I’m no stranger to health crazes. My grandfather used to work for a pharmaceutical company, so our house was always stocked with vitamin pills. My mom tried mixing fish oil into my chocolate pudding. I rarely drank soda, but when I did, it was always diet. My milk was fat-free, and to this day, you’ll see me requesting skim milk at Starbucks. To top it all off, my grandmother once consulted a feng shui mystic who decided I should cut out refined sugar for my entire fourth-grade year. (Luckily, my best friend provided me with lots of “cheat foods” at our sleepovers.) By the time I reached college and needed a new plan after dropping the pre-med track, it’s no wonder I ended up with a health education major.
Surprisingly enough, my family had never touched a pint of Halo Top until my boyfriend brought one to my grandparents’ apartment last month. Our freezer was usually stocked with Haagen-Dazs flavors or chocolate-covered Dove bars – Grandma’s favorite 3 a.m. noshes. But in hindsight, with Halo Top’s “healthy” claims, it seemed to make more sense.
I first noticed Halo Top while browsing a small health food store last year. Though the colorful labels looked enticing, their claims seemed gimmicky, so I passed. Recently, however, my boyfriend’s brother Ethan developed a Halo Top obsession. He brings pints on road trips, and even purchased a second freezer for his dorm’s stash. As a hyperglycemic, it’s one of the few treats that won’t spike his blood sugar, so the brand means a lot to him. Ethan inspired my boyfriend to try it too. In turn, it ended up in the hands of my grandmother, who liked the taste – though she still prefers her Dove bars.
But is Halo Top really that much better for you? Although it labels itself as “healthy ice cream,” there are a few questions we need to ask before jumping on the bandwagon. A real nutritional expert would never take such a claim at face value, no matter how colorful the label that wields it. Here are three things you should think about before diving into your next pint.
1. Can Halo Top be considered a heart-healthy food?
Halo Top clocks in with about 40 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per serving. This means a whole pint of the stuff has almost as much cholesterol (160mg) as two McDonald’s Big Macs (170mg)! What gives? Ingredients in food are listed in descending order by weight, and the first ones on most Halo Top flavors are milk, cream and eggs – all of which are known to be high in cholesterol. Is this problematic? Honestly, experts aren’t sure. Although some people may process dietary cholesterol differently than others, recent research suggests that it probably isn’t an issue for most. In fact, my childhood pediatrician, who had me drinking skim milk and eating fewer eggs, may need to take a back seat to – surprise! – the feng shui lady. As it turns out, a major study found a correlation between added sugar and increased rates of heart disease. Perhaps Halo Top was right to focus on lowering its sugar after all.
But if dietary cholesterol is still a concern for you, there are certainly other options with less. Vegan ice cream, such as the new non-dairy options from Haagen-Dazs, typically has no cholesterol at all due to its lack of animal products. If you don’t mind milk, you could also try Ben & Jerry’s frozen yogurt, which has about half the cholesterol of most Halo Top options. In any case, I strongly recommend consulting with a medical professional – if you want to prevent heart disease, the time to start is now.
2. What’s up with stevia and erythritol? Are they potentially dangerous?
Artificial sweeteners are typically surrounded by controversy. It’s easy to debate which colorful packet is best for your coffee – the pink, blue and yellow are each known to be questionable. What about the green one? Stevia, which Halo Top uses as a sweetener, is plant-derived. But a critical thinker knows that “plant-derived” doesn’t always mean “good for you” – have you ever heard of poison ivy? As it stands, the type of stevia approved by the FDA seems to be okay for consumption. It can’t hurt to be on the lookout for further research, though.
This leaves us with erythritol, a sugar alcohol that’s found naturally in fruits like pears, grapes and watermelon. It can also be commercially produced through yeast fermentation. A few people seem to be particularly sensitive to it, reporting side effects like stomach cramps or diarrhea after consuming the type found in Halo Top. Although this may not be true for all of us, there’s still another possible concern. Scientists from Cornell University noticed a link between high levels of erythritol in the blood and weight gain – especially around the stomach. While the effect it may have on metabolism isn’t fully understood yet, you might want to be cautious if you’re trying to flatten your belly.
3. Is Halo Top actually a good source of protein?
Per FDA rules, a food product must contain at least 10% of the recommended daily value in order to label itself as being “high-protein,” as Halo Top does. But Halo Top barely makes the cut, as it hits at exactly 10% of the FDA’s suggested 50 grams. While it has a better ratio of protein to calorie than many other ice cream products, there are definitely better sources out there. If you’re looking for a customizable sweet treat that’ll pack a real protein punch, try Greek yogurt with berries, chocolate chips, or whatever other mix-ins you’d like. A dollop of peanut butter can also add protein to many desserts.
At the end of the day, Halo Top appears to be a relatively safe confection. Calling it “healthy” may be a stretch, since it doesn’t have any notable nutritional value. But it may be a great way to indulge without the sugar crash you’d get from most other ice cream brands. As with anything, it’s best to enjoy in moderation – and if your local feng shui lady suggests otherwise, I’ll open my freezer to you for a cheat.
Photo is courtesy of the author, Valerie Berman.