Can’t eat dairy? These days, freezer cases are packed with dairyfree alternatives.
Can't eat dairy? These days, freezer cases are packed with dairyfree alternatives. (Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune)

Ice cream used to be an off-limit pleasure for those who can't eat dairy. Now, thanks to serious culinary magic, freezer cases are packed with creamy stand-ins made from everything from coconut to soybeans. Some are sugary concoctions best left in the carton. But others are as velvety rich and luscious as premium ice cream.

They may be dairy-free, but they are no diet food. A great nondairy ice cream starts with lots of natural fat; the best are made with cashews and coconut, but soy and almonds can work as well. The best ice creams contain top-notch gourmet ingredients -- and little else. Those that contain lots of gums, starches and faux flavorings are far less tasty.

Here's the scoop on the best and worst. (Nutrition information refers to a ½-cup serving.)

Luna & Larry's Hazelnut Fudge Coconut Bliss

Dessert doesn't get better than this dreamy coconut-based mix with nut and coconut fudge. It's as decadent as ice cream, with even more complex flavor. You'll find many tempting flavors, all coconut-based, in this brand. 240 calories, 11 g fat and 3 g protein. $5.49 per pint at Whole Foods. (4 stars)

Mr. Dewie's Cashew Milk Chocolate Frozen Dessert

The flavor of this ridiculously rich, velvety cream is so deeply chocolate, you won't even miss the dairy -- or notice that it is made with nuts. 270 calories, 15 g fat, 7 g protein. $7.89/pint at some Andronico's and Whole Foods. (4 stars)

Genuto 100% Nut-Based Madagascar Vanilla

Creamy mouthfeel and true, clean flavors make this cashew-based cream a sweet scoop worth seeking. The inventive flavor lineup includes strawberry-rosewater, crystallized ginger and chocolate-cardamom. 230 calories, 12 g fat, 5 g protein. $8.99/12-ounce carton at select Whole Foods. (4 stars)

Trader Joe's Chocolate Coconut Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert

Made with coconut milk, this slightly lighter dessert has fresh flavor and a clean consistency that's still decadent enough to satisfy. 180 calories, 9 g fat, 2 g protein. $3.49/pint. (3½ stars)

Trader Joe's Soy Creamy Cherry Chocolate Chip Non-Dairy Dessert

Except for the slight beany flavor of soy, this budget-priced dessert is a solid swap for standard ice cream. The vanilla is slightly less delicious, but still likely to fool the unsuspecting, if served alongside cake or pie. 190 calories, 8 g fat, 2 g protein. $3.29/quart (3 stars)

So Delicious Dairy Free Coconut Milk Chocolate

Pleasantly creamy and sweet, this coconut-forward ice cream could use a pinch of salt. Still, it's a fair pick for coconut fans. The version made with almond milk is less successful. 140 calories, 7 g fat, 1 gram protein. $6.49/pint at Whole Foods. (2 ½ stars)

Amy's Mocha Chip Organic Non-Dairy Dessert

This coconut-based treat is reminiscent of homemade ice cream, but it's a bit too sweet and its icy texture is off-putting. 240 calories, 15 g fat, 2 g protein. $5.99/pint at Safeway. (2 ½ stars)

Double Rainbow Vanilla Bean Soy Cream

This soy-based mix has a dreamy texture, but the beany flavor of the soy competes with the vanilla. 180 calories, 8 g fat, 2 g protein. $4.39/pint at Whole Foods. (2 stars)

DF Mavens Dairy-Free Del Lago Chocolate Frozen Dessert

This coconut-based dessert is pleasant and has creamy texture, but the sweetness dulls the flavor of the chocolate. The company also makes ice creams from almond and soy. A serving has 150 calories, 8 g fat, 1 gram protein. $8.50/pint at Whole Foods and Andronico's. (2 stars)

Purely Decadent Dairy Free Turtle Trails

This overly sweet, soy-based dessert isn't terrible, but it lacks fresh, authentic flavor. 180 calories, 7 g fat, 1 gram protein. $5.39/pint is at Safeway. (1 star)

Julie's Organic Non-Dairy Mint Chip

Too much sugar and not enough flavor makes this coconut-based dessert a poor pick. 220 calories, 14 g fat, 2 g of protein. $5.39/pint at Whole Foods; $9.99/1½ quarts on sale at Sprouts. (½ a star)

Dream Chocolate Indulgence Gelato

A strange earthy flavor overpowers the chocolate in this oddball mix of almond milk and tapioca. 150 calories, 7 g fat, 1 gram protein. $3.79/pint at Sprouts Market. (No stars)

Rice Dream Organic Vanilla

This tastes like wet cardboard dipped in corn syrup. 160 calories, 6 g fat, 0 g protein. A pint is $4.49 at Whole Foods. (No stars)

Reviews are based on product samples purchased by this newspaper or provided by manufacturers. Contact Jolene Thym at timespickyeater@gmail.com.