To say people love ice cream is an understatement: The average American consumes about 23 pounds of the creamy dairy delight each year, according to estimates from the International Dairy Foods Association.
While I love it as much as the next person, there’s no denying that ice cream is not a health food. A ½ cup serving — that’s right, a serving is supposed to be only ½ cup, which is barely a single scoop — of vanilla has 137 calories, 7 grams (g) of fat (half of which is the unhealthy saturated kind), 16 g of carbohydrates, and 14 g of sugar, according to USDA data. And that’s just the ice cream: no whipped cream, no cone, not even a maraschino cherry.
That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the occasional frozen treat — there’s room in everyone’s diet for that. I’m a big proponent of eating the foods you love in moderation and truly enjoying them, and ice cream definitely falls into that category. And while there have been plenty of attempts at making ice cream healthier, my personal favorite way to indulge is to play around with toppings.
Traditional ones like sprinkles, whipped cream, and maraschino cherries add next to no nutritional benefit to your cone, and let’s face it, not that much flavor either. Fresh and frozen fruit and chopped nuts are better, but less-conventional ice cream toppings can really bring excitement and intrigue to your sundae, as well as a minor nutritional boost. I decided to give some buzzed-about healthy ice cream toppings a try, and they are anything but vanilla (though vanilla is the flavor I’d recommend sticking with as your base). So venture out of your cold comfort zone and try these for yourself!
1. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
As Harvard Health Publishing points out, olive oil is chock-full of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, which have made it a household staple for many looking to eat a healthier diet. But I’m guessing that, even if you have some in your pantry, you’ve never tried pouring it on your ice cream. Well, here's why you should. As it turns out, when poured on ice cream, olive oil thickens to a syrup-like consistency and adds a sweet, nutty flavor along with a dose of healthy fats. I tried my scoop with extra-virgin olive oil, which lends the most nutritional benefits but also has a stronger flavor (good oil can be spicy). Personally, I enjoy EVOO’s flavor better on salad.
If you try it, keep in mind that, like ice cream, olive oil is rich in fat and the associated calories, which will add up quickly. Keep your ice cream portion size small (around ½ cup) and add just a drizzle of olive oil.
Rating: 2/3 scoops
2. Balsamic Vinegar
Olive oil isn’t the only salad dressing ingredient that works well on ice cream. The key is to opt for a high-quality aged balsamic vinegar, which is more syrupy than the stuff you splash onto salads. Balsamic vinegar is much like wine (and me): It gets better with age. As its acidity mellows to sweetness with the years, it pairs well with equally sweet foods. That's why you’ll often see recommendations to drizzle some on strawberries, cheese, or panna cotta. A thin drizzle on top of your ice cream adds a complexity that you’re not going to find in your average pint. This is another topping that can help you focus on really savoring the flavor of a small serving.
Balsamic vinegar has been linked to possible cholesterol-lowering effects in past and recent animal studies. Of course, more research is needed before balsamic vinegar can be recommended for this purpose, but it doesn’t hurt to add a drizzle to your bowl! I used an aged balsamic vinegar that I absolutely love on salads and, while I can appreciate the tangy flavor it added to my ice cream, this is not a combination I personally am eager to repeat.
Rating: 1/3 scoops
3. Wasabi Peas
Wasabi is a Japanese horseradish that is infamous for its eye-watering spiciness. While some people abhor the taste of wasabi and wouldn’t dream of touching the bright green paste made from this root, others can’t get enough and enjoy snacking on crunchy dried peas coated in wasabi flavoring. Wasabi’s signature kick pairs beautifully with the sweet cool creaminess of ice cream. Plus, they add protein and fiber to your dish, according to the USDA. Try them crushed or whole, whatever suits you best.
Peas are a starchy vegetable, so if you’re tracking your carbohydrate intake, be sure to factor that in before choosing this unique topping. The beauty of wasabi peas is that you can adjust the number you use to your flavor preference and can always add more after your first bite or two. The rich, creamy flavor of the ice cream really mellows the spiciness of the wasabi peas. So, even if you’re not usually a wasabi lover, this crunchy topping is worth a try.
Rating: 2/3 scoops
4. Coffee Grounds
You may have had coffee ice cream, but not like this. While caffeine is likely what comes to mind when you think of a “cup of joe,” coffee, which comes from beans, is also a rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Research suggests that including coffee in your diet may decrease your risk of stroke, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, certain types of cancer, and may even help you live longer — not a bad list!
