This year, we reached peak Halo when the company opened two scoop shops in LA where fans can get their Halo fix in soft serve form as well as scoops swaddled in a bubbled waffle cone called a puffle.
The appeal of the Instagramable Halo Top and other low-calorie, low-fat ice creams including Breyers Delight, Chilly Cow, Enlightened, Three Twins’ offshoot Slim Twin, Swell and Sweet Habit is that they’re low in sugar, calories and fat, high in protein and fiber, and they’re all made with some sort of natural sweetener, like the plant-based stevia. Almost all of them contain erythritol, a sugar alcohol used to sweeten the ice cream. Swell contains xylitol, another type of sugar alcohol.
But ... um, what are all those ingredients actually doing to us, aside from being low in calories?
Low-calorie ice creams contain considerably more ingredients than traditional ice creams.
“I would consider the fiber, calcium and protein content of these ice creams to be a positive,” said Dr. Jessica D. Bihuniak, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at NYU Steinhardt Department of Nutrition and Food Studies and a registered dietician. “However, I am not sure these products will satisfy all individuals.”
If you look at the nutrition facts, you can see why. Regular ice cream packs a lot more fat and calories.
One serving of Halo Top vanilla bean — or half a cup — contains:
- 70 calories
- 2 grams of fat
- 6 grams of sugars (5 grams of sugar alcohol)
- 3 grams of fiber
- 5 grams of protein
Even if you eat an entire pint (approximately two cups, or 4 servings), Halo Top clocks in between 280-360 calories, depending on the flavor.
In comparison, just a half-cup serving of Ben & Jerry’s vanilla contains:
- 250 calories
- 16 grams of fat
- 20 grams of sugars (no sugar alcohol)
- no dietary fiber
- 4 grams of protein
What accounts for the huge difference in calories? Take a look at the ingredients.
The base ingredients in Halo’s astounding 25 dairy flavors (and counting) include the following: skim milk, eggs, erythritol, prebiotic fiber, milk protein concentrate, cream, organic cane sugar, vegetable glycerin (a sweetener), natural flavor, sea salt, organic carob gum, organic guar gum and organic stevia leaf extract.
To compare, let’s look at the ingredients in Ben & Jerry’s vanilla: cream, skim milk, liquid sugar (sugar, water), water, egg yolks, sugar, guar gum, vanilla extract, vanilla beans and carrageenan.
So is that long list of ingredients in Halo Top (and other low-calorie ice creams) actually OK for us to eat?
What do all those ingredients do to our bodies?
We looked at the ingredients in Halo Top, Breyers Delight, Chilly Cow, Enlightened, Slim Twin, Swell and Sweet Habit. Here are some you might wonder about.
Stevia is a high-intensity sweetener containing steviol glycosides, used to sweeten foods. It’s reported to be 200 to 400 times sweeter than table sugar.
Stevia is categorized as a nonnutritive, meaning it is low- or zero-calorie. The FDA states that “stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts are not considered GRAS [Generally Recognized As Safe] and do not have FDA approval for use in food.”
Breyers Delights contains a type of steviol glycosides extract named rebaudioside A (Reb A), and Chilly Cow contains the GRAS Reb M extract. Halo Top and Sweet Habit don’t specify which kind of stevia leaf extract they use ― so it’s hard to say whether they’re GRAS ― but stevia is listed last on Halo’s ingredients, and Sweet Habit contains less than 2 percent of the extract.
Bihuniak mentioned that in April, a study published in the journal Obesity pointed to the effect these sweeteners have on rodents and humans.
“Since sweet taste is normally a signal to our bodies that the food product contains calories, some researchers have hypothesized that eating a sweet product that is calorie-free may result in appetite dysregulation and unfavorable metabolic responses,” Bihuniak said. “Animals consuming nonnutritive sweeteners consumed more calories, gained more weight and had higher levels of glucose in their blood compared to animals receiving glucose.”
Of course, that applies to animals and not necessarily humans, but that still doesn’t sound optimistic. But she adds, “However, if we focus on intervention studies, which if well designed, can provide a strong level of evidence that nonnutritive sweeteners can be beneficial for weight management when used as a replacement for sugar-sweetened products.”
This is a sugar alcohol that functions as a low-calorie sweetener. While many sugar alcohols are found in small amounts in fruits and vegetables, erythritol is produced on a large scale and only contains 0.24 calories per gram.
But how safe is it for you? Erythritol’s chemical structure has been known to make digestion difficult when it’s eaten in large amounts, but it’s GRAS by the FDA. One study showed that 50 grams of erythritol consumed at once resulted in increased nausea and stomach rumbling.
