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.
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.
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.
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.
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.