Everyone deserves to have treats every now and then, and with new products coming out that look and (sometimes) taste just like your favorites with less sugar, fat, and calories, it’s tempting to fit them into your healthy routine as often as you can. Eating an entire pint of ice cream for only 250 calories sounds like a dream come true, but as with any food it is important to focus not just on how many calories you get from it but also the quality of those calories in terms of macronutrient and micronutrient content.
Are all low-calorie ice creams created equal?
Let’s look at two popular brands of ice cream with low calorie contents: Halo Top and Ben and Jerry’s “Moo-phoria” Light Ice Cream.
At a glance, it looks like Halo Top is the preferred choice. One serving has fewer calories, fat, and carbohydrates and 1 g more protein. When you focus on macronutrients, it seems like the best way to have something sweet without disrupting your goals.
However, while the Halo Top is lower in calories and fat, it is important to look at what percentage of those calories are coming from fat. In one serving of Halo Top, 33% of the total calories come from fat. One serving of Ben and Jerry’s (B&J), on the other hand, has 28% of the total calories from fat. For both choices, half of the total fat content is saturated fat, though the B&J serving does contain more total fat and more saturated fat than the Halo Top serving, while the Halo Top has more cholesterol. If you stick to just one serving, Halo Top is the lower-fat choice. Keep in mind, it can be tempting to eat more than one serving of a lower calorie treat, in which case the Halo Top contains more fat per calorie.
Where did all of the calories go?
One of the ways that Halo Top creates a sweeter product with fewer calories is sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols on average contain 2 kcal/g, and taste as sweet as sugar. Halo Top uses a sugar alcohol called Erythritol and it contains 0 kcal/g. Unlike other sugar alcohols it does not have a laxative or bloating effect. The small intestine absorbs erythritol, and because most of the bacteria in our body is unable to ferment it, the sugar alcohol is simply excreted in urine.
Erythritol is isolated from glucose fermented with yeast and is often paired with other sweeteners like stevia (such as in Halo Top) to produce a taste and mouthfeel that closely resembles sugar. Erythritol also requires stabilization and mitigation of its natural flavor with other ingredients such as vegetable glycerin. So while it provides fewer calories for its taste, it also requires extra ingredients that your body can’t make use of.
Other changes to the standard ice cream recipe
Another important aspect of the nutrition label when comparing low calorie ice creams is the sodium content. Halo Top has more than twice the salt of Ben and Jerry’s, with 110 mg in a ½ cup serving compared to only 45 mg in a ½ cup serving. This is likely due to the lower cream and sugar content of the Halo Top. Cream and sugar are important contributors to the smooth and creamy texture of ice cream. Increasing salt can help to enhance texture and flavor lost in these recipes.
On the other hand, Ben and Jerry’s lighter ice creams keep more of the cream and milk fat content of their standard recipe. This allows them to avoid the use of sugar alcohols or isolated sweeteners. This highlights the two different approaches to producing a low-calorie ice cream – adjusting the classic ice cream recipe of cream, sugar, and eggs to provide a lower ratio of these higher calorie ingredients or replacing key ingredients of the classic recipe to provide a new product that mimics the original.
The Bottom Line
When considering different options among low-calorie ice creams the most important thing to remember is that these are not sources of nutrition. While one ice cream may be higher in protein than another, it is not a good substitute for protein from lean meats, eggs, rice, beans, or other vegetables. If you find yourself choosing an entire pint of low-calorie ice cream over one serving of a higher calorie ice cream, you may end up consuming more calories overall and feeling less satisfaction from your indulgence. A lower-fat treat is digested more quickly than one with a higher fat content, and a treat made with sugar alcohols and other low calorie sweeteners may lead to increased cravings for sugar once your body realizes that although you tasted something sweet, it did not receive much energy from what you ate.
It comes down to what you want from your ice cream. If your idea of indulgence is a larger volume of food and you find yourself eating the entire pint of whatever ice cream you buy, the lower-calorie choice will make less of an impact on your calorie and macronutrient goals. If your idea of indulgence is more centered on satisfaction with a smaller portion, one serving of a moderately low-calorie ice cream will provide you with a treat that satisfies your cravings and still allows you to stay within your calorie and macronutrient goals.