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If you want to measure how much the landscape of packaged vegan foods has changed, vegan ice cream makes a good yardstick. There is now enough vegan ice cream on the market that those of us who avoid dairy for whatever reason now have exponentially more choices than we did even five years ago. Big, non-vegan ice cream companies have gotten in on the game, as have grocery store brands and a myriad of start-ups. But quantity, alas, does not necessarily mean quality: It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that an awful lot of vegan ice cream tastes like it was made by people who hate vegans.
As someone who has eaten my fair share of vegan ice cream, I set out to try to distinguish the good from the bad and the very, very strange. While I tried 17 brands in the course of my research, this is not a comprehensive guide to every vegan and nondairy ice cream on the market. It is also not a guide to only certified-vegan ice creams — while everything on here is nondairy, a number of brands use the terms “nondairy” and “vegan” interchangeably, so those who are strict vegans need to do a bit more digging to make sure certain products are certified as such. (Refined white sugar, a major ingredient in many ice creams, is typically processed using animal byproducts.) One other bit of potentially confounding (and telling) terminology is that a lot of brands call their products “frozen desserts” rather than ice cream.
When possible, I tested each brand’s vanilla flavor, since vanilla is arguably the best test of a brand’s basic competence. When I couldn’t find vanilla, I bought whatever flavor I could find. While some may argue this creates an uneven playing field, I believe that important attributes like texture and flavor can be improved upon only so much if you’re not working from a decent base.
This is less a traditional shopping guide than a public service announcement. Again, there is a lot of bad vegan and nondairy ice cream out there. I ate a lot of it so you hopefully won’t have to.
The Big, Non-Vegan Brands
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
Known for its creative flavors, Jeni’s doesn’t offer anything as pedestrian as a dairy-free vanilla; the closest I could find was its banana cream pudding. Jeni’s makes its nondairy base from coconut cream, which here creates a very good, creamy texture with nice melt. The flavor, on the other hand, is a bit artificial; it tastes less like banana than food science’s idea of banana. Also, in my pint, at least, there weren’t enough wafer bits (or “vanilla wafer gravel,” as it’s appealingly called on the ingredients list). That said, it was overall pretty satisfying. 7.5/10
Ben and Jerry’s
Like Jeni’s, Ben and Jerry’s doesn’t do nondairy vanilla. And why would they — going to B&J’s for vanilla is like going to a steakhouse for salad. Like their dairy counterparts, the brand’s certified-vegan nondairy line, which it launched in 2016, plays to B&J’s primary strength, which is making ice cream that is more or less a deconstructed candy bar. I went for Phish Food; like the original, it is chocolate ice cream mixed with marshmallow and caramel swirls and fudge fish. Also like the original, it is very, very difficult to stop eating. The almond milk base is quite creamy and melts nicely — of all of the nondairy ice creams I tried, it came closest to approximating dairy ice cream. In terms of flavor, again, what you have here is more or less a very cold candy bar. Which is not something to complain about, so long as you don’t mind the fact that you’re eating no fewer than six forms of sugar. Truly, this is the apotheosis of food science, for better or worse. 9/10
I have eaten a ton of Van Leeuwen’s vegan ice cream over the last few years, from both its New York scoop shops and grocery store pints. As someone who had never loved the brand’s dairy ice cream, I was at first pleasantly surprised by the variety and relative quality of its vegan flavors. More recently, however, I’ve become disillusioned: VL vegan ice cream often tastes like its cashew milk base, and leaves a weird, somewhat artificial aftertaste. Its vanilla is no exception: In texture and flavor, it’s like eating frozen chalk. To compound matters, the pint I bought had some structural issues: when I dug a spoon into it, the ice cream collapsed on itself, revealing a giant air pocket lurking beneath the surface. As a lesson in the pitfalls of mass production, it was interesting, but as an ice cream, it was somewhat disturbing. 3/10
