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Actually, Vegan Ice Cream Is Just as Good as the Dairy Kind

Why does approval of this seemingly benign genre of dessert evoke such a passionately negative response?

by Ashwin Rodrigues
May 13 2019, 10:00am

Photo: Getty Images

Welcome to Actually, a safe space for us to share our deeply held but unpopular opinions about food and drinks.

If you want someone to stare and curse at you like you just kicked a dog, but you (hopefully) don’t want to kick a dog, there’s an easier way to become a recipient of that level of vitriol: Tell them you think non-dairy ice cream is good. My own sister recently called me a “little b***h” when I excitedly told her about a particularly good vegan ice cream. My girlfriend uttered similar words when I mentioned getting a scoop of the stuff from another place. Why does approval of this seemingly benign genre of dessert evoke such a passionate response?

According to a report from the New York Times last August, consumption of “alternative milks” is rising, to the chagrin of dairy farmers and to the pleasure of people who like to say “nut milk.” Yet despite the growth of this trend, I continue to experience a palpable aversion to my (nut)milquetoast opinion that non-dairy ice cream is fine. There are so many different types; you can find ones that suck, and ones that exceed expectations, just like regular ice cream. Still, many people say, “vegan ice cream wtf.”

To be clear: I’m not vegan. I’m not approaching this from an ethical perspective, though the consideration of where and how our food is made is increasingly unavoidable. I’m not coming from a professional perspective, either; shockingly, I’m not a doctor.

We all have different standards for what’s normal to go on inside our bodies. We accept that haunted rumblings and standing by a bathroom is sometimes a necessary accompaniment to a tasty dessert.

My zest for non-dairy ice cream comes from one place: my GI tract. Whenever I eat ice cream, or any large amount of dairy product, I feel like garbage. It’s a sledgehammer to the rest of my day’s bodily activities; to go to the gym, play soccer, ride a bike, or otherwise experience physical turbulence is no longer an option. And in my mind, no ice cream makes the tradeoff worth it.

I have a theory. Most people don’t have a tremendous gastrointestinal experience after their tasty frozen treat, but I think almost everyone is lactose-intolerant to some degree. It’s just that we all have different standards for what’s normal to go on inside our bodies: We accept that haunted rumblings and standing by a bathroom is sometimes a necessary accompaniment to a tasty dessert. I’m no different; I will still order “insane” heat-level wings because they cause a euphoria-level pain, though the next morning is often decidedly dysphoric. Yet dairy devotees get mad at me, who didn’t do anything wrong, because they’re losing a partner in fart solidarity. (Again, I’m not a doctor.)

I spoke to gastroenterologist and physician nutrition specialist Dr. Carolyn Newberry at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center about this debacle. As she explains, gastrointestinal distress is the most common symptom for lactose sensitivity.

“Basically what happens is the lactose sugar can't be broken down. So rather than being absorbed in the small bowel, which is where most of your nutrients are absorbed, it travels down to the colon, where it's processed by bacteria there, and they produce a lot of extra gas. And they can also change your bowel habits. So people tend to get diarrhea, you know, gaseous distension, bloating sensations—they can feel nauseated,” Dr. Newberry explained.

coconut bliss vegan ice cream
This stuff is good!!! Photo: Getty Images

And if my gripes about ice cream sound like a “me” problem, numbers-wise, it’s unlikely.

“We think probably more than half the population has difficulty with processing lactose,” Dr. Newberry said.

She emphasizes an important difference between lactose sensitivity and “a true allergy.” People who are lactose-sensitive might experience GI distress. But those who are truly allergic will have some type of histamine release, she explained; symptoms might include rashes, facial flushing, even difficulty breathing.

For those lucky enough to remember ice cream as a staple of their childhood diet, this does not insulate you from future —or current— sensitivity. Lactase, the body’s enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose, can decrease over time, for several reasons.

“There's a lot of things that can alter our lactase levels, everything from things that cause inflammation in the small bowel where where the lactase is made, to it waning over time in certain populations. So it can actually develop that you can't eat products that have lactose anymore, because you can't break down the sugars so then it causes GI distress.”

Today, there are so, so many different types of vegan ice cream, ranging from the obnoxiously healthy to decidedly decadent options, like Van Leeuwen’s artisanal blending of cashews, coconuts, and cocoa butter to create a product that would dupe anyone besides a lactose-sensing robot.

For those who are lactose-sensitive but can’t imagine a world without dairy-based ice cream, take solace in that there’s no inherent danger to continue eating the stuff. Though, by my understanding, they are contributing a fractionally larger amount to global warming.

“If somebody doesn't feel well, when they eat dairy, they can continue to eat dairy. They just may not feel well,” Dr. Newberry told me.

When I asked her if she’s had non-dairy ice cream, Dr. Newberry said yes, she’d definitely had cashew-based ice cream, and perhaps also almond-milk-based ice cream, though she could not recall specifically.

“It was very good,” she said. “Certainly, if you have lactose intolerance, there's a lot of options, fortunately.”

I understand the aversion to vegan/vegetarian replacements in favor of traditional dairy and meat options. Their first iterations were clumsily developed and not likely to trick anyone. But the imitation technologies are improving at a pace with which a real cow could never hope to keep up. See a recent Burger King commercial: A man who claims to eat two Whoppers a week for the last two decades could not tell he was eating a meat-free Whopper made with an Impossible patty.

Today, there are so, so many different types of vegan ice cream, ranging from the obnoxiously healthy (which proudly contain "just fruit, water, and a touch of cane sugar”) to decidedly decadent options, like Van Leeuwen’s artisanal blending of cashews, coconuts, and cocoa butter to create a product that would dupe anyone besides a lactose-sensing robot.

Somewhere between “frozen fruit in a generic Popsicle shape” and overpriced boutique offerings are over-the-counter options like Ben and Jerry’s Non-Dairy Pints, made with almond milk. I’ve tried the “PB & cookies” flavor, and in occasional portions of my preferred serving size (roughly two heaping tablespoons directly from the pint), it lasted for nearly two weeks. It’s perfectly fine, although the almond flavor is apparent. At the very least, it will allow the company to avoid getting embroiled in another controversy like the one in 2013, wherein Grimes, taking a brief rumspringa from her vegan lifestyle, was harangued by vegan Tumblr for enjoying a pint of limited batch Scotchy Scotch Scotch, a promotional flavor for Anchorman 2.

There’s no shortage of fancy ice creameries offering convincingly non-vegan vegan ice creams. It was a scoop of exceptionally good vegan cookie dough ice cream from Salt & Straw that encouraged me to message my ice cream enthusiast sister. She first responded “no comment,” but immediately followed up with “what flavor, and do you hate yourself?"