This is part one of a two-part series on organic ice cream; look for our review of select non-dairy brands later this month.

In my four-plus decades on this planet, I’ve gone through many transformations. One constant has been a devotion to ice cream.

ice creamTastes like heaven.Somewhere, there exists a photo of three-year-old me with an ice cream cone rammed into my face, which is marked with splotches of Rocky Road. My expression is focused, beatific, like a religious fanatic at prayer. To this day, I remember howls of adult laughter echoing around me. I didn’t give a damn — what mattered was getting that creamy, crunchy, sweet stuff into my mouth.

I try to play it cooler these days, but the joy I take in the famed cold confection has changed little. Thus when my editor approached me with the assignment of tasting organic ice creams, I pretended to be put upon, before “reluctantly” agreeing. Inside my brain, I indulged a thunderous “Yes!” [Editor's note: What? You pitched me this topic!]

Given the broad variety of flavors available in store-bought brands, practical considerations forced me to choose a single one for comparison. I was sorely tempted to pick chocolate, which I think would have given a wide diversity of flavor profiles. But I settled on vanilla, a delicate flavor that wouldn’t mask flaws in the product. To spice things up a bit, I threw in two variations on the plain-vanilla theme: Stonyfield Farms’ Crème Caramel (caramel swirl) and PJ Madison’s Southern Butter Pecan.

Now, I’m a devotee of full-on, full-fat ice cream, made with real dairy and eggs. (I love beans and rice, but find them best served hot with salsa, not extruded into liquid, sweetened, and then frozen. Look for a forthcoming product tester — by another author — on non-dairy ice “creams.”) To see if I really needed all of that fat to enjoy a frozen dairy dessert, I added Stonyfield’s no-fat vanilla frozen yogurt into the mix.

Then I assembled a tasting panel of six ice cream-loving friends — plus a lactose-intolerant seventh who served us samples and kept us from knowing which was which. Everyone brings his or her own agenda to a blind tasting. What I was looking for were smooth, rich-but-not-too-rich, not overly sweet ice creams, yellow from the yolks of real farm eggs, dotted with flecks of real vanilla seeds, and delivering a pronounced vanilla flavor.

Here’s what we found.

Julie’s Organic Vanilla
Vanilla seeds or extract: Extract
Price: $3.69/pint
Eco-claim: Virtually free of pesticides, preservatives, chemical additives, food coloring, or genetically engineered ingredients

I found this pale ice cream well-made and satisfying, delivering a nice round vanilla flavor, but a little on the sweet side. I ranked it second-best. One taster declared it “yummy,” with tapioca notes, while another liked it generally, but found an “oily” aftertaste. Its most enthusiastic taster found it “smooth and rich … more complex than the others.” One critic found it “dull … really cheap commercial dairy … almost plastic.”

Alden’s Vanilla Bean
Vanilla seeds or extract: Seeds
Price: $3.69/pint
Eco-claim: Our milk comes from healthy cows not raised on hormones or antibiotics

Oddly enough, this one turns out to be made by the same company as Julie’s, an entity known as Oregon Ice Cream Company. It was my favorite of the lot, offering a restrained but well-rounded vanilla flavor and a light-cream texture. Bonus: not overly sweet. Two tasters praised the level of vanilla flavor but found an oily aftertaste; a fourth found it a “little chewy in texture.” “Upscale” and “a little plain” were other reactions.

Stonyfield Gotta Have Vanilla Non-Fat Frozen Yogurt
Vanilla seeds or extract: Seeds
Price: $4.19/pint
Eco-claim: We use farm-fresh milk from family farms

This ringer — the only non-fat product in the lineup — landed with a thud. Can’t believe it’s not real cream? Not our panel. I found it thin, oversweet, and artificial-tasting, despite the vanilla-seed flecks. One person dismissed it with one word: SWEET. Another found it “medicinal — not in a good way.” Another found it “very low” in vanilla flavor and “watery.” Still another judged it was “trying too hard … mediocre.” It did find one defender, who ranked it number one: “great texture … [vanilla-]bean flavored.”

Stonyfield Gotta Have Vanilla Ice Cream
Vanilla seeds or extract: Extract
Price: $4.19/pint
Eco-claim: We use farm-fresh milk from family farms

This one neither particularly pleased nor offended. I was encouraged by its rich yellow color, suggesting the presence of good farm eggs. I liked the light, smooth texture, but the flavor was oversweet and the vanilla muted. Several tasters concurred; others disagreed. “More robust and stronger vanilla,” wrote one, adding, “something you’d find in a cute ice cream shop (in a good way).”

PJ Madison Southern Butter Pecan
Vanilla seeds or extract: N/A
Price: $3.99/pint
Eco-claim: Changed business models to focus on the research and development of organic ice cream after learning about the harmful effects of organophosphate pesticide levels in humans

I feared the non-vanilla ice creams would gain an unfair advantage, because of their contrast with the others. The opposite happened — people generally disliked this one. I detected an artificial vanilla taste (the ingredients lists no vanilla, just “organic flavors”). And the texture, not so creamy. Other folks found it oversweet and unappealing. “Nothing to write home about, even if it is pecan,” declared one. “Tastes like Splenda,” said another.

Stonyfield Crème Caramel Ice Cream
Vanilla seeds or extract: N/A
Price: $4.19/pint
Eco-claim: We use farm-fresh milk from family farms

Full disclosure: This is typically my favorite store-bought ice cream these days. Of course I picked it out right away. Oddly — perhaps because I had tasted five ice creams previously — it didn’t appeal as much as usual. I wanted more of a caramelized punch. Others liked it; “sweet and creamy,” “smooth,” and “full, not overbearing” were among the comments.

PJ Madison Bourbon Vanilla
Vanilla seeds or extract: Extract
Price: $3.99/pint
Eco-claim: Changed business models to focus on the research and development of organic ice cream after learning about the harmful effects of organophosphate pesticide levels in humans

Grist's Pick: Alden's Organic Vanilla BeanThis one failed to impress. I found it pale, with a faint-vanilla flavor and a decently creamy texture. Others were even less excited. “Boring,” declared one panelist. “Tastes gross,” opined another. “Too sweet,” judged a third. One did find it had “good texture, not yogurt-y.”

The Bottom Line: These ice creams, despite their similarity, drew a wide variety of responses. But two drew positive responses from enough panelists to stand out: Alden’s and Julie’s, both made by Oregon Ice Cream Company. When all the votes were tallied, Alden’s took the crown by a nose. The real bottom line: Ice cream rocks.