Until earlier this year, Cosmic Bliss was better known as Coconut Bliss, a “plant-based” ice cream brand that had been around since 2005. But this March, the company began selling a line of dairy ice cream and rebranded itself with a new name that makes it sound like a New Age sex shop. In any case, the brand’s Madagascan Vanilla Bean is fine. It’s got a silky texture and melts well, and its flavor is inoffensive to the point of self-negation. If anything, it tastes more like coconut, probably because the base is made from coconut milk. If you’re the kind of person who just wants something cold and melty and nonconfrontational to eat, look no further. 5/10
Grocery Store Brands
Whole Foods 365
Whole Foods 365’s Vanilla Bean Almondmilk Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert is better than its name implies. It’s creamy, smooth, and melts well, and its flavor is innocuous; it’s kind of the equivalent of a book with blank pages. I appreciate that the ingredient list includes “ground vanilla beans” and that you can see them, tiny little flecks that lend the appearance of character to this otherwise magnificently bland ice cream. This would definitely work best as a delivery vehicle for foods with actual flavor, i.e. chocolate syrup, pomegranate molasses, crushed cookies, literally anything. 5/10
Like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s could use a little help in the nondairy ice cream naming department. That said, its Strawberry Non-Dairy Oat Frozen Dessert with almond brittle and candied strawberries is pretty good! The texture is quite smooth and creamy, interrupted only by little nubs of the aforementioned mix-ins. My only real complaint is that there’s not nearly enough strawberry flavor; it’s there, but it doesn’t immediately declare itself, as strawberry ice cream should. Also it would be nice if the brittle was chunkier. But really, you could do a lot worse. 6.5/10
Bigger Vegan/Nondairy Brands
So Delicious has been around for a long time — since 1987, which makes it one of the earlier dairy-free frozen dessert brands on the market. Clearly, its longevity is not tied to the appeal of its Very Vanilla ice cream, which was among the very worst of the ice creams I tested. The flavor was stridently artificial and left a sour aftertaste, and the texture — well, where to begin? Before tasting it, I left it out for 15 minutes to soften, only to find that it refused to do any such thing. After realizing that the ice cream was more or less inedible, I decided to bin it — while I loathe throwing out food, serving this to another living being was not an option. A few hours later, out of curiosity, I fished it out of the trash to see if it had finally melted. Reader, it had not. This stuff is indestructible, perhaps the first frozen nondairy dessert that could qualify as building material. Proceed with extreme caution. 1/10
As an oat milk company, Planet Oat makes oat milk-based ice cream. While its website trumpets the “classic vanilla flavor” of its vanilla ice cream, I couldn’t detect it. Instead, I got a faint note of cardboard with chemical undertones; if anything, I would describe the flavor as “abandoned library.” The texture was fine, though. 4/10
I’ve had a soft spot for Nada Moo ever since I tried its mint chip, which is truly minty and contains a satisfying number of chips. Its vanilla is good, too: Like the rest of Nada Moo’s certified-vegan flavors, it has a creamy base made from coconut milk, and isn’t sweetened too aggressively. The flavor is mellow, with hints of vanilla; it’s an easy ice cream to eat, and enjoy. 8/10
The oat milk behemoth’s foray into certified-vegan ice cream has been a largely fortuitous one, at least if its vanilla ice cream is anything to go by. It’s incredibly smooth, melts well, and has a lovely flavor — you get the roundness and warmth that real vanilla offers, which makes this one of the rare vanillas that I would eat on its own, without any adornment. 9/10
Smaller, More Niche Brands
My first red flag for MUD’s “dairy free, vegan, paleo” vanilla ice cream was its name, which stands for Mindfulness Using Desserts. That’s an unforgivable thing to slap on a pint of ice cream, or any dessert. The second red flag was the color, which is light brown, probably because the ice cream is sweetened solely with dates. And then there was the flavor, which was vaguely tangy and tasted like the smell of cardboard, and the texture, which was grainy. But by far the most disturbing thing about MUD, which is made with coconut milk, is what happened to it when it fully melted. It effectively turned back into a can of coconut milk, with the liquid sloshing around under a thick brown floe of fat. This specter betrayed MUD’s foundational lie, which is that it is ice cream rather than another effort by the wellness industry to ruin dessert, to say nothing of my appetite. 0/10
