When Gillie Houston first tried the trendy, low-cal ice cream Halo Top, the experience was “life-changing.”
An entire pint has as little as 240 calories — compared to about 1,000 in your average container of Ben & Jerry’s — and, some say, tastes as good as a non-diet dessert.
“I think there’s some kind of witchcraft or sorcery involved in the making of it,” says Houston, 24, a writer who lives in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens and has a food-centric Instagram account, @gilliehouston, with more than 101,000 followers.
Thanks largely to buzz on social media, along with a rebranding and new recipe, Halo Top, which first launched 2012, has taken off in the past year. In 2016, more than 17 million pints, which go for $5.99 a piece, flew off the shelves of grocery stores around the country, and sales grew by 2,500 percent, according to the Los Angeles-based company.
The frozen treat, which comes in 17 flavors, including red velvet and chocolate almond crunch, is big in the Weight Watchers community, where a pint is just eight “smart points,” compared to 48 points for a pint of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream.
Ardent fans like Houston hail it as a miracle food that allows them to keep SoulCycle trim while still indulging their sweet tooth, but detractors say it’s an over-hyped fad — remember Tasti D-Lite? — that’s no better for you than a regular scoop.
“It’s still ice cream,” says Natalie Rizzo, a registered dietitian based in Astoria. “At the end of the day, if you’re having [Halo Top] instead of something more nutritious, you’re just going to be hungry again an hour later.”
Halo Top is made from milk, eggs, cream and two sugar substitutes: stevia and erythritol. The latter is a zero-calorie sugar alcohol that’s been gaining a lot of attention, especially among diabetics, since it doesn’t cause blood sugar to spike. Most of the sugar isn’t metabolized by the body, resulting in next to zero calories.
Erythritol is a newcomer to the sugar substitute scene. The FDA deemed it “generally safe” for consumption in 2001, and it’s now used in foods like chewing gum and sugar-free candy. In some people, erythritol can cause diarrhea and headaches, especially when consumed in large quantities.
Though it doesn’t have quite the negative reputation of older, once-hyped, now-scorned diet ingredients such as fake fat olestra and sweetener aspartame, there hasn’t been research into its potential long-term effects on the body, Rizzo notes.
And preliminary studies aren’t promising: A recent study out of Cornell University found that people who gain weight have higher levels of erythritol in their blood — though the study did not determine if these levels were the result of food that the subjects ate.
Plus, such sugar substitutes often leave people unsatisfied and craving more sweets. You’re better off just having a small serving of your favorite full-calorie ice cream, Rizzo says. That way, you’re not giving into the kind of overindulgence that leads to weight gain.
But Halo Top CEO Justin Woolverton notes that moderation is challenging for many frozen-dessert lovers.
“Honestly, if you’re the type of person who can take a bite of ice cream and put it back, you’re a better person than I am,” says Woolverton, a 37-year-old former lawyer, who developed the recipe in his own kitchen because he wanted to be able to eat a whole container of ice cream without guilt. “Most people sure as hell aren’t eating only a quarter of a pint.”
For those trying their very best to drop the pounds, that pint in the freezer is one of the few good things they can cling to at the end of a long day of steamed vegetables and lean protein.
Allison Cooper, a writer from The Bronx, heard about Halo Top after she gave birth to her daughter in August. She’s doing everything she can to drop the baby weight, but ice cream is her weakness, she says. And while she knows Halo Top isn’t doing her diet any favors, she keeps moderation a priority, a strategy that has helped her get back into her pre-baby clothes.
“I make sure it takes me three nights to eat one pint,” says Cooper.
Others aren’t on board with the taste and texture.
“Everyone on Weight Watchers was acting like it was like manna from heaven,” says Marguerite Maria Rivas, a college professor and poet from Staten Island. “But it had this weird consistency, like buttercream frosting. I threw the rest away — which is really shocking for me.”
Ben Hon, a 42-year-old Brooklyn Heights resident who operates the food-focused Instagram account @StuffBenEats, says he wanted to like Halo Top. But he couldn’t get past the saccharine taste.
“I still find [it] to be overly sweet,” says the real-estate agent. “The texture was a bit icy and left a strange aftertaste in my mouth. I was hoping it would be more smooth and creamy, like regular ice cream. But after two tastings of each flavor, I threw them all away in the garbage.”
Even die-hard Halo Top fans, such as Molly Lucas, a 24-year-old social media manager from Chelsea, admit it can’t compare to the original treat, like her first love, Haagen-Dazs.
“I have to say that if you’re craving ice cream, it gets the job done,” says Lucas, a fitness junkie who usually buys one or two pints at a time and admits they don’t last too long in her freezer. “It’s really hard to replicate the real thing, but Halo Top does an incredible job of giving you that ice-cream experience.”
But for health experts like Rizzo, this trend and the habits it encourages are far from angelic. “For people who are dieting and using this as a way to have ice cream for not a lot of calories, it really is too good to be true,” she says.
Erythritol is one of the sugars used in Halo Top to lower the calorie count. Here’s what you need to know about the sugar alcohol:
• It’s found naturally in fruit like grapes and watermelon but made commercially by fermenting starches with yeast.’
• It’s 70 percent as sweet as sugar but has zero calories.
• It can cause headaches and diarrhea, especially with excessive consumption, and a recent study links it to belly fat.