Vegan ice cream in your supermarket is not a new thing. Who could forget Tofutti, which lit up the summer of '84? And then 2001, when Soy Delicious, the first "premium" nondairy ice cream, arrived, followed a decade later by a surge in coconut milk ice cream. Good times.
Jump to February 2020 and vegan ice cream has gone nuts, with numerous brands and alternative milks — from cashew milk ice cream to almond milk ice cream to the hot new milk on the block, oat milk.
Whole Foods and Natural Grocers sell some of these items. Both SuperTarget and Kroger have been diligent about stocking vegan items of all kinds.
But bow down to the new Vegan Ice Cream king: Sprouts. A company spokesperson says that, as of 2020, the grocery chain has stepped up its commitment to vegan items, saying, "Plant-based and vegan has been a growing attribute with all of our guests across all stores."
So that explains their freezer aisles, suddenly jammed with vegan ice creams, many brand new on the market, including the Cadillac of vegan ice cream, Brooklyn-based Van Leeuwen.
Here are notes on what's new at Sprouts, plus some other noteworthy vegan ice creams, in order of greatness:
Van Leeuwen's Artisan Ice Cream Oat Milk Brown Sugar Chunk
Rating: 5 scoops
Cult favorite from Brooklyn has a rabid following, and rightfully so. They make ice cream using serious gourmet ingredients like the best hazelnuts from Piedmont, Italy and chocolate from artisan Michel Cluizel. The company began in the owners' kitchen in 2007 and now has shops and trucks in NY and LA, plus pints in grocery stores. Sprouts began selling this new line of oat milk vegan ice cream on February 7. (Van Leeuwen has another vegan line made with cashew milk, not yet at Sprouts, operative word yet, feel free to beg them to stock it.)
Oat milk is naturally creamy, making it the hottest new option for frozen dessert. Van Leeuwen's formula contains oat milk, sugar, coconut cream, cocoa butter, and coconut oil. Their ice cream is next-level, with potent flavors and a creamy, melty texture that's almost a little stretchy-gooey.
There are seven flavors: chocolate cookie dough, dark chocolate-peanut butter swirl, mocha latte with fudge, brownie sundae raspberry swirl, strawberry, caramel cookie, and the very unique brown sugar chunk.
Brown sugar chunk had toasted brown sugar ice cream, with brownie pieces, cookie dough, and candied oat clusters. Unlike Ben & Jerry's — which criminally overdoes its mix-ins — Van Leeuwen adds a judicious amount so that you still get an ice cream experience. And these mix-ins were in good shape, IE brownie bits that weren't frozen-hard chunks.
The mocha latte with fudge was an intensely flavored coffee ice cream, a not common vegan option, with swirls of chocolate syrup that were dark and serious. Great stuff.
Trader Joe's soy ice creams
Rating: 4.5 scoops
When Trader Joe's introduced its soy ice cream back in 2004, it was a godsend when there were few vegan ice creams. Years later, it remains a contender for best. They have two flavors, vanilla and cherry chocolate chip, which they sell in quarts for a wallet-friendly price of $4. (Most of these other items run $5 to $7 per pint.)
The base is organic soy milk, sweetened with cane sugar. Both ice creams have an excellent creamy meltiness, and the flavors are rock-solid. The vanilla could be compared to Blue Bell's French vanilla, while the cherry chip, which has a slightly creamier consistency than the vanilla, is a ringer for Ben & Jerry's cherry garcia, with big chunks of dark sweet cherries and non-dairy chocolate chips.
Sales of the cherry chip declined in 2018, spurring Trader Joe's to discontinue it. Customers threw a fit and they brought it back in 2019. Show it you care.
Archer Farms NonDairy Ice Creams
Rating: 4.5 scoops
This line by the private label of SuperTarget came out not long after Ben & Jerry's. Like Ben & Jerry's, it's made from almond milk. It has similar flavors as B&J's. Sure seems like they're competing with Ben & Jerry's.
But it's possibly better. For one thing, the formulation is more centered on the ice cream and not so much about the mix-ins. The ice cream is not quite to the richness level of superpremium, but this is a plus. It has a lightly creamy consistency. It's creamy without being overbearing.
Flavors are good and unique: cashew caramel, vanilla bean, peanut butter & chocolate, strawberry & fudge, caramel brownie, mocha almond fudge, and vanilla cake & cookie dough, which is an online favorite. Cashew caramel had tasty, slightly brown-sugar-y cashew ice cream with generous swirls of caramel and cashew pieces. Cashews are a good nut for ice cream because they don't freeze too hard.
