Pulling into McDonald’s for an ice cream is an act of both self-care and self-destruction. There are (emotional) wounds that only an Oreo McFlurry can heal — trust me, I’d know — but at the cost of a destructive sugar overload.
In an effort to minimize harm, I asked registered dietitian Niti Patel, founder of Nutrition Is Today’s Intelligence, to help me identify the least unhealthy frozen cream available at a wide assortment of fast-food restaurants.
Right away, I should note that the best choice in most cases is a small vanilla ice cream cone. But sometimes you want something a little extra, so here are the ice creams I asked Patel to sort through, alongside nutritional information for their smallest sizes (because ordering anything larger is a death wish). You’ll notice that, as the ingredients are all so similar, this is a little different from our standard rankings.
Which Fast Food Restaurant Has the Healthiest Ice Cream?
- Wendy’s Chocolate Frosty: 200 calories, 3 grams of saturated fat and 27 grams of sugar
- Burger King Chocolate Fudge Sundae: 286 calories, 5 grams of saturated fat and 40 grams of sugar
- A&W Root Beer Float: 310 calories, 3 grams of saturated fat and 59 grams of sugar
- Culver’s Vanilla Custard: 310 calories, 11 grams of saturated fat, 0.5 grams of trans fat and 27 grams of sugar
- Dairy Queen Oreo Cookie Blizzard: 380 calories, 7 grams of saturated fat and 44 grams of sugar
- McDonald’s M&M McFlurry: 420 calories, 9 grams of saturated fat and 55 grams of sugar
- Sonic Fresh Banana Shake: 430 calories, 15 grams of saturated fat, 0.5 grams of trans fat and 37 grams of sugar
- Shake Shack Black & White Shake: 580 calories, 19 grams of saturated fat and 58 grams of sugar
- Chick-Fil-A Peach Milkshake: 590 calories, 13 grams of saturated fat and 88 grams of sugar
- Carl’s Jr. Strawberry Shake: 690 calories, 24 grams of saturated fat, 1.5 grams of trans fat and 64 grams of sugar
There are some glaring problems across the board, of course, beginning with all of that saturated fat. “Milk-based products will have saturated fat,” Patel explains. “A diet rich in saturated fat can increase total cholesterol and potentially lead to more harmful LDL cholesterol. High LDL cholesterol is known to cause blockages to form in arteries in the heart and other parts of the body.” The average person should consume between 16 and 22 grams of saturated fat a day, and as you can see, several of the above ice creams contain more than or close to that.
But the bigger problem, according to Patel, may be trans fats, which can severely increase your risk of heart disease. “Trans fatty acids, otherwise known as partially hydrogenated fats, are industrially made to make a fat solid at room temperature,” she explains. “Solid fat is ideal to keep food from perishing and to increase shelf life. But trans fatty acids are so bad for our health that the Food and Drug Administration prohibited the use of any partially hydrogenated oils in food production starting in June of 2018. There are many companies that still need to transition, though: As of now, companies that petitioned have been given an extension from June of 2018 to January of 2021.”
As you can see above, several ice creams contain trans fats, which sends them straight to the bottom of our health scale. “Any company still using partially hydrogenated oil and risking our health with trans fatty acids leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” Patel says. “Of those listed, Sonic, Culver’s and Carl’s Jr. need to step up and make changes to protect the health of their consumers.” She also adds, “Please note: Trans fat can be listed as 0 grams if the final product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat.”
Trans fats aside, we have a sugar problem across the board as well. The American Heart Association recommends men consume no more than 36 grams and women consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day. In contrast, a small Chick-Fil-A Peach Milkshake contains 88 grams (!!!) of sugar. In fact, every ice cream on our list delivers more than the recommended amount of sugar for women to consume in a single day.
Still, one ice cream stands out as the least unhealthy. “The winner of the group is Wendy’s Chocolate Frosty,” Patel says. “It has 0 grams of trans fatty acid, is the lowest in all other categories and is made with natural vanilla flavor.”
On second thoughts, maybe I’ll just have a burger.