If you’re looking for a creative way to enjoy your coffee, sprinkle some grounds on your ice cream. It will lend coffee flavor and a light crunch along with these potential health benefits. Use fresh grounds for the best results and the highest nutrient content. For me, adding coffee grounds to my ice cream elevated my overall experience. This is a combo I’m sure to repeat in the future! Disclaimer: I love coffee and all things coffee-related. If you don’t fall in that camp, you may not enjoy these flavors as much as I did. If you find that coffee grounds are too coarse, give ground espresso a try, since it's usually finer. (Espresso powder is frequently used in baking to enhance chocolate flavor, so I have a feeling it would pair well with chocolate ice cream.)
Rating: 3/3 scoops
5. Protein Powder
Protein ice cream (nut milk, pea protein powder, sweetener, and pudding mix) has become a popular health food trend on TikTok. Sprinkling protein powder on ice cream is a faster, simpler version. Protein powder adds protein (naturally) to an otherwise carbohydrate-rich treat, which may help balance out the effect on your blood sugar, suggests past research. I’ll be honest … as much as I try to have an open mind with new food combos, this is a pairing I pretty much knew I wasn’t going to like. But boy, was I wrong! I started with a small sprinkle of chocolate protein powder, and after one small bite quickly added more, because it was absolutely delicious, and it even added a slight crunch. Start with ¼ scoop of protein powder and increase the amount according to your preference.
Rating: 3/3 scoops
For the uninitiated, furikake is a savory Japanese seasoning blend that traditionally contains seaweed and sesame seeds with a small amount of salt and sugar. It is usually used to season rice, but it's also delicious on popcorn and ice cream. The sweet, salty, and umami flavors of furikake work just as well with ice cream, and it brings in a nice crunch too. Plus, the seaweed in furikake is naturally high in iodine, per the USDA, making it an excellent vegetarian source of this essential nutrient.
This combo, while it may seem strange, is definitely worth a try. It was by far my favorite! The sweet ice cream and saltiness of the furikake make for a scrumptious flavor pairing, and the crunch from the sesame seeds is absolutely delightful. Not only would I try this again, I can tell you for certain I absolutely will. Start by adding 1 teaspoon to the top of your ice cream — you won’t regret it!
Rating: 3/3 scoops
Mmmm, tahini … this delicious paste is made from ground sesame seeds, and according to the Food Network is most traditionally used in hummus. If you have some on hand, be sure to add a dollop to your ice cream — you won’t be disappointed! Tahini and the sesame seeds it's made of contain powerful plant compounds that may help lower cholesterol levels, according to Harvard Health Publishing. The nutritious seeds also contain calcium and magnesium, which may improve blood pressure levels. Just keep in mind that sesame seeds were recently added as the ninth most common food allergy, per Food Allergy Research and Education. If you’re allergic to sesame seeds, skip tahini too.
Tahini lends an enjoyable creamy texture and slightly nutty flavor to your bowl. Go ahead and add 1 tablespoon to the top or swirl it in so you're sure to get some in each bite.
Rating: 2.5/3 scoops
8. Hot Sauce
Heat seekers, this one’s for you! I recommend choosing a fruit-based hot sauce (like a peach habanero) for the most natural flavor combination, but the choice is totally yours. My favorite hot sauces are the raw and fermented ones, because they're low in calories, pack a punch of flavor, and are a source of probiotic organisms. Anytime you can get probiotic-rich foods into your diet, I recommend it. While this area of nutrition is still new, Harvard Health Publishing says recent research indicates that probiotic foods may help with a number of health conditions, including allergies, arthritis, certain types of cancer, heart disease, and gastrointestinal problems. They even point out that eating more probiotic-rich foods may help you lose weight. Of course, this potential benefit is somewhat negated by the fact that you’re eating ice cream — all the more reason to stick to that half-cup portion!
I enjoy spicy food so, while this flavor combo was offbeat, I definitely didn’t hate it and would be interested to try it again. Certainly, it's not for everyone. I couldn’t resist urging my husband to try it, and he looked me straight in the eyes and issued a resounding “Absolutely not!” If you’re up for it, start by adding just a few dashes. A little goes a long way, and you can always add more if you're into it.
Rating: 2/3 scoops
No matter what you choose to put on your ice cream, be sure to keep your portion small and take full delight in every bite. When it comes to ice cream, the healthiest one is the one you love the most. Good nutrition isn’t always about making perfect choices, but rather about finding the right balance between healthy ingredients and true enjoyment. So, enjoy!