The range of ice cream products stocked in supermarkets is impressive, and can certainly tide you over between visits to your favourite gelato bar.
But with so many ice cream brands and styles now on offer, it's no longer as simple as choosing between vanilla or chocolate when considering which product to buy.
For starters, what's the difference between ice cream and gelato? Why do some ice creams contain additives? Is there a taste trade-off when choosing diet ice cream?
To help answer these questions and more, we reviewed and tested vanilla ice creams available in Australian supermarkets, from brands including Connoisseur, Haagen-Dazs and Messina. Unfortunately Woolworths Vanilla Ice Cream was unavailable when we conducted our taste test, so couldn't be included.
Of the 21 vanilla ice creams we included in our expert panel blind taste test, two received a CHOICE Expert Rating of 80% or more, earning them recommended status.
Our third place-getter didn't score quite high enough to be recommended, but got a very decent 77% overall.
Coles Irresistible Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 81% (Recommended)
- Vanilla intensity: 80%
- Balance: 78%
- Experts say: "Use of some vanilla seeds", "white", "milk, creamy smell", "light vanilla taste", "creamy", "super smooth", "clean mouthfeel".
Kapiti Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 80% (Recommended)
- Vanilla intensity: 80%
- Balance: 85%
- Experts say: "Yellow colour, seeds visible", "good balanced flavour", "good texture, dense but creamy", "good vanilla and dairy notes".
Streets Blue Ribbon Classic Vanilla
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 77%
- Vanilla intensity: 80%
- Balance: 83%
- Experts say: "Inviting colour", "creamy, dairy flavour", "smooth texture", "iciness".
NOTES: The vanilla score is the taste testers’ rating of the flavour intensity, not a percentage quantity of vanilla. Balance refers to the balance between sweetness, texture and flavour. For example, if an ice cream had good flavour and creaminess but the sweetness was overpowering, then it would have been scored lower for balance.
The results of our expert taste test surprised us for a few reasons.
The Coles, Kapiti and Streets products beat out some premium brands including Connoisseur, Messina Gelato and Maggie Beer. Even more remarkable is the fact that the third-placed Streets Blue Ribbon Classic Vanilla is a reduced-fat ice cream.
Also surprising was that the Maggie Beer vanilla ice cream – from a brand synonymous with good taste – received the lowest taste-test score at 31%. The experts' tasting notes included "slightly green in colour", "dirty appearance", "lacks smell", "notes other than vanilla are dominating", "not a natural taste", "clean finish", and "powdery and a bit icy texture".
And for ice cream fans who are happy to spend a little more if it means a better product, you can put away the credit card. The two most expensive ice creams, Haagen-Dazs and Gelato Messina, didn't even make the top five.
The words ice cream and gelato are often used interchangeably, but they are two different products. The main difference is that ice cream is regulated for its milk fat content.
To be sold as 'ice cream' a product needs to meet certain requirements for milk fat and food solids.
Food Standards Australia define ice cream as "a sweet frozen food that is made from cream or milk products or both and other foods, and is generally aerated". Crucially, it must contain at least 10% milk fat and 16.8% food solids.
Reduced fat versions must contain at least 25% less fat than standard ice cream, and low fat versions must contain no more than 3% fat.
'Gelato' is the Italian word for ice cream, but there's no standard definition for gelato in Australia.
Gelato can be either milk-based or fruit-based, and doesn't necessarily contain dairy products. According to gelato producers, gelato is generally lower in fat – closer to 5%, compared with 10% or higher for ice cream – and churned less than ice cream.
When less air is incorporated into the mixture, this results in a denser consistency with a colder, fresher eating sensation – a common attribute of premium-tier ice creams, as well as gelato.
Sorbet is a French word that describes a frozen mixture of sweetened water and fruit juice or purée. Fruit-based, dairy-free gelato is sometimes referred to as sorbet. We didn't include sorbet in our taste test.
Ice cream is more than just frozen cream, which would simply be hard and unpalatable. Sugar is added to reduce the freezing point of cream – and of course give it the sweetness essential to a dessert! And then the mix is churned to introduce air. From there, those components interact to create one of the world's most loved frozen treats. Here's how they work together:
1. Ice crystals: These are made from the water in the cream, and their size plays a big role in whether your ice cream feels silky smooth or a bit grainy.