Monk fruit extract
Monk fruit extract is another high-intensity sweetener, and it’s 100-250 times sweeter than table sugar. It appears in Slim Twin and Enlightened. The FDA deemed monk fruit extract as GRAS.
According to WebMD, xylitol can be harmful to dogs, and if humans consume “extremely high doses” of it for more than three years, it might lead to tumors. Swell is the only brand on our list that contains xylitol.
Locust bean gum (also called carob gum) and guar gum are used as a thickening agent and water-binding agent. “Guar gum may have a beneficial impact on blood cholesterol levels,” Bihuniak says, “however, the amount ingested would need to be a substantial amount.” Of the brands we inspected, Swell is the only one that doesn’t use any gums.
Prebiotics — found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains — promote the growth of good bacteria in the colon. One type of prebiotic that shows up on ingredient lists is inulin, extracted from chicory root. According to Today’s Dietitian, “When inulin is fermented in the colon, it promotes the production of the helpful gut bacteria Bifidobacteria.”
“Thus, it may improve gastrointestinal health,” Bihuniak said.
Swell and Chilly Cow contain inulin, and Halo Top adds prebiotic fiber.
Skim milk seems to be the preferred choice for low-calorie ice creams instead of whole milk, though Swell uses both.
“I believe that both types of milk have their place,” Bihuniak said. “One cup of skim milk provides approximately 90 calories, 8 grams of protein and 300 mg of calcium. The protein and calcium content is the same regardless of the fat content of the milk. Further, reduced fat and skim milks are required to be fortified with vitamin A.”
She thinks for those adults trying to manage weight, “skim milk can be a great nutrient-rich, lower calorie beverage option.”
Halo Top and the ilk are good sources for fiber, such as soluble tapioca fiber, which “attracts water and turns to gel during digestion, and may increase satiety,” Bihuniak says. Soluble corn fiber — a functional fiber — also pops up in some of the ice creams.
According to The American Heart Association Eating Plan, Americans’ total daily dietary fiber intake should be 25 to 35 grams from food, not supplements. However, Americans typically only consume 15 grams a day. Low-calorie ice creams can help with this.
Halo Top contains 2-3 grams per half-cup serving, or 8-12 percent of the recommended daily intake. Per half-cup from Swell and Slim Twin, you get 3 grams, or 12 percent. Sweet Habit has 4 grams per half cup. Enlightened offers 5 grams per half-cup, or 20 percent. One serving of Chilly Cow (a half tub, or 155 grams) contains a whopping 9 to 11 grams of fiber, or 36 to 44 percent. However, a serving of Breyers Delights (3/4 cup) has no fiber. But if you eat a whole pint, you’ll receive around 1 gram, or four percent of daily intake.
“One reason functional fibers are added to products is to increase the fiber intake of consumers,” Bihuniak says. “Soluble corn fiber is also made from cornstarch. It is partially fermented by gut bacteria in the large intestine and provides similar health benefits to dietary fiber.”
In the end, it’s all about balance
“I do not believe that there is one type of diet that is the best,” Bihuniak said, recommending that people follow the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans if they’re looking to eat healthily.
In other words, just don’t eat nothing but Halo Top for 10 days straight, like a writer for GQ did.
“By removing entire food groups from his diet, he is placing himself at risk for nutrient deficiencies,” Bihuniak says. “Once he begins eating other foods again there is a good chance he will gain back some, if not all, of the weight he lost. Very restrictive diets tend to not promote long-term weight loss.”
Low-cal ice creams place a whole lot of unhealthy emphasis on “guilt.”
Another factor in the low-calorie weight-loss trend is how Halo Top advertises a “guilt-free” experience. Halo Top CEO Justin Woolverton encouraged customers to eat an entire pint in one setting. Chilly Cow’s slogan is “Save Yourself from Yourself.”
However, what’s so wrong with indulging in tasty, fatty, high-caloric and sugar-busting ice cream (aka real ice cream) once in a while?
“I agree that the messaging associated with these ice creams has an underlining food/fat shaming tone,” Bihuniak said. “As a dietitian by training, I followed the school of thought that ‘all foods fit’ and that people should be able to include dessert foods in their diet in moderation.”
She reasons some people have issues with portion control — “which would make Halo Top a good option” — but she’s concerned if the low-calorie ice creams don’t gratify customers, “they may over-consume the product or eat more than they normally would have,” she said. “You need to find what works for you and should not be made to feel bad about your choices.”