so chill

Whole Foods Market releases cool new line of vegan ice creams

Whole Foods Market releases cool new line of vegan ice creams

Whole Foods vegan ice cream
Mint chip on the left, mocha java fudge on the right. Photo by Marc Lee

As temps in Houston reach triple digits for days on end, locals are looking for sweet — and healthy — ways to chill out. Just in time, Whole Foods has offered up vegan ice cream options that on-trend and great for those who are lactose (and heat) intolerant.

Vegan anything is 2018's hottest trend, and within that category, vegan ice creams are on fire. Market research company Technavio calls vegan ice cream "a major trend"; trend-watching Nielsen notes that it's the biggest-growing segment of the entire ice cream market.

Five years ago, the only vegan ice creams you could buy at the grocery came from vegan brands such as So Delicious, Nada Moo, and Dream, maker of the best soy milk, Soy Dream. These were noble efforts, but most missed the boat on the key factors in ice cream: creamy texture and meltiness. That transformation from frozen to liquid is what makes ice cream so alluring.

In that regard, old-school vegan ice creams were not great; their texture was blocky and chalky. The arrival of traditional ice cream makers doing vegan items is a welcome game-changer. (One notable exception from the early era is the awesomely creamy soy ice cream at Trader Joe's, in vanilla and cherry-chocolate chip, which are surely made by San Francisco-based Double Rainbow.)

New vegan ice cream wave
Among the newcomers, the best is easily Ben & Jerry's, who pioneered with their nondairy line in 2016. Their base is almond milk. It melts quickly, and it's also creamy. The texture is on a par with dairy ice cream, taking it beyond "good for vegan" to just plain "good."

They currently have nine flavors, such as cherry garcia, caramel almond brittle, and coffee caramel fudge, all loaded with the mix-ins for which B&J is noted. But the flavors are interesting and there are enough expanses of ice cream to make you feel like you're eating ice cream and not a nut salad.

Availability has been fair. SuperTarget has most if not all of the flavors; other supermarket chains have signed on to feature just a select few.

Haagen Dazs followed with a nondairy line in January 2017 that, sadly, is awful. They boast that they "never use dairy alternatives like soy or almond milk." But you gotta make it out of something, and for HD, that something seems to be vegetable oil. Their chocolate salted fudge truffle, which was almost brutal in its dark chocolate flavor, was rock-hard to scoop and didn't melt.

Breyers introduced an almond milk ice cream in May 2017 with two flavors, Oreo and vanilla peanut butter, but those have been hard to find.

Whole Foods line
In late May, Whole Foods Market launched its own nondairy ice cream line under its 365 Everyday Value brand. There are seven flavors: vanilla, chocolate, mint chocolate chip, mocha java fudge, chocolate chip peanut butter swirl, coconut almond bliss, and berry chantilly cake.

Following Ben & Jerry's lead, they're made with almond milk. Like B&J, they contain pea protein, dubbed "the new 'It' ingredient" for alternative dairy products; and a thickener called gellan gum, which has become a popular vegan additive.

The texture of these ice creams is less creamy than Ben & Jerry's (and for that matter, less creamy than the Trader Joe's options). In the flavors with mix-ins, the mix-in ingredients are shredded small and widespread, so it's impossible to get a segment of ice cream that does not have some kind of Stuff in it. Lots to chew, which makes it less about the ice cream itself.

In reverse order of appeal:

Vanilla and chocolate. As overwhelming as the mix-ins can be, these two options seemed almost dull without. But they do afford the opportunity to fully observe the texture: mildly ice-milky, IE a tiny bit thin with some ice crystals, but still ice creamy. They're not using great chocolate or vanilla, so their flavor is generic.

Coconut almond bliss. This was the chunkiest, with the most stuff in it — too much stuff. Way. It had finely chopped almonds and tons of coconut, which was toasted, for a seriously coconutty experience.

Mint chocolate chip. A prototypical ice cream flavor, this had a pretty pale-green color, with small chocolate chip shreds in slightly over-generous quantity. It would have been preferable to get a little more ice cream and just a few less chips. The mint flavor was penetrating, like a sharp dart, and in its favor, not too sweet, with a thinnish ice-milk consistency that was not entirely unpleasant.

Mocha java fudge. Pioneered back in the day by Baskin-Robbins, this classic flavor consists of coffee ice cream swirled with chocolate syrup. It had great creaminess, but was marred by what tasted like a hint of cinnamon in the coffee flavor, which made it taste cheap.

Chocolate chip peanut butter swirl. A vanilla ice cream base with a fair amount of chocolate chips and a thick peanut-butter swirl. The peanut-butter swirl is the best part: not too sweet, and it stays in firm shards. When you take a bite, the vanilla ice cream melts away, leaving the residual peanut butter which is almost chewy.

Berry chantilly cake. This is a clever riff on Whole Foods' signature cake with vanilla cake, berries, and whipped cream, and it does a good job of approximating that cake's almost perfumey combination of flavors.

It has a vanilla-esque ice cream base, swirled with a ribbon of mixed berry syrup, made of strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries — no seeds, just a reddish-purple glaze. It tastes like vanilla cake, with an appealing cakey fakeness, almost like the flavor of Cool Whip, and the texture is excellent: super creamy, bordering on fluffy.

Strangely, it had no cake. This seemed not only out of step with the rest of the line but also a lost opportunity.

One interesting aspect is portion size. Most manufacturers list four servings in a pint, but these specify three, with each portion being two-thirds of a cup. It seems a little more realistic.

While not the best vegan ice cream, Whole Foods' line has good options and is available in all stores — and one more reinforcement that 2018 is the Year of Vegan.