2. Concentrated cream: This is what's left of the cream after the crystallisation of its water. It contains the dissolved sugar, a bit of water (that stays liquid because of all the sugar), milk fats, and milk proteins. This concentration acts as the glue, holding those ice crystals together, making your ice cream solid.
3. Air: While your ice cream is getting all churned up, air particles sneak in. They weaken the bond between the cream and ice crystals, which makes the ice cream softer and easier to scoop. And they increase the volume of the ice cream, sometimes up to a half air and half ice cream mix.
The key to making a good ice cream is the right balance between these ice crystals, concentrated cream and the air. The resulting product should be creamy, smooth, firm and just a little bit chewy. And it should have a milk fat percentage between 10 and 20%.
In vanilla-flavoured ice cream, the strength of flavour is very important too.
This is why in our taste test we not only assessed the ice cream based on standard sensory attributes such as taste, appearance and texture, but we also looked at vanilla strength, and at the balance of sweetness, creaminess and flavour.
Good ice cream should be creamy, smooth, firm and just a little bit chewy, with a milk fat percentage between 10 and 20%.
Read the ingredients list and you'll see that ice cream sometimes contain a number of different additives, most commonly emulsifiers, stabilisers and thickeners. The main reason they're there is to help retain an ice cream's smooth and creamy texture.
In many foods emulsifiers help prevent fat and water from separating into layers, while stabilisers and thickeners (such as vegetable gums) perform the similar functions of increasing stability, increasing viscosity (thickness) to a desired consistency, and maintaining the uniform dispersion of substances in solid and semi-solid foods.
For ice cream specifically, the emulsifiers help to promote the formation of a whipped fat structure in the product during freezing, which gives good melting resistance when being eaten. The emulsifiers also promote a longer shelf life and creaminess in the ice cream. Stabilisers and thickeners give a rich, creamy mouthfeel.
Emulsifiers, stabilisers and thickeners are there to help retain an ice cream's smooth and creamy texture
When a freezer goes through its cycles – warming up and cooling down again – small ice crystals present in the product can eventually grow into larger ones over time, typically resulting in a coarse texture and iciness. The stabilisers and thickeners play a useful role to limit the increasing size of ice crystals during storage.
Where traditionally ice cream producers would have relied on a food ingredient, specifically eggs, to help perform these functions, there are a few reasons why they may choose to use additives as an alternative.
Additives are more robust and easier to store and transport than eggs. Eggs are also a common allergen, so removing them from the recipe makes the product more widely accessible. Crucially, additives are more consistent in price and availability than eggs and are significantly more cost-effective.
The colour of ice cream is important; it's the first thing we notice when we look at it.
Most of the ice creams included in this test contain added colour. The additives are usually beta carotene (also listed as 160a), lutein (160b) or annatto (161b). These all lend a yellow/orange colour to food. These colours are used to mimic the colour of egg yolk, which is traditionally used to make ice cream. These additives have been approved by the Australian Food Standards (FSANZ) as safe to use in foods.
Four of the ice creams we tested contained gelatin or gelatine. Gelatin is added to many foods and comes from the skin, bones and tendons of animals. It's used to thicken or provide a desirable texture in the ice cream.
If you're a vegetarian then you'll want to avoid:
- Streets Blue Ribbon Classic Vanilla
- Streets Blue Ribbon Streets Light Vanilla Reduced Fat Ice Cream
- Golden North Vanilla Real Ice Cream
- Monarc Silverscoop Creamy Vanilla Flavoured, Made with Buttermilk.
Other ice creams in this test contained seaweed-derived gums such as carrageenan, which can be consumed in vegetarian diets.
It's easy to believe that if food is more expensive it's probably going to taste better. When it comes to ice cream, we've discovered that you can't buy flavour.
The most expensive product in our taste test, Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Ice Cream at $2.95 per 100g, earned a taste score of 78%. This put it in seventh place for taste, well behind the much cheaper home brand Coles Irresistible Vanilla Bean (65c per 100g), which got 86% for taste.
