Vanilla ice being scooped with a spoon

Just because you can eat an entire pint of "healthier" ice creams without breaking the calorie bank doesn't mean you should. (iStockPhoto)

If you've wandered through the frozen section of your supermarket in the past year, you may have noticed the arrival of frozen desserts with labels prominently declaring the total number of calories per pint. Among them: Arctic Zero, Breyer's Delights, Enlightened and Halo Top. These low-sugar products contain somewhere between 100 and 330 calories for an entire pint (2 cups), which is a calorie level roughly on par with a modest quarter of a pint (1/2 cup) serving of your standard premium and super-premium ice creams, respectively.

By calling out the calories per pint on their products' front labels, these marketers are giving voice to a poorly-kept secret of human nature: Many of us have been known to sit down and eat an entire pint of ice cream in a single sitting. By engineering an ice-cream-like frozen dessert whose calories per pint are comparable to a more standard portion size of real ice cream, these marketers grant permission to indulge in a behavior that we might once have felt guilty about. Pretty genius.

[See: 11 Things to Tell Yourself When You're About to Binge Eat.]

But just because you can eat the entire pint of one of these frozen desserts, does that mean you should? As we ponder this philosophical question, let's examine what's actually in these pints.

The majority of available products are dairy based; they contain some skim milk, isolated milk-derived proteins or both. But without the benefit of milk fat, these frozen desserts get their creamy "body" from thickeners like fiber and gums – neither of which have many calories, thanks to their inability to be fully digested, if at all. To keep calories low, most of these products contain only a touch of real sugar; their sweetness is enhanced with some combination of poorly-digested sugar alcohols like erythritol and non-caloric naturally-derived sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit extract. Wink, however, is formulated differently than the rest of the pack: It's not dairy-based, nor does it contain any real sugar. Because it's formulated mostly from fiber, gums and pea protein, it's got only 100 calories for the entire pint. My colleague once referred to it as "ice cream-flavored fiber."

The modest calorie levels in these products are largely a function of them being loaded with indigestible ingredients. If your body can't absorb it, then it can't have many calories, after all. This, of course, raises the issue of digestive tolerability. So, let's consider the digestive outcomes of eating an entire pint of such frozen desserts.

On account of their poor digestibility, sugar alcohols can act as a laxative – though some types are more potent than others. Of all the poorly-absorbed sugar alcohols, erythritol is the least laxative one. Small studies done in healthy volunteers suggest that doses of 20 to 35 grams of erythritol may generally be tolerated well. But among people with irritable bowel syndrome or a fructose intolerance, symptoms of gas, nausea and diarrhea can be provoked at even very modest doses of a few grams.

The pints I profiled contained anywhere from 0 to 4 grams of erythritol (Arctic Zero and Wink, respectively) to 18 to 24 grams of erythritol (Breyer's Delights, Enlightened and Halo Top). If you trend toward constipation and are impervious to the effects of intestinal gas, you might find a pint of these products somewhat helpful in the bathroom. If you've got IBS, a tendency toward diarrhea or an otherwise sensitive stomach, consider yourself warned.

[See: 10 Weird Things That Can Make You Poop.]

Moving on to the fiber content of these pints, the products I reviewed fell into three categories:

  • Low fiber (0 grams in Breyer's Delights)
  • High fiber (8 grams in Arctic Zero to 12 grams in Halo Top)
  • Extremely high fiber (16 grams in Wink and 20 grams in Enlightened)

And, by way of comparison, real ice cream contains no fiber at all.

All products except Enlightened contained a type of fiber called inulin (chicory root fiber). Inulin is what's known as a "prebiotic" fiber, which has demonstrated health benefits for its ability to cultivate the growth of beneficial probiotic bacteria in our guts. But large doses of inulin can have a very uncomfortable side effect: severe gas and bloating. In studies conducted among healthy volunteers without IBS, digestive distress was typically provoked at doses of 10 grams and higher. In similar studies of people with IBS, painful gas and bloating is seen at doses as low as 0.5 grams to 5 grams. If you've got a tendency toward gas and bloating, I'd think twice before downing an entire pint of the inulin-containing products in a single sitting.

Another issue to consider in the "to pint or not to pint" debate is what spillover effect normalizing the pint as a serving size might have on the rest of your diet and eating habits. I consulted Lisa Young, a registered dietitian and author of "The Portion Teller," who coined the phrase "portion distortion," for her take on the whole-pint trend. "No one really needs to eat a pint of frozen dessert in one sitting, regardless of whether it's high calorie or low calorie," she wrote to me by email. Once you acclimate to a pint as your standard measure of an appropriate dessert portion, will you be able to feel satisfied with more modest portions of other desserts going forward?

[See: 'Healthy' Foods You Shouldn't Be Eating.]

Finally, are these products objectively healthy – or just better for you than real ice cream? Enlightened markets itself as the "Good-For-You Ice Cream," and Halo Top calls itself "healthy ice cream." Wink's marketers claim on its website: "An entire pint can be eaten for the caloric load of a large piece of fruit, but with zero sugar." (As I typed that, I felt myself die a little bit on the inside.) Let's be clear about what these products are: They're highly-processed emulsions of isolated protein, fiber and fake sugar. I struggle to find a scenario in which someone's diet quality or health improves on the basis of consuming more of these products – or consuming them in lieu of fresh fruit. A possible exception may be someone on a low-fiber ketogenic diet, for whom a giant dose of inulin from such desserts could offer a welcome boost to the health-promoting Bifidobacteria likely starving to death in their guts. (If you couldn't tell though, I strongly discourage a ketogenic diet to begin with.)

But for most other people – including many of my patients with Type 2 diabetes – I'd guess that eating a small amount of real ice cream infrequently results in a better diet quality than eating large amounts of these low-calorie frozen desserts very frequently.

Editor's note: The author has no material affiliations with any of the brands whose products are mentioned here and no affiliations with any marketers of real ice cream, either.

Best Diets for Healthy Eating

Rank Diet Name
Mediterranean Diet
The Flexitarian Diet
TLC Diet
Mayo Clinic Diet
Volumetrics Diet
Weight Watchers Diet
The Fertility Diet
Ornish Diet
The Traditional Asian Diet

Diet Ranking information as of February 12th, 2018

Tags: sugar, food and drink, diet and nutrition, digestive disorders, irritable bowel syndrome

Tamara Duker Freuman , MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and nationally-known expert in managing digestive disorders through diet. She is the author of the forthcoming book, "The Bloated Belly Whisperer" (February, 2019), and maintains a clinical practice in New York City.

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