Summer 2023

Front List

Illustration of various nuts on top of an ice cream cone, taking the place of ice cream.
Illustration by Jordyn Vowels


Ice cream has long been a popular, almost sacred, part of global diets. Influenced by consumer appetites, ice cream comes in a host of flavors, colors, and even compositions, from low-fat versions to options with fortified protein. One of the more controversial variations involves replacing traditional dairy ingredients with nondairy or plant-based alternatives.

Nondairy frozen desserts are becoming more popular in the U.S., now occupying around 10% of the broader frozen dessert market. As demand grows, many traditional dairy companies are offering nondairy or plant-based alternatives. Here are some important things to know about these products.

  1. Nondairy frozen desserts are ancient.
    They have been with us for probably as long as people have been making frozen desserts — at least several thousand years. Common plant-based products have been commercially available for many decades, including those made with soy, rice, or other nondairy plant derivatives.
  2. People choose nondairy versions of ice cream for many reasons.
    Some do so because of dairy allergies, lactose intolerance, caloric density, or religious observances. Others have concerns about sustainability, environmental impacts, or animal welfare. Whatever the rationale, these choices all contribute to a growing pool of product options in the plant-based frozen dessert market.
  3. Plant-based and nondairy frozen desserts are extensions of a tried-and-true formula.
    Although the structure and function are quite complex, a reasonably acceptable frozen dessert, in its simplest form, comprises three ingredients: water, sucrose, and a moisture-retaining stabilizer, such as guar gum. From these ingredients, a manufacturer can build additional layers of complexity and function to enhance flavor, increase shelf life, or incorporate nutrient-rich ingredients, including plant-based options.
  4. Although nondairy frozen desserts can be made in ways that many consumers find favorable, they are generally less well-liked than traditional, dairy-based ice cream.
    Typical criticisms of plant-based frozen desserts include off flavors, atypical colors, or textural shortcomings. At UW’s Frozen Dessert Center, a group of CALS food science experts helps innovative companies address these and other issues as they develop both traditional and novel products.
  5. For now, nondairy frozen desserts cannot legally be called “ice cream” — but that could change.
    To be made and sold in the U.S., ice cream must conform to standards of identity set within the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations. The standards help assure that products are manufactured safely and contain minimum levels of key dairy ingredients. However, parts of these standards are becoming less enforced or rigidly applied. For example, the Food and Drug Administration recently declared that plant-based beverages may legally utilize the term “milk.” It’s probable that other plant-based or nondairy products will soon start to use traditional dairy names, including yogurt, butter, and maybe even ice cream.
  6. Both dairy and nondairy frozen desserts are here to stay.
    No matter the product — music, fashion, cars — consumers tend to prefer a wide variety of options to suit their needs and interests. Food is no exception. The frozen dessert sector will continue to display this same diversity of choices, including offerings of both traditional and nondairy ice cream.

Scott Rankin is an extension specialist in dairy food manufacturing and professor and chair in the Department of Food Science, which houses the Frozen Dessert Center.

This article was posted in Food Systems, Front List, Health and Wellness, Summer 2023 and tagged , , , .