Here's what you should know about high-protein, low-cal ice creams and dairy-free alternatives before you dig in.

August 24, 2017

OK, I’m just going to say right up front that as a nutritionist, I would never categorize ice cream as health food per se. But lately several seemingly healthier versions of the sweet stuff have appeared on the market, and a few brands are flying off supermarket shelves. Before you grab a spoon and dig into any of these better-for-you pints, here’s a look at a few popular options, and what you should keep in mind.

Adding nutrients doesn’t automatically make ice cream healthy

Halo Top made headlines this month when it became the best-selling pint of ice cream in the country, surpassing top brands like Ben & Jerry's. In addition to milk, cream, and eggs, Halo Top's ingredients include fiber, milk protein concentrate, and the sweeteners stevia and erythritol. The latter is a type of sugar alcohol, which tastes sweet but doesn’t get absorbed like regular sugar, or raise blood sugar levels.

As a result, a pint of Halo Top contains just 240 calories, with up to 24 grams of protein, and nearly 50% of the Daily Value for fiber. That’s a better nutritional profile than traditional ice cream. But still, Halo Top is a treat—just one with less sugar, fewer calories, and more protein and fiber.  

In other words, it’s not a good idea to polish off a pint every night—or to eat one in place of dinner (which a few of my clients admit they occasionally do). Another caveat: Erythritol can cause bloating and gas in some people.

You may not feel as satisfied

Enlightened, which is marketed as “ice cream that's good for you,” is similar to Halo Top. The product's makers start with skim milk and add milk protein isolate (to bump up the protein), fiber, erythritol, and monk fruit extract—another natural, no-calorie sweetener that has become popular alongside stevia. The macro-nutrient numbers are pretty similar to Halo Top's. It’s worth mentioning that like stevia, monk fruit extract is 150 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Anecdotally, some of my clients find that the intense sweetness actually stokes their sweet tooth, rather than satisfying it. And some say they don’t like the aftertaste.

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A pint shouldn’t be a single serving

Snow Monkey, which is currently only available in two flavors (cacao and goji berry), is a dairy-free ice cream alternative made from bananas, hemp seed protein powder, sunflower butter, and either fruit or maple syrup as the sweetener. While not that low-cal at about 400 calories per pint, it provides 20 grams of protein, and nearly half of the daily recommended fiber intake. A full pint of the cacao also packs over 60% of a day’s iron and vitamin C needs. Impressive, but remember, polishing off a pint in one sitting doesn't qualify as healthy eating!

Even "vegan" isn't a license to eat unlimited portions

NadaMoo! is another ice cream alternative made with coconut milk and water; inulin, a prebiotic fiber linked to digestive health; and agave. A pint contains about 20 grams of fiber. Some flavors are “cleaner” than others in terms of the ingredients, and calories vary considerably, ranging from 240 in a pint of vanilla to 600 in a pint of chocolate peanut butter. But in my opinion, the coconut milk base in NadaMoo! creates a richness that makes a half-cup portion (which is ideal) feel just right.

RELATED: 11 Healthy Homemade Ice Cream Recipes

Bottom line on this trend...

Splurges are perfectly fine every once in a while. But whole, fresh foods should be the main sources of your nutrients (including protein and fiber)—not dessert.

Are these healthier options better than traditional ice cream? That depends on how much you have, and how often.

If ice cream is an occasional "extra," and you feel more satisfied with a smaller portion of the real thing, go for it. On the flip side, if you find these doctored-up versions just as satisfying as regular ice cream, and you feel better about eating them, that's A-OK. Just remember to enjoy them as an occasional indulgence rather than an everyday treat.

Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees.