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Ice Cream with a (Health) Halo?

Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

It’s not uncommon to have a craving for something sweet at the end of the day, and many people now satisfy that craving by turning to a low-calorie ice cream.  In 2017, Halo Top beat out household names like Breyers, Hood, Haagen Daas, and even Vermont’s own Ben and Jerry’s to become the number one selling brand of ice cream in grocery stores.1 Halo Top’s claim to fame is their low-sugar, low-calorie ice cream that contains between 280 and 360 calories and 20-24 grams of protein per pint.2

When you compare Halo Top’s nutrient content to that of other ice creams on the shelves, it’s easy to see why people gravitate towards this option.  A ½-cup serving of their vanilla bean contains 70 calories, 2 grams of fat, 6 grams of sugar, and 5 grams of protein.2 On the other hand, ½ cup of Ben and Jerry’s vanilla bean contains 250 calories, 16 grams of fat, 20 grams of sugar, and 4 grams of protein.3 Ben and Jerry’s is working on a low-calorie version of their own called Moo-phoria, but even that doesn’t compare to Halo Top.  A ½-cup serving of Moo-phoria Chocolate Milk & Cookies contains 140 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 15 grams of sugar, and 3 grams of protein.4

Halo Top keeps their calorie and sugar content so low because their ice cream is primarily sweetened with erythritol, a low-calorie sugar alcohol.  Sugar alcohols are molecules that have a similar structure to regular sugar, so they still taste sweet but aren’t metabolized the same way sugar is.5 Some sugar alcohols, such as xylitol, have the reputation of causing digestive problems.  These sweeteners aren’t absorbed in your small intestine, so they continue on to your large intestine where they are broken down by your gut bacteria, which draws water into your intestine and causes diarrhea.  Unlike those sugar alcohols, most of the erythritol you eat is absorbed in your small intestine, entering your blood stream where it circulates for a while before you excrete it in your urine.6 This means you’re a lot less likely to get an upset stomach after eating it.

Erythritol is also lower in calories than other sugar alcohols.  While regular sugar contains 4 calories per gram and xylitol contains 2.4 calories per gram, one gram of erythritol contains only 0.24 calories.  Studies have also shown that it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels or increase insulin release, making it a potential alternative for people with diabetes who want something sweet.5,6 In one study, 20 subjects ate meals that contained table sugar and meals that contained erythritol.  Researchers found that erythritol didn’t affect the satiety hormones released after eating, and subjects’ blood sugars did not rise as much after eating the erythritol meal.  Additionally, the amount subjects ate at their next meal didn’t differ when they ate food with table sugar or erythritol.  This was a small study, so more research is needed to confirm these findings; however, they’re significant because previous research has found that people eat more later in the day after consuming other low-calorie and artificial sweeteners like aspartame.7

Taken together, all of this suggests that Halo Top could be a good alternative to other, higher-calorie sweets, especially if you’re working to lose weight, maintain weight loss, or monitor your blood sugar.  However, be careful not to get swept up in the glow of Halo Top’s health halo.  You might say a food has a health halo if it seems to have more nutritional value than it actually does because marketing highlights one particular nutrient it contains (low-calorie, high-protein, etc.) or a certain quality of the food (local, organic, etc.).8 When people see foods marketed this way, they tend to over-estimate the health benefits they provide and underestimate the calorie, fat, or sugar content.  Halo Top’s marketing draws on the health halo effect by putting the spotlight on its lower calorie and higher protein content, making people forget that it is a highly processed food that doesn’t contain any other nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, or antioxidants.

At the same time, Halo Top’s advertising heavily implies that it is the only dessert you can eat without feeling guilty about your food choices, while encouraging you to eat the entire (4 serving) pint in one sitting.  The idea that you should feel guilty for eating certain foods is counterproductive not only for your overall health, but also for weight maintenance or loss.  Feelings of guilt after eating “treats,” especially chocolate, are associated with higher amounts of dysfunctional eating, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction.  Additionally, people who associate chocolate with feelings of guilt tend to gain more weight and have less confidence about choosing and preparing healthy meals than people who have a neutral attitude towards chocolate.9

Halo Top may satisfy a sweet craving, and those 60 calories and 6 grams of protein per ½ cup serving may fit into a meal plan that meets your calorie needs, but could a better choice be made?  Absolutely.  A more balanced approach would be to choose a dessert with more nutritional value that doesn’t promote the idea that you’re doing something “wrong” by indulging in sweets.  Homemade silken mousse with a scoop of protein powder and ¼ cup of fresh raspberries, a baked apple stuffed with ¼ cup cooked quinoa and topped with ½ cup of Greek yogurt and 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts, or one of these oat bran banana muffins topped with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter would all provide similar calories and protein with more vitamins and minerals than a pint of Halo Top.  This way you can satisfy your craving, savor the experience, and get more nutritional value per serving.  Give it a try!


  1.  Halo Top Is Now the Most Popular Pint of Ice Cream in America | Food & Wine. http://www.foodandwine.com/desserts/halo-top-most-popular-ice-cream-pint-in-us. Accessed March 26, 2018.
  2.  Dairy Flavors. HALO TOP. https://www.halotop.com/flavors/. Accessed March 26, 2018.
  3.  Vanilla Ice Cream | Ben & Jerry’s. https://www.benjerry.com. https://www.benjerry.com:443/flavors/vanilla-ice-cream. Accessed March 26, 2018.
  4.  Moo-phoria Light Ice Cream. https://www.benjerry.com. https://www.benjerry.com:443/flavors/moophoria. Accessed March 26, 2018.
  5.  Erythritol – Like Sugar Without The Calories. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/erythritol. Accessed March 26, 2018.
  6.  What is erythritol? https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318392.php. Accessed March 26, 2018.
  7.  Overduin J, Collet T-H, Medic N, et al. Failure of sucrose replacement with the non-nutritive sweetener erythritol to alter GLP-1 or PYY release or test meal size in lean or obese people. Appetite. 2016;107:596-603. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.09.009
  8.  Tierney J. Health Halo Can Hide the Calories. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/02/science/02tier.html. Published December 1, 2008. Accessed April 9, 2018.
  9.  Kuijer RG, Boyce JA. Chocolate cake. Guilt or celebration? Associations with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioural control, intentions and weight-loss. Appetite. 2014;74:48-54. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2013.11.013

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