Ben & Jerry's Non-Dairy
Rating: 4 scoops
Ben & Jerry's released its first non-dairy ice cream made with almond milk in 2016. They're now up to 12 flavors, and just introduced a new separate line made with sunflower butter. They are on it.
They were the first to nail making an almond milk ice cream feel creamy and rich. They also have interesting flavors like cinnamon buns and coconut seven layer bar. All good things.
If only they didn't cram in so much crap. With all the cookies and chunks of this and that, it's like a dessert salad, and you don't get the opportunity to enjoy the ice cream part. Set the ice cream free! Plus, some of the crap they cram in, like their way-too-big cookie dough chunks, are gummy and inedible.
It's still good ice cream. And B&J's has had a huge impact on the insanely competitive frozen dessert world. They all copy each other obsessively, and B&J's entry forced everyone else to confront the vegan market and get a nondairy product rolling. They're the reason you now see vegan ice cream from companies like Breyer's and Haagen Dazs.
So Delicious Oatmilk Ice Cream
Rating: 4 scoops
This longtime vegan ice cream trailblazer already had ice creams made with soy, almond, coconut, and cashew milk when they recognized that oat milk's creamy, slightly thick texture was the perfect medium for ice cream, and debuted this Oatmilk line in January 2019.
The ice cream is rich and finely-textured, with a slightly frothy quality. They veer in the Ben & Jerry's direction of adding too much stuff, but their lineup of seven options is appealing: from their initial oaty-themed flavors such as oatmeal cookie and caramel apple crumble to new flavors like chocolate salted caramel and chocolate hazelnut brownie.
Ripple Plant-Based Frozen Dessert: Cinnamon Churro
Rating: 3.5 scoops
Another worthy newbie at Sprouts. Ripple is the company created by two scientists, Neil Renninger and Adam Lowry, who both had major inventions under their belts before partnering up to launch Ripple. Their products — including Ripple milk, which has become one of the most popular nondairy milks — are made with yellow peas, which are high in protein. They also do yogurt and sour cream.
They debuted this line of nondairy ice creams in February 2020. The ingredients are a relatively simple formula starring their trademarked pea protein, plus sugar, and coconut oil. There are five flavors including your basic vanilla, chocolate, and cookies & creme, plus mint chip and cinnamon churro, which was cinnamon ice cream with churro pieces.
The churro pieces were more nubby-crunchy than cakey, but the ice cream had a pleasant cinnamon flavor. You can tell it has coconut oil, which is a popular ingredient in nondairy ice cream because it creates a rich, creamy texture. But on the downside, it makes ice cream feel a little "stiff" and unmelty.
Alden's Organic Nondairy
Rating: 2.5 scoops
Oregon-based ice cream maker was founded in 2004 as an organic brand, and just launched a vegan line in January 2020, with ice cream sandwiches and pints in seven flavors: Caramel Almond Crunch, Muddy Brownie, Vanilla Bean, Double Strawberry, Freckled Mint Chip, Peanut Butter Chip, and Cookie Crumble.
Their formulation mimics the one used by Haagen Dazs (see below), which is basically "sugar + coconut oil," and Alden's gets points for doing a slightly better version than H-D does.
The Caramel Almond Crunch had caramel-flavored ice cream with caramel swirl, chocolate flakes, and crunchy almonds, which was a lot but in a small enough proportion that you could get a handle on the ice cream part. The minute the top of the carton was removed, an overwhelming aroma of sickly-sweet butterscotch candy surfaced. Thick ribbons of "caramel" made the whole thing very sweet, and the texture had a blockiness similar to old-school Breyer's ice cream. It kind of broke up in chunks, then melted in a creamy-foamy way.
This is probably making it sound way worse than it was. But the carton was lightweight, never a good sign.
Haagen Dazs Non-Dairy Ice Cream
Rating: 1 scoop
Including Haagen Dazs here is kind of mean, because it's not in the same field as the rest of these offerings. But this list needs at least one low ranking, and H-D is more than up to that task.
To their credit, they have a wide variety of flavors, and some sound great, like Amaretto black cherry almond. They've been innovative, introducing a variety of items like ice cream bars. They're also doing an interesting layered approach to mix-ins.
The problem is trying to figure out exactly what the ice cream is made of. To wit: For their mocha chocolate cookie ice cream, the ingredients in the ice cream part are "water, sugar, corn syrup, Belgian chocolate, cocoa, soy lecithin, pectin, coffee, vanilla extract." Where is the there there?
The "base" of the ice cream seems to be corn syrup thickened by pectin, the ingredient used to thicken jams and jellies, which is kind of an interesting approach. But the result is a texture that's somehow rich yet not creamy. And like B&J's, they way overdo the add-ins. It's so unlike ice cream, you can't even form a rounded scoop.