Expert tasting notes for the Haagen-Dazs included "good colour", "mild vanilla", "firm and dense with a clean finish", and "iciness, melts fast".
The second-most expensive ice cream in our test at $2.90 per 100g, Gelato Messina Vanilla Gelato, received a taste score of 74%. The expert tester notes for the Gelato Messina ice cream included "good colour", "natural creamy look", "weak vanilla", "melts easily" and "not too sweet".
Ice cream is an indulgence and you'd expect there to be cream, milk and sugar in abundance – with their associated fat, sugar and kilojoules.
Low-kilojoule or low-sugar ice cream is an option, but when you remove these goodies are you also removing the deliciousness?
Of the 20 products we tested that stated their milk fat percentage, eight were below 10%. But while there may be a lot of options for people looking for lower fat ice cream, unfortunately most of those products languish in the bottom half of the results table. One exception was the reduced-fat Streets Blue Ribbon Classic Vanilla, which placed third overall.
On average, the diet products (categorised as those containing less than 3g of fat per 100g) contained 696 kilojoules per 100g, compared with the average 949 kilojoules per 100g in the regular ice cream products we tested.
Per serve, that would equate to about a 300kJ difference. It's not a big difference, so if you're trying to cut down on kilojoules, you'll still need to be careful to not overdo it on the diet ice cream just because it's 'lite'.
We included ice creams labelled as vanilla ice cream, or were implied to be ice cream with ice cream imagery, that are available nationally through at least one of the major supermarket chains.
At CHOICE, we strive to test all products on the market to get a fair overview of what's available. However, in this instance, Woolworths Vanilla Ice Cream was unavailable at the time of the test and was therefore omitted.
Our experts tasted the ice cream samples blind (without knowing the brands) in a randomised order, and rated the ice creams on appearance, smell, taste, texture, vanilla strength and balance.
Experts independently judged all ice creams, scoring each sample for flavour and aroma, texture and presentation. The overall score (CHOICE Expert Rating) is made up of 90% taste (40% flavour, 10% aroma, 30% texture, 20% presentation) and 10% nutrition (100% Health Star Rating, calculated from the details in the nutrition information panel and converted to a percentage). We recommend products with a CHOICE Expert Rating of 80% or more.
Our expert taste testers (left to right) Andre Sandison, Adelle Di Bella, Petra Sugiarto and Gary Baker
Meet our expert taste testers
Garry Baker has worked in product development and management for the food industry for more than 30 years, primarily in the dairy and ice cream industries, and most recently in the area of ingredient technology. He's been on ice cream judging panels for the NSW Royal Agricultural Society's Sydney Royal Competitions since their inception, for the Dairy Industry Association of Australia (DIAA) and Dairy Australia's Australian Grand Dairy Awards (AGDA), as well as ice cream and gelato competitions internationally.
Petra Sugiarto has an academic background in food technology and microbiology and has been working in the food industry for more than 20 years, in particular the dairy industry in various applications including yoghurt, cheese, ice cream/gelato, dairy desserts. For the past 14 years she's been on the judging panels for the DIAA and Sydney Royal Cheese & Dairy Produce competitions and for the AGDA.
Andre Sandison is a head teacher at Le Cordon Bleu Sydney Culinary Arts Institute. As a qualified pastry chef, dairy is one of the cornerstones of his craft. He loves sharing both his passion for the profession and the simple pleasures that come from quality ingredients. In Andre's words: "Teaching students about pastry enables the next generation to put their own signature on the profession. Dairy, including yoghurt, provides a classic foundation that a pastry chef respects and appreciates for the distinct textures and flavours it brings to our craft."
Adelle Di Bella is a highly accomplished and talented pastry chef with an impressive career spanning more than twelve years. Adelle's collection of achievements includes three gold medals and a Medallion of Excellence in the WorldSkills competition. A career highlight was travelling to Italy for the World Junior Pastry Competition where she placed fifth, solidifying her place as one of the best young pastry chefs in the country.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.