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Can Ice Cream Really Be Healthy? The Fibs Behind Healthy Ice Cream

Of the many new gimmicks nowadays, Healthy Ice Cream is definitely a staff favorite at Consider The Consumer. Every time a writer is working late, burning that midnight oil, we just so happen to find a pint or two of Halo Top in the garbage can the next morning. We eat a lot of the stuff, especially around the summer months, but this begs the questions: Can Ice Cream really be healthy?

Consumer Reports states that this is what many of the newer frozen treats on the market seem to suggest you can do. “Who knew a whole pint of delicious ice cream was 270 calories . . . we did!,” the Breyers Delights package reads. And Enlightened’s package exclaims, “Due to extreme deliciousness, high likelihood of consuming entire pint upon tasting and with nutrition facts like these, go for it!”

Unable to resist, CR’s nutrition experts reviewed Arctic Zero Chocolate Chunk Light Ice Cream, Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Milk & Cookies Light Ice Cream, Breyers Delights Creamy Chocolate Low Fat Ice Cream, Enlightened Fudge Brownie Light Ice Cream, and Halo Top Chocolate Light Ice Cream for nutrition and taste.

Extra Nutrients, But Not Extra Healthy Ice Cream

Most of the brands try to put a healthier spin on their products by adding fiber, highlighting their protein content, and/or touting lower sugars or the number of calories per pint or serving.

“They’re jumping on as many nutritional bandwagons as they can,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a CR nutritionist and food tester.

These desserts don’t contain high-fructose corn syrups, hydrogenated oils, trans fats, or ingredients that some people want to avoid, such as artificial sweeteners like aspartame or sucralose.

But most of these brands would still be considered highly processed foods, containing thickeners and stabilizers—such as carob, guar, and locust bean gums—in an attempt to give the products the creamy texture of ice cream.

Arctic Zero, Breyers Delights, Enlightened, and Halo Top had a combination of some type of sugar and calorie-free sweetener, such as monk fruit concentrate, erythritol, or stevia.

“This combination does bring the sugars count down and some of the sugars occur naturally in the milk, but they still might put a dent in the total amount of added sugars you should have in a day—24 grams for women and 36 grams for men,” Keating says.

And in the case of fiber and protein, in most of the brands much of what you get comes from added ingredients, not necessarily from the milk.

Arctic Zero, Enlightened, and Halo Top list prebiotic fiber in their ingredients list, while Breyers Delights and Enlightened have corn fiber. Enlightened has the most fiber, with 5 grams per ½ cup.

Arctic Zero bulks up the protein content with whey protein concentrate while Breyers Delights, Enlightened, and Halo Top use milk protein concentrate or isolate. While some of these products do have more protein than regular ice cream, compared to sources of protein such as fish, poultry, or yogurt, they’re lower.

For example, Halo Top’s label prominently states “good source of protein”—but it has 5 grams per half cup, the same amount as a ½ cup of Häagen Dazs Chocolate. Enlightened has 7 grams per ½ cup, while ½ cup of plain low-fat Greek yogurt has 10 grams.

You don’t have to worry about getting protein from your ice cream, Keating says. “Protein claims on products may be accurate, but they give the consumer a false sense of their protein needs. Most people easily get enough in their diets.”

And Keating recommends getting your nutrients “from real foods—like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and low-fat dairy or meats—not processed foods, like these ice creams.” That’s because those foods pack lots of other needed nutrients, and the strongest evidence of their health benefits comes from studies that looked at overall healthy diets, not fortified foods or supplements.

A pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

Why You Shouldn’t Eat the Whole Pint

One half-cup serving of all except the Ben & Jerry’s version contain, at the most, 100 calories, 3.5 grams of fat, and 10 grams of sugars. (Ben & Jerry’s has 140 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, and 15 grams of sugars in ½ cup.)

When you compare that to a half-cup of Breyers Original Chocolate Ice Cream, which has 140 calories, 7 grams of fat, and 16 grams of  sugars, you can see why people might be tempted to overindulge.

But that doesn’t mean you should.

For one thing, if you ate the whole container you would end up with 400 calories (Enlightened), 320 calories (Arctic Zero and Halo Top), and 270 calories (Breyers Delights). “That’s actually more than what you would get from a single serving of regular Breyers,” Keating says.

In addition, eating a whole pint may cause digestive upset—bloating, constipation, and diarrhea—because of the sugar alcohols (such as erythritol) and added fiber they contain. For example, Enlightened has 20 grams of fiber per pint and Arctic Zero has 12 grams, which are big doses to get in one sitting.

Finally, Keating says that “encouraging people to eat a whole pint, regardless of its calorie and sugars content, can foster bad eating habits.” That’s partly because eating such a large quantity can crowd out space for other, healthier food. And, she says, most nutrition experts recommend you stick close to suggested serving sizes as much as possible so you don’t get accustomed to overeating.

The Taste Didn’t Make Us Scream for More

To top it all off, our sensory panelists weren’t sure they would want to eat a whole pint of most of the ones they reviewed, anyway.

Sampling the treats blind, they didn’t think that Enlightened tasted much like ice cream, mentioning a slightly bitter flavor and chalky texture, with dry, crumbly brownie bits and an “airy” texture that does not melt.

Ben & Jerry’s, which is churned with real milk, cream, sugar, and eggs, tasted the most like full-fat ice cream (it also had the most calories, fat, and sugars in our test, though still less fat and saturated fat than regular Breyers Chocolate Ice Cream). Our panelists said that it had a full, creamy texture and a good chocolate flavor. Breyers Delights, also made with fresh cream, stood out for its smooth, creamy texture, and big chocolate flavor.

Arctic Zero and Halo Top fared somewhat better than Enlightened: Halo Top with its smooth, slightly creamy texture, and Arctic Zero with its satisfying chocolate chunks and smooth mouth feel. But panelists preferred the flavor of Ben & Jerry’s over these two.

A pint of Enlightened ice cream.

And these frozen treats aren’t cheap: All cost around $5 per pint. For comparison, a 1.5-quart container of Breyer’s Original Ice Cream comes to around $4 at our local Walmart.

If you really want an ice-creamlike treat but are following a low-calorie or low-carbohydrate diet, you could try one of these products. “A half-cup or even a cup won’t sabotage a diet,” Keating says.

But, she says, even most people on strict diets can enjoy the occasional fat and calorie splurge—so why not go for the taste and simplicity of regular ice cream?

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