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    Ice Cream: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

    By Alison White
    Safe Food Campaign

    Ice cream is something we all enjoy, and is especially refreshing on a hot summer's day. It seems the perfect accompaniment to berry fruits, apple strudels and Christmas pudding. But how good is it for you? Should we feel guilty about having it? How bad are the additives in it? Do you understand what's on the label? And what about pesticides and possible genetically engineered ingredients?

    Ice cream is traditionally made from cream and/or milk, eggs and sugar. Dairy products and especially cream are a rich source of vitamin A, vitamin B2 or riboflavin and various minerals such as calcium, phosphorus and potassium.

    Commercial ice cream typically contains about 22% of dairy products, with lots of sugar often in several different forms, and various additives. By law, a frozen product is only allowed to be called ice cream if it contains a minimum of 10% milk fat, and not less than 168g/L of food solids from milk or cream or milk products.

    While there are some important nutrients in ice cream, the high sugar content and fairly high fat content place it in the treat category - we recommend you don't have it as a staple in your diet. In addition, the saturated fat content makes it undesirable, especially for those with heart conditions.

    Reading a label

    Let's study the label of a typical ice cream with a flavour that is considered a New Zealand icon, hokey pokey ice cream.

    There are two main parts to a label on processed food, the nutrition panel and the ingredients. I always look first at the ingredients to see if any undesirable additives are being used.

    Mel-O-Rich Everyday Hokey Pokey-flavoured ice cream


    Sugar, milk fat, milk solids non-fat, glucose, emulsifier (471), vegetable gums (407, 412), flavour, colour (102, 110); Confectionery 5%: sugar, glucose, milk fat, sodium bicarbonate, gelatine, salt, flavour.

    Because labels are written with ingredients in descending order, we can see that most of the ice cream consists of sugar. The fourth ingredient listed, glucose, is also a sugar. Then there is also the sugar in the hokey pokey bits (confectionery). The milk fat and milk solids are the dairy products.

    Emulsifier 471: (Mono and di glycerides of fatty acids) Emulsifiers are used in ice cream to ensure that the milk fat remains evenly distributed. There are no known adverse effects, according to the food additives guide of Mutual Benefit Marketing (MBM).

    Vegetable gums: Vegetable gums are often used to help maintain the smoothness of ice cream by controlling the size of ice crystals. They also give ice cream a uniform consistency and control the melting rate.

    407 (Carrageenan/'Irish Moss'): A fibre extracted from seaweed, this has been linked to cancer because it may become contaminated when ethylene oxide is added to an inferior product, resulting in ethylene chlorohydrin forming a carcinogenic compound. The most serious concerns relate to degraded carrageenan, which is not a permitted additive; however, carrageenan may become degraded in the gut. (MBM: Food Additive Guide)

    412 (Guar gum)

    Derived from the seeds of Cyamoposis tetragonolobus of Indian origin and fed to cattle in the US, it can cause nausea, flatulence and cramps. It may reduce cholesterol levels (MBM: Food Additive Guide). 


    These are unregulated and do not have to be specified on the label. If you are allergy prone, it is better to avoid food with them in. Flavours may be genetically engineered or may contain some form of MSG, a flavour enhancer it is better to avoid, especially for young children.

    Colour 102 (Tartrazine): A yellow colouring which is one of the most controversial synthetic azo dyes, developed to emulate coal tar dyes, it appears to provoke the most allergic reactions in sensitive people. It is also a pesticide in the US, being used as an aquatic weed killer. It can trigger a wide range of allergic reactions including asthma, hyperactivity, skin rashes and migraines. People who are sensitive to aspirin and other salicylates may be predisposed to an allergic reaction even at very low doses. Norway and Finland do not allow it in any foods, and it is heavily restricted in Austria, Sweden and Germany (Kedgley 1998).

