“Mommy, I want a snack!” How many times a day do you hear that in the summer? Those five words can be the gateway to so many perils. Processed food with dubious ingredients and scary color additives. Empty calories that will fill your children’s tummies and prevent them from digging into their dinner. And, if you are newly vegan, or live with non-vegans, discomfort with the idea that your kids will snatch a piece of cheese instead of something dairy-free. Stop worrying and start blending! In this post I will share with you the secret to making delicious yet amazingly healthy vegan ice pops that your kids will love as much as you.
The secret to delicious and healthy ice pops
The secret to great ice pops is to simply make a great smoothie with the best ingredients you can find… and sneak in a few extra nutrients. I find that my kids may not like a smoothie that’s “too healthy,” but will devour ice pops made of the exact same mixture. Go figure!
- Start with the ripest (but not too ripe) and freshest fruit you can find. Go for a pleasant color combo! In our home, there are usually “purple” and “orange” ice pops available. The purple pops are made with a combination of berries (hello, anti-oxidants!). The orange pops tends to be a tropical mix (for all your vitamin C needs). A browning banana doesn’t change the color, but adds sweetness, fiber, and minerals.
- A handful of greens (don’t go overboard!) will not impact the color of the purple kind, yet still contribute oodles of betacarotenoids and useful dietary fiber, and more. (Green ice pops? Sadly, my kids will have a lick, but won’t hold them long enough for me to photograph them. If yours are green smoothie lovers, take the next steps and make green frozen treats!)
- Add a milky mixture to smooth things up – I like to blend hemp seeds with water. (I guess you could use hemp milk – but I prefer skipping the intermediary.)
- And here comes the surprise yet stealth ingredient: algae-based omega-3 oil, with its significant EPA and DHA content.
Here is what these ice pops do NOT contain:
Many ice pop recipes contain dairy milk or yogurt, which are easily replaced by vegan versions. Sadly, conventional recipes often use gelatin. Yuck! In case you don’t know, gelatin is based on the collagen of animals, extracted by boiling skin, tendons, ligaments or bones in water. NOT what I want in my frozen treats. My mom used to add an envelope of Jell-O to the ice pops she made, apparently to prevent them from melting faster than we could eat them. My healthy vegan ice pop recipe uses a thick smoothie base, as opposed to juice alone. So the ice pops do not melt uncontrollably – without an added gelling agent! (If you want to make ice pops with juice, quickly boil with agar powder as an alternative to Jell-O.)
Wait, don’t hemp and flax have omega-3s?
Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist or dietitian. The notes below are just the result of me doing my mom job, researching some nutrition facts, and sharing the results with you. As always, I encourage you to consult a registered dietitian if you have any health concerns.
Omega-3 fatty acids contribute to brain and eye health in particular, and are thought to be particularly important for the development of babies and young children. There are some indications that they also contribute to heart health in adults, however as far as I can tell the peer-reviewed research is not conclusive on that topic.
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids. ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) is found in certain plant foods such as flax, chia and hemp seeds, as well as walnuts, leafy greens, seaweed, and soybeans. Animal bodies, including those of humans, convert the ALA into two “long chain” types of omega-3s, called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
Because sea animals eat lots and lots of seaweed, EPA and DHA end up reasonably concentrated in fish… hence the marketing of fish oil as “brain food.” Unfortunately, fish harvesting is not only cruel but also very damaging for the environment. Furthermore, oily fish tend to accumulate pollutants in their flesh. I definitely do not want to be serving fish oil to my kids! But how to get those precious DHA molecules?
Thankfully, there are vegan alternatives! Various brands of algae-based EPA/DHA supplements have appeared on the market, either as gel capsules or bottled oil. They are usually citrus-flavored, making them perfect additions to smoothies!
Theoretically, human bodies can convert ALA into EPA and DHA too. Unfortunately, not everyone’s body does an excellent job at that task. That’s why vegan dietitians seem to agree to recommend taking an EPA/DHA supplement, at the very least for pregnant and lactating mothers and young children. (For what it’s worth, Dr. Greger also believes EPA/DHA supplements are likely a good bet for adult health.)
Omega-3 ice pops to the rescue!
This ice pop recipe includes hemp seeds, which are a good source of ALA omega-3s, and I recommend adding a teaspoon of your favorite algae-based EPA/DHA oil (see notes in recipe). When your kids nibble on these frozen treats, they get to convert whatever ALA they are able to into longer-chain omega-3s, plus they absorb some EPA and DHA straight up. Perfect!
Based on Davis and Melina’s Becoming Vegan (Express Edition) book (p. 68), the adequate intake of ALA is around 1 g for children (a bit less for younger kids, more for big boys, men, and moms). If if there are no sources of EPA and DHA in your diet, Davis and Melina recommend doubling the ALA dose. The suggested combined dose for those who do get some EPA/DHA sources includes an extra 70 to 300 mg of DHA/EPA. (Still with me?)
if you follow the recipe below, using NutraVege 500 mg EPA/DHA as an example, here is the approximate omega-3 breakdown that will be included in each ice pop:
if using 2 tsp regular NutraVege as an EPA/DHA supplement (500 mg EPA/DHA per teaspoon), and a 40 mL ice pop volume, each ice pop would contain approximately 0.2 g ALA (from the hemp hearts) and 83 mg EPA/DHA. My kids usually eat 3 ice pops in one sitting, so that’s more than half of the “adequate intake” considering their age. Good start!
I recommend you do the math based on the type of hemp seeds and omega-3 EPA/DHA supplement that you use, and the size of your ice pops. (Those 40 mL pops, picture above, are quite small compared to adult-size ice pops, or the average ice pop purchased in a box at your local grocery store.)
My favorite ice pop molds
You can make these ice pops using a regular blender or food processor, but a high-power blender (Vitamix, Blendtec or similar) will really make a difference when it comes to texture.
You will also need some ice pop molds. I purchased these Zoku silicone molds more than 4 years ago now and they still serve us well. I first bought the “sea creatures” set, followed by the “bubbles.” I love the latter because they are quite small, so if they are forgotten somewhere the mess will be contained. We recently acquired a new “mixed creatures” set for those hot summer days when having only 15 ice pops ready to eat in the fridge just doesn’t cut it.
You can also transfer the ice pop mixture into reusable pouches or silicone freezy molds. My kids bring them to school and daycare to have as their morning snack.
For the record, my son recently made me buy a set of Tavolo dinosaur ice pop molds. The rack feels less sturdy and more likely to tip over in my freezer, but they are still great. However, the dinosaurs are about twice the size of the Zoku animals, and often get abandoned to melt somewhere before they are finished. I think they will become more useful when the kids outgrow the bubble ones.
Endless variations are possible
Switch things around from time to time! Cultivating your child’s appetite for a diversity of flavors and textures will serve them well in the long run.
- Use any fruit you like, really! Start with small batches and see how it goes.
- No hemp seeds? Almonds and cashews will give an equally smooth texture without impacting taste. No ALA omega-3s, though. Walnuts have ALA, but a more pronounced flavor that some may not appreciate in ice pops.
- Soy milk, instead of the hemp-water mix, would increase the protein content of those ice pops, and it does have some ALA. It doesn’t hurt to switch things around once in a while!
- A tablespoon of maple syrup would perfectly replace the dates in a pinch, but you’d be missing out on vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
What is your favorite combination?
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