When it comes to frosty treats, ice cream reigns supreme and remains one of America’s favorite desserts, whether as a cool ending to an outdoor cookout or the perfect topping for a slice of apple pie. These days, you may have noticed that low-calorie options ranging in flavors from Birthday S’mores to Cookie Dough are one of the coolest food trends in the supermarket freezer aisle. Their growth owes largely to a desire for wellness — even in the dessert world. But isn’t healthy ice cream an oxymoron?
Well, certain ice cream brands are promising consumers a way to satisfy their ice cream cravings minus the caloric pitfall. Labels touting fewer calories, more protein, and less sugar should theoretically let you dig in with fewer waistline repercussions. But are these eat-the-whole-pint-style treats a godsend for health-conscious eaters who also happen to like to scream for ice cream?
Regular ice cream contains more cream — meaning more fat calories — and regular sugar than its low-cal brethren, where the core ingredients tend to be skim milk, milk protein (hence, the higher protein count), and a low-calorie sweetener like erythritol. Other inclusions can be flavorings, gums, thickeners, and added fibers such as corn fiber that help give the products a taste and texture similar to regular ice cream. Now on the market are dairy-free options, which swap out the moo milk for that from almonds or coconut, which is a good option for vegans or those who can’t tolerate dairy.
Lower-calorie ice creams have been around for years, but the newer crop of sub-zero creamy treats boasts a more drastic reduction, a stingy 300 to 360 calories per pint. So, a whole pint of “healthier” ice cream can have the same calorie count as just a half-cup of a premium version.
“One of the biggest drawbacks of these types of ice creams is that many individuals rationalize because of the low calories they can eat more and lose sight of the actual intended serving size,” says Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet.
One study found that foods advertised as “low fat” may lead people to eat up to 50% more than they might if no claim is made. Though the 300-calorie pints may seem less indulgent, if repeated too often it this practice may lead to unintended weight gain. Another drawback — ideas regarding portion control for desserts and snacks may become skewed. “A portion of ice cream, even the lower-calorie stuff, should be no more than 2/3 cup,” advises Gans. But she does say that these ice creams can be a good way for people to cut back on their saturated fat intake if they are regular ice cream consumers.
Many of these lightened up ice creams contain extra amounts of protein — up to 20 grams in a pint, which, sure, can add a boost of this nutrient to your diet, but most Americans already eat enough protein and it certainly shouldn’t be a motivating factor to eat more dessert.
“At the end of the day, a low-calorie ice cream is still ice cream. It doesn’t compare to the nutritional benefits of other higher protein foods, such as yogurt, cottage cheese, hard-boiled egg, nuts, or edamame,” Gans says. A three-ounce piece of chicken breast or one and a quarter cups of black beans delivers that same amount of protein as a whole pint of “high-protein” ice cream. And we still lack scientific consensus that the fibers added to processed foods like ice creams provide the same benefits as what occurs naturally in whole foods like vegetables and legumes.
While the use of less caloric sugar alternatives like stevia and erythritol are what many brands use to help keep calorie counts down, research suggests relying on them is no guarantee for lasting weight loss success. No- or lower-calorie sweeteners may simply work to stoke a sweet tooth, leading to an increased intake of sugary calories elsewhere in the diet.
Gans stresses, however, that they have been proven safe for consumption, so this may be beneficial to those with diabetes who also want to enjoy a bowl of ice cream. Just remember that while these newfangled ice creams are lower in sugar, they’re not necessarily sugar-free. The amount of sugar can vary by brand, so it’s important to read labels to know how much you’re getting in a serving.
It’s also worth noting cost. For getting less (calories, fat, sugar) you will pay more. These gentrified ice creams can cost up to 50% more than the traditional options.
In the end, if you are yearning for a bowl or cone of ice cream, go ahead and wedge in a small amount of whichever type you want — calorie-stingy or high-fat — as long as you do so in the context of an overall balanced diet. As always, moderation is your friend.