Ice Cream With a Catch

At one of my first health coach meetings, I was surprised and delighted to discover that one of my peers brought a few pints of the new, “healthy” ice cream, Halo Top—a food craze beginning to spread across college campuses. As I dipped my spoon into the vanilla bean flavoring, I was amazed that something so delicious could only contain 240 calories in an entire pint. A typical Ben & Jerry’s pint contains 240 calories per serving, with four servings per pint. So, why not indulge in a 240-calorie pint instead of its 960-calorie competitor? It seemed too good to be true, yet my fellow health coaches endorsed it.

I couldn’t help but wonder how healthy this wonder food actually was in comparison to the real deal. When a consumer looks at a Halo Top container, the first thing he or she sees is its calorie content in huge, bold letters printed on the front. This placement is a smart marketing scheme because it sets the ice cream apart from its competitors, which contain two, three, or four times more calories. Additionally, Halo Top advertisers are taking advantage of the common dieter’s obsession with counting calories, and only calories. Calories are all that matter, right? Well, not exactly, and here’s why.

A consumer solely concerned with counting calories will probably buy Halo Top rather than its more calorically-dense counterpart. He or she rationalizes that if the product contains only 240 calories, then the pint can be eaten relatively guilt-free. A closer look at the ingredients, however, reveals that Halo Top isn’t exactly healthy. One pint contains 20 percent of the recommended daily sodium intake and 16 grams of sugar. The treat also contains 16 grams of a low-calorie sugar substitute called sugar alcohol, and the use of this alternative ingredient is a cause for concern.

From a manufacturer’s perspective, sugar alcohols are the perfect replacement for sugar, as they contain all the same sweetness without the calories. But their appeal is also their weakness. Because sugar alcohols aren’t completely digested by the body, their consumption can lead to bloating, flatulence, diarrhea, and unstable blood sugar levels. Additionally, recent studies have shown that consuming sugar substitutes can lead to an increase in sugar cravings, and in some cases, weight gain. A consumer is more likely to eat Halo Top in excess, rather than just one serving, due to its artificial sweetness.

Despite this damaging evidence, sugar alcohols remain in a plethora of products in the food industry today. They are masked by complicated names including sorbitol, xylitol, and erythitol, which can also be found in Splenda, Stevia, Yoplait and Dannon yogurt, and SmartPop popcorn. They are also in foods advertised as “lite,” “sugar free,” or “low carb,” such as Ocean Spray Lite Cranberry Juice, Smucker’s Sugar Free Preserves, Sugar-Free Jell-O, and Hershey’s Lite Syrup, to name a few. Less obvious culprits include Nestle Hot Chocolate, Life Savers, Heinz Ketchup, Stride gum, and Low Calorie Gatorade.

With that being said, I must admit to occasionally indulging in Halo Top, drinking Diet Coke, and using Stevia in my morning coffee. But I try to limit my intake in order to avoid the negative effects of sugar alcohols, and try to continue learning about what’s actually in the food I consume. During health coach training, we were taught that there are no bad foods, but there are bad diets.

So yes, the hackneyed mantra of “moderation and variation” rings true, as the average college student needs to be realistic in their dieting goals. Halo Top may offer a lower-calorie alternative to traditional ice cream, but it is important to understand how its ingredients have an impact on the body—i.e. sugar alcohols can make you hungrier rather than sated—and how the treat can fit into an otherwise wholesome diet. 

Ideally, I aim to consume natural and nutritionally-dense foods such as apples, melons, bananas, and berries when I’m craving something sweet. Rather than focusing on the carbohydrate and fat content of pseudo-ice cream, a healthier mindset appreciates the antioxidants and vitamins found in these foods that fuel the body. The occasional treat such as Halo Top, however, can fit in a healthy diet, provided its consumption is complemented with a balance of protein, healthy fats, vegetables, fruits, and a good source of calcium.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Staff