Ben & Jerry’s / YouTube.com

In praise of almond-milk ice cream

Dairy-free desserts aren’t a health food, but their mainstream appeal is great news for other reasons

February 12, 2016 2:00AM ET

On Feb. 3, Ben & Jerry’s announced its new almond-milk-based ice cream flavors, ranging from Chunky Monkey to coffee caramel fudge. Technically and legally, these are nondairy frozen desserts, since Food and Drug Administration standards of identity for ice cream require at least one dairy ingredient. Ever since the Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s confirmed dairy-free flavors were on the way last June, the food world has been abuzz.

Dairy-free ice cream is nothing new. Tofutti, So Delicious, Dream and Coconut Bliss have offered soy-, almond-, cashew-, rice- and coconut-milk-based varieties for years. However, when a company like Ben & Jerry’s — a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever available in upscale supermarkets, corner bodegas and everywhere in between — sees a market for dairy-free ice cream, it illustrates a significant shift in the food landscape. It also demonstrates the power of public demand; these nondairy flavors were released largely in response to a Change.org petition co-authored by the Farm Animal Rights Movement.

Matt Ruscigno, a co-author of “No Meat Athlete,” said via email that “larger companies are often slower to get on board with what are perceived as trends, so Ben & Jerry’s involvement is a sign of strong growth in the nondairy market … With their resources, Ben & Jerry’s may develop new ways of using nuts for ice cream and bring up the quality of all nondairy ice creams.”

Sales of fluid milk are at their lowest level in 30 years, while the market for nondairy milks has grown approximately 10 percent every year since 1999. The appeal of dairy-free products expands beyond vegans; it also includes people with lactose intolerance and other health issues. Even Malcolm Stogo, known as the Godfather of Ice Cream, predicted that the nondairy frozen dessert market could double or triple in the next five years.

“Cows are celebrating that Ben & Jerry’s now has four dairy-free flavors. For the 9 out 10 Americans who eat ice cream at least once a week, these new options are a great way to enjoy their treat without mistreating cows,” said Paul Shapiro, the vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States.

The Ben & Jerry’s announcement shined a light on the unique terrain that plant-based food options navigate as they transition from niche to mainstream. The science is clear: A diet high in whole, plant-based foods confers many health benefits. Dietary fiber, for example, is exclusively found in plant foods. The Institute of Medicine recommends a minimum of 25 grams a day, but Americans average just 16 grams a day.

Dairy alternatives are meant to address many needs, including but not limited to health, ethics, sustainability, taste and environmental concerns.

Plant-based foods are also better for the environment. According to a 2014 report (PDF) by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “The livestock sector plays an important role in climate change,” with milk production contributing 19 percent of the global sector’s annual 7.1 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent — or 14.5 percent of human-induced emissions.

Yet the burgeoning awareness around the need to eat more plants is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, fiber- and omega-3-rich chia seeds have made the jump from kitschy terra cotta figurines to breakfast tables and food blogs. On the other, the mainstream perception is that plant-based products are solely about health, leaving many to conclude that if a meat- or dairy-free alternative isn’t highly nutritious, it is somehow misleading.

Yes, Ben & Jerry's almond milk ice creams are high in sugar and offer a measly gram of fiber per serving. They are not meant to be, or marketed as, healthier or lighter dessert options; they are simply dairy-free. Still, as Julieanna Hever, the author of “The Vegiterranean Diet” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition,” said, “Though these are not intended to be health foods, they are free of IGF-1, a hormone found in dairy products that promotes the risk of cancer cell growth and reduces cancer cell death.”

Dairy alternatives are meant to address many needs, including but not limited to health, ethics, sustainability, taste and environmental concerns. On that last point: dairy has a sizable ecological footprint; while almonds have recently been maligned as a thirsty crop grown in drought-stricken California, alfalfa grown for cattle feed requires significantly more water.

Michele Simon, a food attorney who is forming a trade group on behalf of plant-based food companies, applauds this move. “It’s great that Ben & Jerry’s has recognized the growing demand for nondairy ice cream,” she said. “With more consumers seeking out plant-based versions of dairy foods such as ice cream, it’s a smart business move that makes the company’s fun flavors accessible to everyone. We will probably soon see other industry giants following their lead.”

These types of products can hopefully eviscerate the belief that plant-based alternatives are a sacrifice and further help mainstream the consumption of dairy alternatives.

Andy Bellatti, M.S., R.D., is a Las Vegas–based dietitian. He is also a co-founder and the strategic director of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group that advocates for ethical and socially responsible partnerships within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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