The ice cream revolution is on. There are now vegan options available from soft-scoop vendors and the freezer in the newsagent. Alternatives may be made with soya, cashews, coconuts, almonds, oats or hemp. Avoiding the products of the dairy industry has become mainstream, a mass movement which is great for the environment as well as for animal rights. However, not all vegan ice creams are created equal. There are choices to be made, beyond strawberry or vanilla, if you really care about your impact. We take a look at a few of the issues, then suggest a couple of the better options.
Hidden animal exploitation
Almost half the ice-cream sold in the UK, including Walls, Ben & Jerry’s and soya-ice pioneer Swedish Glace, is produced by Unilever, notorious for its continued vagueness around animal testing. While ice-cream is unlikely to be tested on animals, buying ‘vegan’ from Unilever means not only supporting a non-vegan, non-organic food producer, but also indirectly supporting other businesses which almost certainly do test their products on animals. The best way to avoid this sort of traceability issue is to carefully choose a fully independent, ethically motivated company with a short supply chain.
Once the vegan’s stalwart friend, soya has developed a serious sustainability issue in GMO. Too much soya can also have negative health effects, generating allergies and digestive issues. While it does have health benefits in moderation, it’s so ubiquitous now in mass produced foods that you’re unlikely to want to seek it out unless you’re allergic to all the other options. Avoid it unless it’s certified organic or GMO-free.
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, but so do some vegan brands. The law only requires it to be listed as ‘vegetable oil’. Many companies are now using coconut oil instead. Stick to explicitly palm oil-free brands, or look for evidence any palm or 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. Unrefined sugar is at least less toxic, and responsibly-sourced sugar is likely to be certified organic or Fairtrade. Some of the more forward-thinking companies use alternative sweeteners like agave, coconut or fruit.
Vanilla production in Madagascar has been linked to forced child labour. It’s hard to imagine ice cream without vanilla, but look for Soil Association organic certification or Fairtrade accreditation, both of which indicate better workers’ rights and no child labour.
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. Chocolate sustainability champion Booja Booja has built its entire business around close direct co-operation with growers.
What to choose
Not only are Booja Booja’s ice cream options almost unbearably appealing, they’re also the most reliably ethical. The gorgeous, truffly base is a raw confection made only from organic cashews and water. Flavours in the reassuringly chocolate-heavy range are sweetened with agave or coconut and use the absolute minimum of further ingredients. Today, Chocolate Salted Caramel is our favourite, but they do sugar-free chocolate ice cream like no one else. Tempting alternatives include Raspberry Ripple, Caramel Pecan and their multi-award-winning take on the classic vanilla. The entire range is free of dairy, gluten, palm oil or soya. Grab a pot next time you’re in Waitrose. You’ll never look back.
Another interesting contender is Beau’s. In its big, new, all vegan factory in the North East, the quality- and sustainability-motivated company focuses only on gelato, again based around cashew nuts. Most of the flavours are simple, natural versions of classics like Mint Choc Chip, Strawberry or Vanilla, sweetened with responsibly sourced, unrefined, organic-certified cane sugar and sometimes lifted with a little salt and lemon juice. The award-winning Pistachio is distinguished by the presence of actual pistachios (rather than food colouring and almond paste!), giving it a light, delicate, sophisticated, slightly salty flavour. Available at Selfridge’s and health food shops including Planet Organic, in case you need to try one before you sign up for their online Pint Club subscription service.