This is part two of a two-part series on organic ice cream; see our previous review of conventional, dairy-based ice creams by Tom Philpott.

ice cream bowlCow juice alternative?The Sheppard family has what you might call an ice cream problem.

When I was 8 and my brother was 5, we went to Disney World. After a day of themepark excitement, my brother started walking with a pronounced limp. My mother asked him what was wrong. “My leg hurts,” he replied. “I need Mickey Mouse ice cream.”

Another time, when I was about 12, my father lurched up from his chair in our living room in the middle of prime-time television, grabbed his chest, and fell to the floor yelling, “Arrrghhhh!” This was followed by, “I’m dying! There’s no ice cream in the house.” My mother, who had assumed he’d had a heart attack, was nonplussed by his plea for dairy delight.

Needless to say, ice cream was the dessert of choice in the Sheppard household. Imagine my dismay when, sometime during my senior year of college, my body suddenly developed an inability to digest lactose. I’ll spare the details, but let’s just say it makes my dairy air not so pleasant.

I only recently discovered the non-dairy alternatives out there, derived from soy, rice, and coconut milks. Sadly, I find most of the soy- and rice-based options gross — their texture is nothing like real ice cream, and they seem to add way too much sugar to compensate for the lack of cow juice. I was excited to discover that coconut-milk based brands come much closer to the taste and feel of regular ice cream, but I had to get over the fact that they remind me of eating sunscreen.

In search of the best options out there, I assembled a panel of judges to conduct a highly scientific taste-test of six non-dairy ice cream varieties to find out for you, dear readers, what ranks highest. Of course, it will never be the same as real ice cream. I think you really have to create a separate category for these types in your mind and taste buds, divorcing yourself from the idea that they will ever be like the real thing. My roommate put it best in an eloquent analogy: “Soy ice cream is to real ice cream as a vibrator is to sex.” Still enjoyable, but just not the same.

 

Rice Dream frozen dessert.

Rice Dream Organic Vanilla
Milk base: Rice
More details: Organic, dairy-free, gluten-free
Price: $3.69/pint

One reviewer remarked that this one had a “papery taste.” Another thought it tasted like that weird white Laffy Taffy stuff you ate when you were a kid — not like real vanilla. It is decidedly not rich, creamy, or ice-cream-like.

Organic So Delicious Dairy Free Mocha Fudge So Delicious frozen dessert.
Milk base: Soy
More details: Organic, dairy-free; Turtle Mountain supports sea-turtle restoration, sustainable ag
Price: $4.45/quart (quarts only)

This one is creamier than the other soy options, but panelists complained that it was too sweet. The taste of the sugar made it hard to actually discern that it is supposed to taste like mocha. The chocolate swirled into it, however, is pretty tasty. The overall conclusion from tasters was, “Take it or leave it — it’s not that good.”

Luna & Larry’s Coconut Bliss Chocolate Hazelnut FudgeLuna & Larry's Coconut Bliss frozen dessert.
Milk base: Coconut
More details: Organic, soy-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, agave-sweetened
Price: $7.95/pint

This treat elicited squeals of delight from panelists, who heralded its proximity to real ice cream. It’s very chocolatey, and the nuts are good too. They’re very small and mild, so they don’t overwhelm the other tastes (which is good, as I am generally opposed to nuts in ice cream). The hazelnut and chocolate tastes work well together, and they also work with the faint taste of coconut. The texture and sweetness are both just right.

Good Karma Organic Rice Divine Mint Chocolate SwirlGood Karma frozen dessert.
Milk base: Rice
More details: Organic, dairy-free, gluten-free; supports sustainable ag, donates a portion of proceeds to hunger organizations
Price: $3.99/pint

This cream tastes good at first, but the mint leaves a strange (and not particularly good) aftertaste. There is not much in the way of chocolate swirl, despite the claim on the package. The texture is nothing like real ice cream — it’s not creamy and it doesn’t even melt on your tongue right. It also tries to compensate for its deficiencies with too much cane juice, resulting in an ice cream that somehow manages to be both too sweet and too bland, with an aftertaste that one panelist likened to Kaopectate.

Turtle Mountain Purely Decadent Dairy Free Cookie DoughPurely Decadent non-dairy frozen dessert.
Milk base: Soy
More details: Organic, dairy-free, gluten-free; Turtle Mountain supports sea-turtle restoration, sustainable ag
Price: $4.99/pint

Of the soy-based options, this is probably the best. Or at least, it got better as it melted a little bit, according to our panel. At first panelists complained the texture was all wrong, but their opinions improved the more they ate, and the meltier it got. The cream part is pretty good, but the dough balls were almost uniformly categorized as gross — they had a “sandy” texture, according to one taster, while another said they were “grainy.” It was also deemed too sweet, but passable as ice cream.

Turtle Mountain Purely Decadent Coconut Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter SwirlMore Purely Decadent non-dairy frozen dessert.
Milk base: Coconut
More details: Organic, dairy-free, gluten-free, agave-sweetened; Turtle Mountain supports sea-turtle restoration, sustainable ag
Price: $4.99/pint

My immediate reaction to this was that it tasted like chocolate-flavored sunscreen, and that those two tastes should never mix. But a few more spoonfuls convinced me otherwise, once I grew accustomed to the presence of a mild coconut flavor hanging in the background to the flavor it’s supposed to be exuding. The peanut butter swirl is also very tasty, and compliments the other flavors quite nicely. This one has great texture — very smooth, and it actually feels, looks, and melts most like dairy-based ice cream. Unfortunately, the fact that you need to get over that coconut flavor makes you more inclined to eat the whole pint yourself.

The bottom line: The coconut-based brands are the way to go, as long as you’re not averse to the ever-present hint of coconut flavor. While both coconut ice creams in this tasting ranked well, Luna’s sky-high price could put it out of reach for some. In general, anything chocolatey is probably a better bet than vanilla, and soy-based is better than rice.