(CNN) -- We may all scream for ice cream, especially on a hot summer day. And even if you avoid dairy, you can find delicious, decadent dairy-free frozen treats in just about any ice cream aisle.
But are "ice creams" made with soy, cashew, almond and coconut milk any healthier than their dairy-containing counterparts? And how do dairy-free brands compare with traditional brands offering dairy-free options? We've got the scoop.
The first thing to note is that the US Food and Drug Administration defines ice cream as containing "dairy ingredients," so the term you will see on dairy-free ice cream labels is "nondairy frozen dessert."
If you are counting calories but crave dairy-free "ice cream," you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that some versions of this indulgent treat are relatively low in fat and calories. For example, So Delicious' Creamy Vanilla soy milk ice cream has only 120 calories and 0 grams of saturated fat per half-cup serving. Similarly, Dream's vanilla-flavored almond milk ice cream has 140 calories and 1 gram of saturated fat per half-cup serving. That's a reasonable amount of discretionary calories and fat, and if you're concerned about your weight or heart health, these vegan options can be enjoyed without making much of a dent in your daily calorie and saturated fat budgets.
But not all dairy-free "ice creams" are created equal, and just because an ice cream is labeled "dairy-free" or "vegan" doesn't mean it's healthier than the regular version. For example, Luna & Larry's Coconut Bliss Vanilla Island ice cream has over 200 calories per half-cup serving -- and 14 grams of saturated fat, which raises LDL, the "bad" cholesterol. That's more saturated fat than what you'll find in a Burger King Whopper. (The brand's dark chocolate flavor is similar, with 200 calories and 12 grams of saturated fat per serving). Tofutti's chocolate and vanilla soy ice creams also top 200 calories per serving. A quick look at the label reveals that for both of Tofutti's flavors, sugar, corn syrup solids and corn and palm oils top the ingredient lists, after water.
At least Luna & Larry lists organic coconut milk first, along with other organic ingredients like organic fair trade cocoa, making it a better choice for those more conscious about the quality and origin of an ice cream's ingredients.
Generally speaking, frozen desserts made with coconut milk will be higher in saturated fat. For example, So Delicious' lower-calorie Vanilla Bean coconut milk ice cream still has 6 grams of saturated fat -- or close to a third of one's daily limit per serving. The amount of sugar in dairy-free "ice cream" ranges too, though it's common to find at least 3 teaspoons per serving for some brands. That's at least half of a woman's daily sugar limit and at least a third of a man's daily limit, according to American Heart Association sugar guidelines. Some brands such as Halo Top may include sugar alcohols, which provide fewer calories than sugar but also might cause GI discomfort, especially when large amounts are consumed.
Nondairy versions of traditional ice cream brands generally have fewer calories and less fat than their related dairy versions. But they are not exactly what you would call a healthy dessert.
For example, Ben & Jerry's nondairy frozen desserts have fewer calories and less saturated fat than their dairy counterparts -- specifically, 240 calories and 8 grams of saturated fat for nondairy versus 260 calories and 9 grams of saturated fat for dairy Cherry Garcia -- but the differences are not significant. Similarly, both dairy and nondairy versions of Haagen-Dazs' coconut caramel flavors have 11 grams of saturated fat per serving and a difference of only 20 calories. That's not a lot of nutritional difference, though the nondairy version comes out on top.
Differences in sugar content vary among dairy and nondairy versions, though sugars and calories for more indulgent brands like Ben & Jerry's and Haagen-Dazs tend to be higher overall compared with dairy-free ice cream brands. For example, both nondairy and dairy Chunky Monkey ice creams have more than 6 teaspoons of sugar. Haagen-Dazs' peanut butter chocolate fudge nondairy ice cream has 22 grams of sugar. The traditional peanut butter salted fudge has 24 grams.
One other point worth mentioning is the calcium content of ice creams. Dairy-free versions have virtually no calcium, whereas you'll get about 100 milligrams (or 10% of your daily recommended intake) from dairy ice creams. Protein tends to be slightly higher in dairy ice creams, too.
So as with many other foods, there are pros and cons to choosing dairy versus nondairy frozen desserts. Yes, go ahead and count dairy ice cream as a calcium contributor -- though don't use it as a sub for yogurt, and be sure to watch calories and sugars. But though there are exceptions, if you opt for dairy-free "ice cream," you are probably better off with a dairy-free brand, as you can generally count on premium ice cream brands to have higher calorie and sugar counts.