    Colour 110 (Sunset yellow): Not dissimilar to tartrazine, it can provoke asthma, skin rashes, hyperactivity and gastric upsets. In animal studies it damaged the kidneys and adrenal glands and caused cancer. Human trials showed it can be absorbed into the bloodstream and cross the placenta into the foetus. (Kedgley 1998)

    The Nutrition panel

    The nutrition panel can be useful if you want to compare the sugar and fat content of different brands. The average ice cream contains about 22 per 100 grams of sugars with 10g fat, of which about 7g are saturated. If you have a heart problem or you wish to avoid having heart problems in the future, it is a good idea to cut down on the saturated fat in your diet.

    Unfortunately Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) do not require manufacturers to state whether trans fatty acids are present in food. Trans fatty acids (TFA) are a type of unsaturated fatty acid that can impact on health by adversely affecting cholesterol levels. They are found naturally in the fat of dairy products and meat in low levels and are also formed from industrial processing or superheating of vegetable oils and fats, for example in margarine. (This is just one reason why you shouldn't assume you are doing your heart good by having margarine!)

    As we can see from the nutrition panel below of a 2 litre pack of Mel-O-Rich hokey pokey ice cream, the sugar content is slightly more than the average, but the saturated fat content is slightly less.

    Average quantity per 100 g* serving
    *100 g is approximately two scoops of ice cream.

    Servings per package:



    843 kJ


    3.2 g

    Fat, total

    10.2 g

    - saturated

    6.5 g

    Carbohydrate, total

    25.5 g

    - sugars

    23.5 g


    89 mg

    Perhaps the worst aspect of this ice cream, in common with most ice creams, is the amount of sugar you consume when you have it. Because of the yellow colourings 102 and 110, don't buy this particular flavour of ice cream for children or eat it if you are pregnant. As well, hokey pokey doesn't need to have yellow colouring in it: other manufacturers don't use it.

    Regulatory authorities will tell us that the amount of yellow colouring found in this particular flavour of ice cream would be pretty small, and so there's nothing to worry about. However, susceptible children will react. In addition, children may consume these additives from several different sources in a day and typically consume more per kilo of body weight than adults. Overseas estimates suggest children could consume about 59 to 300 mg of artificial colouring a day while a survey by the Safe Food Campaign found children on a diet containing many processed foods such as chips, soft drinks and biscuits could easily consume 35-40 different doses of 14 different colours every day. (Kedgley 1998)

    Colourings to avoid

    Children and asthmatics may be especially sensitive to these colourings. The combination of sugar and colourings seem to have a worse effect.

    • 102 tartrazine
    • 104 quinoline yellow
    • 110 sunset yellow
    • 122 azorubine, carmoisine
    • 123 amaranth
    • 124 ponceau, brilliant scarlet
    • 127 erythrosine
    • 129 allura red
    • 132 indigotine, indigo carmine
    • 133 brilliant blue
    • 142 green S, food green, acid brilliant green
    • 151 brilliant black
    • 155 brown, chocolate brown
    • 160b annatto, bixin, norbixin

    Low-fat alternatives

    Sorbets and gelati are low-fat alternatives to ordinary ice cream. However they may contain just as much sugar. Check the nutrition panel for the sugar content and compare to the average of 23g/100g found in ice cream. A sorbet is a mixture of water, fruit and sugar frozen together, generally made without dairy products, a useful alternative for vegans and those wanting to reduce their dairy consumption. Another advantage from the nutritional point of view is that flavours are usually real fruit. Gelati (or gelato if it's one) are Italian-style ice creams with less if any cream, often mixed in a special machine that contributes to their smoothness.

    A vegan member tested some outlets in Wellington where sorbets were available. Here are some of his comments.

      Kaffee Eis served a sorbet of outstanding flavour and texture with an enjoyable after taste. The machine used probably contributed to the richer flavour, making it denser with less air. However, allergy sufferers are advised to be wary when asking about contents. Staff in cafes, bars and restaurants often don't know the ingredients or may not give a straight answer in order to make a sale.

      Organically certified Omaha Blueberry Sorbet proved to be disappointing. It was gritty in texture, with sharp, tiny ice crystals that unpleasantly irritated my mouth, and was initially too cold, killing the flavour. When it thawed a bit, it was much too sweet for me. I would call it a vegan junk food. (Note: the sugar content at 13.1g/100g is a lot less sweet than ordinary ice cream.)

