Food & dining

‘Better for you’ ice creams are flooding the market. But are they actually healthy?

Talenti uses a sugar substitute, erythritol, a sugar-alcohol, in its frozen dessert. It also adds sweetness with monk fruit.
Talenti uses a sugar substitute, erythritol, a sugar-alcohol, in its frozen dessert. It also adds sweetness with monk fruit.

In recent weeks, many of the top ice cream brands have released a better-for-you line of products, cutting calories and sugar. Ben & Jerry’s and Talenti Gelato are among the two, releasing three new flavors each within days of each other, and competing with the popular low-calorie, high-protein Halo Top.

But does that mean they’re making healthy dessert?

“I think that the idea that ‘dessert’ can’t be healthy because we call it dessert, or ‘breakfast’ is healthy because we call it breakfast, is a bit outdated with today’s consumer,” said Halo Top’s CEO and founder Justin Woolverton, in an e-mail.


Front and center on Halo Top pints is the calorie count — for the whole pint. The relatively low number, with the richest flavors reaching 360 calories, is comparable to that of a salad.

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But Nancy Oliveira, nutrition clinic manager at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, sees putting the calorie count for the entire pint front and center, like Halo Top does, as a danger for overeaters everywhere. She’s afraid it sends the message that it’s OK to down the whole pint.

“It’s not encouraging healthy behaviors by eating a whole package of anything that doesn’t have any nutritional value to it,” Oliveira said. “The packaging with calories is starting to confuse people and they are distracted from eating high-quality nutrition.”

Ben & Jerry’s “Moo-phoria” line of light ice cream does not use a sugar substitute.

Ben & Jerry’s new “Moo-phoria” line lists calories for a half-cup serving. The three flavors range in calories from 140 to 160 per half cup, for a total of 560 to 640 calories per pint. Compare that to a pint of Half Baked ice cream with 1,080 calories.

“We don’t really promote eating a whole pint of ice cream, so we wanted to make sure we were being transparent about how many calories were per serving,” said Dena Wimette, senior innovation and communications manager at Ben & Jerry’s.


In addition to concerns about overeating are concerns about the sugar substitutes in the lower-calorie treats.

Halo Top and Talenti have replaced their sugars, at least in part, with erythritol, a sugar-alcohol, while Ben & Jerry’s does not use any sugar substitute. A Talenti spokesman notes the brand also adds sweetness with monk fruit.

“Of all our ingredients, erythritol is the one that seems to get unfairly maligned the most,” said Woolverton. “It’s a wonderful ingredient, but since technically it’s a ‘sugar alcohol,’ it gets lumped in with the rest of the sugar alcohols.”

Halo Top uses a sugar substitute in its frozen dessert.

Erythritol is not inherently dangerous, and it is even found naturally in fruits and dairy products. It also does not contribute to cavities or cause spikes in blood sugar like real sugar does.

But nutritionist Oliveira warns about eating too much of it.


“The issue with sugar alcohols, and anything ending in -ol, is that they are not absorbed by the body,” Oliveira said. “So if you are eating large amounts of erythritol, it can cause stomach upset. . . . Pair that with an ice cream that is telling you to eat the whole pint, you will likely get too much of this sugar alcohol at one time. In normal amounts, it’s OK.”

So, what do we do?

As they say, everything in moderation.

“I think these products are very useful, as long as the consumer goes in with a full awareness of what they are and what they should be,” Oliveira said. “It’s better to treat a treat like a treat. It’s an indulgence and a special thing, and enjoy the smaller portion of it. It’s the first few bites that are the most amazing anyway.”

Sophie Cannon can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @the_grandCannon.