Ice-cream. We all know it’s not that good for us. But how good is it for the rest of the world?
As with most foodstuffs, there’s a whole complex of issues surrounding the production of this tempting summer treat. We take a quick look at a few of them.
Almost half the ice-cream sold in the UK is produced by Unilever, including, Walls and Ben & Jerry’s. Like most of the others, it recently receive the Ethical Consumer ‘s worst possible score for supply chain management. The exceptions were all smaller independent companies like Roskilly’s, Booja Booja, Jollyum and Real Nice.
Although not all milk without organic certification is from factory farms, it’s likely that some will be. If you’re not vegan and want to support better animal husbandry, the safest option is to go organic, since farmers can’t achieve certification without proving they meet specific animal welfare standards.
The available alternatives go beyond soya ‘iced desserts’ – there are now options made with cashews, coconuts, almonds, oats and hemp. You may also be concerned about what you’re indirectly funding when you buy dairy-free. Vegans have been avoiding old standby Swedish Glace since 2011, when it was bought by Unilever, which not only sells uncertified dairy, but is also known to use animal testing.
The US Food Standards Agency suggests ‘almost all’ soya and ‘much of’ the maize produced in the Americas (the biggest suppliers) is now genetically modified. The EU animal feed industry currently imports around 70% of its soya, maize and rapeseed so there’s a growing chance of GMOs finding their way into uncertified dairy food chains as well as some soya desserts. Again, the trick is to choose organic.
Unsustainable palm oil and its impact on people and the planet is a major concern. It may turn up in ice-cream coating toffee or butterscotch pieces, or as a cheap fat and emulsifier in budget ranges. Cheaper ice creams with long ingredients lists almost always contain some. Many companies are now using coconut oil instead. Stick to explicitly palm oil-free brands, and look for evidence any coconut oil has been sustainably sourced.
Most of us know too much sugar can damage our own health, but sugar production is also associated with environmental damage, poor workers’ rights and land grabs. Some of the more forward-thinking companies are experimenting with alternative sweeteners like agave syrup or fruit.
Vanilla production in Madagascar has been linked to forced child labour. Soil Association organic certification includes a clause on workers’ rights and child labour, or at least look for Fairtrade accreditation.
Cocoa production has similar issues, although many manufacturers now have explicit policies regarding sourcing. Not all ice-cream contains chocolate, of course, but many varieties do. Unilever buys approximately 1% of the world’s cocoa, almost all for ice-cream. As part of its 2010 Sustainable Living Plan, it committed to sustainably sourcing all the cocoa for its Magnum brand by the end of 2015, and all its cocoa by 2020. It’s 2014 annual report cites 70% success with Magnum. If you prefer to support the pioneers, Booja Booja has built its entire business around close direct co-operation with growers.
There are lots of small independent dairy herds producing and selling ice-cream locally. Look out for farm shops at organic farms and ask about how other ingredients are sourced. If you can find a local option it’s great for your carbon footprint and your community’s economy.
What to choose
As an ethical vegan I’m going to advise you to avoid dairy with its associated animal welfare issues, and choose from one of the vegan iced desserts available, of which Booja Booja is undoubtedly the most appealing. Apart from water, its Hunky Punky Chocolate is a gorgeous, truffly confection containing nothing but thoughtfully sourced organic cashews, agave syrup and cocoa. Other gloriously simple flavours also free of dairy, gluten, sugar, palm oil or soya, include vanilla and ginger.
If you’re unconvinced by the new-fangled vegan options, Jollyum’s Non Dairy Indulgence is made with organic, non-GMO soya. Its Summer Strawberry flavour is a refreshing taste explosion created only using organic strawberries (puree and pieces), unrefined organic sugar and a dash of lemon juice. Its simple recipe contains no palm or coconut oil.
Or skip the whole dairy-substitute experience altogether. Real Nice ice-lollies are made from literally nothing but organic fruit puree – they don’t even add water. The Mango one, blended with apple and lime juice, is simply sublime.
You can buy all the above at your local health-food store, or online from Suma. Booja Booja and Real Nice are also stocked by Waitrose.
If you absolutely must go old-school, Roskilly’s is by far the best dairy ice-cream you’ll find in ethical terms. It’s all certified organic, preservative and palm oil-free and made from simple recipes at a well run Cornish diary farm from milk or cream produced on-site, for the most minimal of supply chains. If you’re sceptical, they welcome visitors.
If you’re into sugar and dairy, it’s also delicious – try the Clotted Cream Vanilla flavour for the traditional experience, or they also do a nice line in wacky flavours. If you have a habit, switching to this will at least minimise its negative impact.
You can find it in the UK everywhere from Harrods to Planet Organic, or online.
Try not to eat too much!