The ice cream industry experienced a regime change on Monday when low-calorie, high-protein pints of Halo Top ice cream dethroned top-selling brands Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs to become the best-selling pint of ice cream in the U.S.
Since Halo Top launched in 2012, the company has experienced huge growth, with sales spiking 2,500% from 2015 to 2016 alone. Fans have flocked to the ice cream for its guilt-free health claims; entire pints range from just 240 to 360 calories per container (or 60 to 90 calories per half-cup serving). Compared to other popular brands, that’s a substantial calorie cut: a half-cup serving of Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream is 250 calories. Halo Top also boasts 20 grams of protein per pint.
But is the low-calorie ice cream healthy?
Halo Top Creamery CEO Justin Woolverton describes it that way. “Everybody has their own definition of healthy,” he says. “For us, [it means] foods that are as unprocessed as they can be. Halo Top is something where people can eat the whole pint, or a lot more than a quarter of a cup of ice cream. It can fit into their diet without breaking the calorie bank.”
Not everyone agrees. Unlike fruits and vegetables that are naturally full of nutrients, Halo Top is a processed dairy product with sugar and sweeteners. Even though Halo Top contains fewer calories than other pints, that doesn’t mean it's helping your health, experts say — and don’t let the added nutrients, like protein and fiber, fool you.
“My two pet peeves are that it feels like [Halo Top] is highlighting two things: ‘You can eat this entire pint for only a small amount of calories, and look at all this protein!’” says Keri Gans, a registered dietitian in New York City. “No one should eat a whole point of ice cream. We should be sitting down to the recommended serving, which is half a cup. If you want to double it, fine, but you shouldn’t sit down to a pint.”
Nor should people prioritize getting protein from their dessert. “Protein is such a hot nutrient right now, and people are buying it without really knowing why,” says Gans. “Most people eat ice cream after eating dinner, and most do not need extra protein.”
Humans need protein to repair cells and encourage healthy growth and development. But getting enough protein isn’t an issue for most Americans; federal data shows that American adults consume around 15% of their daily calories from protein. There are also plenty of sources of protein, from chicken to quinoa, that are more nutritious than ice cream.
To keep calories low, Halo Top uses the zero-calorie sweetener Stevia. For added sweetness, it also uses organic cane sugar — which is still sugar — and erythritol, which is a type of sugar alcohol. While many sugar alcohols are thought to be linked to gastrointestinal problems, Gans says erythritol is typically less potent than others. Halo Top also uses prebiotic fiber, which Woolverton says is a natural type of fiber derived from plants like chicory root, to give the ice cream more texture and body.
Some nutrition experts are skeptical about low-calorie or artificial sweeteners. A recent report analyzed 37 studies on zero-calorie sweeteners and found that despite have few or zero calories, they don’t actually help people lose weight — and instead may contribute to weight gain. It’s unclear why, but scientists speculate that r egularly eating or drinking sugar substitutes may also cause people to crave sweeter foods more often, or people may believe that because they haven't consumed calories, they can splurge elsewhere. Some early evidence also suggests that sweeteners might interfere with the body’s mechanisms for metabolizing sugar.
There’s also a big difference in the weight of the actual ice cream. A pint of vanilla Halo Top weighs 256 grams, while a pint of Ben & Jerry’s vanilla weighs 428 grams. As Food & Wine Magazine points out, Halo Top is lighter in part because it contains less sugar and fat — the stuff that makes ice cream sweet and thick.
Overall, Gans says she doesn’t see any problems with what’s in the ice cream. “ As far as the ingredients go, there’s nothing there that I would question as a red flag,” she says.
But be skeptical of packaging and marketing that gives any ice cream a health halo. Labeling on the front of a package has been shown to make buyers view the food more favorably, regardless of the food's actual health value.
Even with high protein and low calories, Halo Top is still ice cream — something to remember before you devour an entire pint.
With reporting by Mahita Gajanan