There are fewer things diet culture romanticizes more than going to town on a carton of ice cream. It was a part of my weekly binge eating routine in university. A spoon, a pint and paralyzing insecurity. Name a better trio, I’ll wait.
When it comes to eating, we are confronted with the simplistic idea that some foods are “good” while others are “bad.” We may disagree on which diet is best, but the general consensus remains that the higher the calories the worse it is to eat.
Enter Halo Top: a low-calorie, low-fat, high-protein ice cream brand that launched in Canada this month. Clocking in at about 240 to 360 calories per pint—with cute motivational messages under each golden lid like “Stop when you hit the bottom” and “Keep digging”—Halo Top’s sales pitch is clear: Go ahead, eat the whole pint. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, actually.
Is Halo Top a healthier alternative to ice cream?
boldly proclaims: “Save the bowl—you’re going to want the whole pint.” The brand’s U.S. packaging supports this messaging and lists the total calories per pint on the front label. Meanwhile, in Canada, the caloric breakdown is shown per 125-ml. serving—as per Canada’s packaging and labelling regulations. Either way, there appears to be a strong suggestion that a whole pint is one serving.
Suggesting people should make choices based on caloric value is problematic, says Toronto-based registered dietitian and eating disorder specialist Emily Tam. “The marketing of these products propagates the idea that they are healthy, while higher-calorie versions are unhealthy,” she says. “The brand name itself suggests that people can feel virtuous about eating it. It’s like, look, this ice cream has a halo—like an angel! So pure and good!”
In addition to making the calories so prominent, Halo Top also markets its ice cream as “healthy ice cream—that tastes like ice cream.” It consists of ingredients you’d find in regular ice cream, like skim milk, eggs and cream, but it keeps its calorie count low using a combination of three sweeteners, including erythritol (an all-natural sugar alcohol), organic cane sugar and stevia (a plant-based, low-calorie sweetener). Unlike most ice creams, it also contains prebiotic fibre, which adds 3 to 5 grams of fibre per pint.
When I reached out to Halo Top to learn more about whether marketing low-cal ice cream as healthy encourages binge eating, I received the following response (printed here in full) from Los Angeles-based CEO and founder Justin Woolverton. “Halo Top is a healthier alternative to traditional ice cream. When I would eat full-fat ice cream, I’d usually end up eating the whole pint or close to it. I get the feeling a lot of people can relate. I created Halo Top to provide consumers with a healthier alternative.”
The idea of a healthier alternative to ice cream gives me pause. So I asked Tam to take a closer look at Halo Top. Here’s what she had to say.
Can products like Halo Top encourage disordered eating?
Most of the people Tam works with have troubled relationships with food, whether it’s disordered eating (an umbrella term for a variety of abnormal eating behaviours—many of which may be classified as eating disorders, but differ in terms of severity and frequency), binge eating (a form of disordered eating marked by episodes of uncontrollable eating) or simply not knowing what healthy eating looks like. By the time they reach Tam, they’ve tried multiple weight-loss diets. But Tam notices a similarity within most of her clients: they tend to perceive low-calorie foods as good and high-calorie foods as bad—even if those low-cal foods are desserts. And that’s a problem.
“Because people tend to want to be ‘good’ when it comes to food and eating, they may feel compelled to choose these ‘good’ low-calorie products that say they will help them control their weight—even if they don’t get any real satisfaction from these products,” she says.
There’s even a term for labelling foods as healthy just because they’re low-cal: the health halo effect. “Because it’s been branded as being so ‘healthy’ with its low calorie, sugar and fat content, someone sitting down with a container of Halo Top might end up overeating until they’re full—yet still feel unsatisfied,” says Tam.
Should we be worried about the message Halo Top sends?
The messages underneath each Halo Top lid leave a bad taste for Tam. “These are messages that imply you should feel guilty if you eat ice creams with more calories, sugar and fat in them. Also, they encourage disregarding your satiety cues and downing the whole container, like it doesn’t matter if you eat way more than a single serving.”
That said, there are some health conditions that require a lower intake of fat or added sugars. While Tam believes that foods formulated to be low in fat or sugar do belong in the marketplace, she isn’t a big fan of the whole “guilt-free” branding that often accompanies them.
What does a healthy relationship with food look like?
It’s founded on body respect and body trust, says Tam, which aren’t cultivated through restrictive dieting. Tam tells her clients it’s important to tune into the signals their bodies send out, specifically when they are hungry or full.
“I would say that someone who has a healthy relationship with food eats in a way that enables them to feel good both physically and mentally,” says Tam. “They respond appropriately to their body’s needs, choosing foods and portion sizes that are satisfying for them.”
For Tam, the cherry on top means not counting calories. “Using calorie information to make eating decisions is absolutely not the key to good health. What this actually does is suck joy out of eating. Plus, it undermines our natural ability to make food choices that support our well-being.”
A healthy relationship with food can’t really be sustained if you only choose low-cal foods, either. “A diet consisting of foods chosen based on being low-calorie, low-sugar, low-fat and high-protein isn’t necessarily going to enhance your health,” says Tam. “It’s important to keep the big picture in mind: good health can be achieved by eating all kinds of foods.”