Sadly, I couldn’t find Revolution’s Full Throttle Vanilla, so settled for its dark chocolate flavor instead. Fully vegan and made with cashews, it mostly acquits itself well: While its texture is on the icy, crunchy side, the flavor is robust. It reminded me of frozen, high-octane hot chocolate, and despite my slight aversion to the texture I kept eating it anyway. 6.5/10
Like MUD, Wildgood goes hard on the “better ice cream, better you” vibes to sell its “plant-based” vegan ice cream. “Indulge without compromise!” “Treat your best self!” yells the messaging on its pints. Chief on its ingredient list, after water, is extra-virgin olive oil, which is described as “the ultimate replacement for dairy.” Having tried Wildwood’s vanilla bean ice cream, I can say that “ultimate” is a touch generous. The ice cream’s most notable characteristic is that it crunches when eaten; it actually makes a rasping noise when you dig a spoon into it, which I assume is the sound of 10,000 ice crystals dying. The flavor is okay; it’s a little too sweet but does offer a faint vanilla undertone. If you’re the type of person who likes to chew your ice cream, then this bud’s for you. 2/10
Sunscoop is yet another “plant-based” vegan ice cream that sounds less like dessert than a wellness fever dream. “Our flavors are reimagined classics with a superfood twist,” quoth its website, which also touts its “clean ingredients.” My boyfriend preferred to describe its vanilla ice cream as a “waste of calories,” due largely to its very icy texture. The main ingredient here is coconut cream, followed by water, two kinds of brown rice syrup, and coconut water, which may explain why the ice cream becomes watery as it melts — the pint I tried formed an actual liquid bubble on its surface and puddles in its nooks and crannies. It’s less like ice cream than a depressed slushie. Flavor-wise, it’s vaguely vanilla-like, though the visible flecks of vanilla bean seem to function more as a distraction from the fact that this is a product that has no real relation to actual ice cream. 2/10
Forager Project makes very decent vegan ice cream, and its vanilla flavor actually tastes like vanilla. Its base is made from cashew milk and is freckled with lots of ground-up vanilla bean. The texture is slightly on the icy side, something I can forgive because the flavor is so good. Like Oatly, this is one of the rare vanilla ice creams, vegan or otherwise, that I could happily eat all on its own. 8.5/10
Blue Marble is a New York-based company known and loved for its regular dairy ice cream (seriously, it’s so beloved that Paul Giamatti even agreed to put his mug on the Blue Marble website). In recent years it has added a small handful of vegan options to its menu. Plain vanilla is not among them, so I tried the Brooklyn Black & White Cookie, which uses a vanilla ice cream base. Given that this is Blue Marble, I had hope for this ice cream. Alas, that hope proved false. Made with coconut cream, it has a very, very icy texture; while it’s not as crunchy as Wildgood, it’s still not particularly appealing. The flavor is very faint; even the cookies don’t taste like much. 3/10
Dear Bella Creamery
Last, but very definitely not least, is Dear Bella, a Los Angeles nondairy ice cream shop that began shipping nationwide at the beginning of May. This was the most expensive ice cream I tried: You have to order a minimum of five pints for $65, and then pay for overnight shipping, which for me cost about $80. That said, it was 100 percent worth it. First of all, the flavors are fantastic. There was no plain vanilla, so I chose mango sticky rice, sweet red bean, strawberry, Cookie Monsta (cookie chunks in cookie butter ice cream dyed blue with spirulina), and Kinda Baked (vanilla-chocolate ice cream with brownie chunks and chocolate chip cookie dough). All of the flavors taste as advertised, and then some — the strawberry, shot through with a ribbon of strawberry jam, is especially robust. The cookie chunks are plentiful and taste like cookies instead of some weird corn syrup-wheat flour hybrid. And the texture is spot on: It’s creamy, smooth, and melts well. For me, this was, without question, the light at the end of a very long, often dark vegan ice cream tunnel. 10/10
Michelle Min is a food and travel photographer based in San Francisco.Set designer: Lizzie OhProject coordinator: Yumee Ahn