshine Fruit and Veggie Bars have at least 25% vegetables and have just 35-60 calories, no added sugars and are an excellent source of vitamin C. Try Blueberry Medley with puree or juice from blueberries, beets, pears, apples and sweet potatoes!
Sorbet is a simple dessert made from water, sugar and usually fruit juice or whole fruit. It’s often rich in added sugars, which means it’s not always a calorie bargain compared to ice cream. In fact, many sorbets have 150 calories per ½-cup serving, so it’s important to look at the calorie counts when choosing a sorbet. You can also make your own sorbets using summer’s sweet fruits, like mangos and peaches.
“As a sorbet aficionado, some of my store-bought favorites include Whole Fruit Raspberry Sorbet because it’s made with whole fruit and has 120 calories,” says Katherine Brooking, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Appetite for Health. You can also easily make your own Tropical Mango Sorbet with this recipe in just 15 minutes (minus time to freeze)! The mangos are naturally sweet so only 2 Tbs of sugar is used in the whole recipe. Mangoes are also rich in vitamins A and C.
DIY Frozen Desserts
Many dietitians simply forgo the freezer case altogether and make their own incredibly refreshing frozen treats. It’s not complicated at all. With a blender or food processor and a few wholesome ingredients, you can make your own too.
Make a Power Pop by layering your popsicle molds with a variety of healthy fruit and veggie juices or purees, watered-down Greek yogurt and chia seeds (optional). To make, Layer ingredients in the pop makers and sprinkle chia seeds into the fruit purees for added texture and fiber. This Watermelon-Mint Slushie (there’s an adult version too!) from registered dietitian and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN., is a great way to use any leftover watermelon that’s in your refrigerator.