    Pesticides in ice cream

    The most likely pesticide to be found in ice cream is DDE, a very persistent metabolite or breakdown product of DDT. Levels of DDE from .005 to .011mg/kg were found in five out of eight samples of ice cream tested in the last Total Diet Survey carried out by the Food Safety Authority.(FSA 2004) While the levels of DDE are going down in our food supply, the percentage of samples with residues found in dairy products are generally much higher than in many other countries, and sometimes dramatically so: 68.2% of New Zealand dairy products contained DDE in 1998 as opposed to 3.4% in the US. (White 2001)

    Why should we be concerned about the levels of DDT and metabolites in our diet? DDT is present in virtually all living things, because of its persistence and accumulation up the foodchain, with high levels found in breast milk. In a Ministry for the Environment study, levels of DDE were found in all the 60 samples of blood analysed. (MFE 2001) It has been linked to cancer, reproductive damage such as miscarriages and lower sperm count, and hormonal or endocrine damage.

    If you wish to lower the DDT levels going into your body, and this is especially important for pregnant women and young children, buy organic ice cream. While background levels of this toxin are hard to avoid totally, they will be lower in organic ice cream because organic standards are much stricter concerning the levels permitted in soil for example.

    Other advantages of organic ice cream

    Another advantage of organic ice cream is that the additives permitted are much more limited, and do not include questionable additives such as colourings and artificial sweeteners, or allow processes such as irradiation or genetically engineered organisms. As well, we might expect better nutrient levels: a recent study found organic milk had 50% more vitamin E, 75% more beta carotene, and two to three times the amount of some powerful antioxidants.(Soil Association 2005) By buying organic you are also supporting a system of agriculture which does not pollute the countryside.

    What ingredients might be genetically engineered?

    GE ingredients may be in our ice cream, but you can't find them; they're not labelled. FSANZ has approved the use of GE soy, canola, corn, potatoes, sugar beet and cottonseed oil. These are used in processed foods such as ice cream. Ice cream ingredients that might be genetically engineered include:
    Soymilk, lecithin from soy beans; starch and syrup from corn; sucrose from sugar beet; cottonseed oil and cellulose from cotton, used as thickeners in ice-cream; enzyme modified starches; flavours and processing aids.(Green Party paper)

    To get a better idea of what might be genetically engineered, we have to go to sources such as the Greenpeace's GE Free Food Guide, who have asked the manufacturers. One brand of ice cream remains in Greenpeace's red list: Cadbury's. This means their ice cream may contain GE ingredients. Other companies are seeking GE free ingredients or are GE free.

    Safe Food Campaign advice

    • Avoid ice cream with colourings in it.
    • Study the nutrition panels –some have less sugar and less saturated fat than others.
    • Buy organic ice cream if you can.
    • Reserve it for special occasions, and don't consider it as a staple in your diet
    • Try making your own!


    1. Green Party: GE foods that are already in the foodchain unlabelled accessed Nov 05
    2. Greenpeace: GE Free Food Guide 2004
    3. Kedgley, Sue: Eating Safely in a Toxic World, Penguin 1998.
    4. MFE: Serum study 2001
    5. MBM food additive guide:
    6. NZ Food Safety Authority: 2003/4 New Zealand Total Diet Survey Q2 & 4
    7. Soil Association UK: New research proves organic milk is higher in vitamins and antioxidants than non-organic milk 2005!OpenDocument
    8. White, Alison: Pesticides in food: why go organic. 2001


    1. For a more complete list of additives to avoid, go to our website:

    3. For a useful and informative guide concerning allergies and additives go to Sue Dengate's Food Intolerance Network website: Also recommended for homemade ice creams is her cookbook: The Failsafe Cookbook. She has written other books including Fed Up, Fed Up with ADHD, Fed up with Asthma.
    4. For more information on trans fatty acids, go to the FSANZ website:
    5. General information on ice cream from manufacturers:


    Thank you for the help I received from Dr Patricia Holborow of Open Forum for Health Information, John Silvester, Diane of the ADHD Association ( and Jayne White.

    A version of this article appeared in Organic NZ Jan/Feb 06,

© Safefood Campaign