For those of us who have a tendency to open a tub of ice-cream, eat a bit, go back for more, bury it in the freezer, dig it out again and, an hour later, find ourselves grimly scraping at an empty 500ml tub, this sounds like a miracle: you can now get low-calorie ice-cream everywhere.
Forget frozen yoghurts, sorbets and non-dairy alternatives; 2018 has seen a variety of dairy ice-creams hit supermarket shelves that, despite using milk and cream, contain about 70% fewer calories than luxury brands such as Häagen-Dazs or Green & Black’s – typically only 280 to 400 calories per tub. In their flavours, such as Colombian chocolate and hazelnut or oatmeal cookie, and in their pricing (a £5-a-tub), they are out to disrupt high-end ice-cream – and they are flying off the shelves.
Last summer’s best-selling US ice-cream brand, Halo Top, has sold 3m units since its January launch in the UK. Charlie Thuillier, the co-owner of its London-based rival, Oppo, claims a similar sales clamour: “We did more revenue in the first seven weeks of this financial year than the whole of the last. It’s massive.”
After years of, as Thuillier puts it, “pumping [out] the same sugar, fat and bullshit”, mainstream ice-cream is scrambling to counter these insurgent brands that, by using sweeteners such as stevia and augmenting their products with coconut oil, dietary fibre and egg whites, have radically reduced the amount of fat, cream and sugar in ice-cream without, they argue, compromising body and flavour.
Earlier this year, ice-cream giant Unilever launched both Breyers Delights, a super-low-calorie brand, and Ben & Jerry’s Moo-phoria, a range of “light” (circa-650 calorie) ice-creams (a tub of B&J’s Caramel Chew Chew, by comparison, packs double that). As a spokesperson said, they are aimed at: “Fans who say they can’t be trusted with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.”
Making low-calorie ice-cream is a huge technical challenge, explains Carly Karran, the owner of highly rated Cardiff ice-cream parlour Science Cream. She is “really surprised” at how good the texture of Halo Top and Oppo is. But, ultimately: “If you start taking fat and sugar away, you’re always going to end up with something inferior. Some gelatos use three different sugars: that’s how important it is for body, texture, flavour and the ‘anti-freeze’ effect it has which makes ice-cream pleasurable to eat at -18C. Plus, I know not everyone can, but I can taste a bitter-saccharine aftertaste from sweeteners.”
How “healthy” these low-calorie ice-creams are and what healthy means in this context is similarly up for debate – especially given the brands want to ride two horses, health and indulgence, simultaneously.
Twenty per cent of Halo Top ice cream’s calories arise from protein, so the brand can label itself “high protein”, as many products do now, from yoghurts to protein-enriched Mars bars. This is the post-Atkins world we live in and high-protein labelling appeals to a millennial generation of disciplined gym-bunnies. But, elsewhere, paradoxically, Halo Top pushes the line that it has made greed, if not good, then consequence-free. In the US, its knowing packaging includes slogans such as “Stop when you hit the bottom” and “No bowl, no regrets”. It’s UK website announces: “Finally, guilt-free ice-cream.”
Critics argue that by prominently displaying the whole tub calorie count on each pack (as Breyers does, too), Halo Top is actively encouraging people to regularly eat that much. A recent Harris Interactive poll for trade magazine the Grocer found that 60-70% of 16-44-year-olds would eat a whole tub if it contained fewer than 250 calories – which, initially, some Halo Top lines did.
Down a whole tub of Halo Top and you may well consume more calories than you would eating one serving of full-fat ice-cream. “There’s a place for low-calorie ice-cream,” says Clare Thornton-Wood, a specialist dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. “But one danger of the marketing is that people may think: ‘Wow, it’s low-calorie, it doesn’t matter if I eat a whole tub.’ We want people to think about appropriate portion-size and, whatever the ice-cream, that’s one or two scoops, not a whole tub.”
Thornton-Wood is also monitoring the scientific debate about whether powerful sweeteners intensify our cravings for sweet foods or even prompt us to overeat. “Research into sweeteners and appetite stimulation is inconsistent,” reads the NHS website.
Unilever plays this criticism of Breyers with a straight corporate bat (“We clearly indicate the calories in a two scoop serving as well, so consumers can make an informed choice”), but Halo Top revels in its irreverent image. “If you’re anything like us,” says a spokesperson, “we would often eat an entire pint of full-fat ice-cream. We think a lot of people can relate [to that], and Halo Top can help, so you don’t feel bad about it.”
Oppo (“Temptation you never need to resist”) is more circumspect. It displays calorie counts by half-pot. It encourages its fans to “indulge healthy”. Its trendy superfood ingredients, including spirulina, baobab and lucuma, will appeal to clean eaters, the wellness brigade and what Thuillier describes as an Instagram-generation of body-conscious consumers who “want to eat what they want to eat, but don’t want to look like they’ve eaten it”.
“Health is definitely here to stay,” says Ashleigh O’Mahony, food trends reporter at the Grocer, and healthy ice-creams have helped push the average price up 5.9% to £2.71 a litre, say analysts at Kantar Worldpanel. Consumers are also “increasingly switched on to healthy eating and foods with functional benefits, such as gut-health or added-protein products,” according to its research.
If you find that ridiculous, do not despair. On the other side of the ice-cream aisle, the full-fat luxury market is still growing, too, which will please Karran. “I’m a perfectionist,” she says. “I’d rather enjoy ice-cream at its best, less often.”
The low-cal newbies versus their full-fat rivals
Oppo Colombian chocolate and hazelnut (475ml, £4.99, Waitrose – 380 calories) v Green & Black’s organic chocolate (500ml, £4.20, Waitrose – 910 calories)
Green & Black’s definitely triumphs on texture. It is thickly luxurious and smooth-melting, whereas Oppo is closer and more compacted. You don’t so much scoop it out as shear pieces off. G&B’s also has fuller flavour, but it is a sweet, juvenile one compared to Oppo’s persuasively grownup, bitter chocolate and hazelnut profile.
VERDICT: Oppo wins … by a whisker
Breyers Delights cookies and cream (500ml, £5, Sainsbury’s – 350 calories) vBen & Jerry’s cookie dough (500ml, £4, Sainsbury’s – 1,150 calories)
Awesomely sweet, overbearingly rich and mined with gritty cookie dough, the Ben & Jerry’s has me tapping-out after a few icky mouthfuls. Initially, the Breyers is a (less) sweet relief, although pedants may argue its cookie pieces are more brownies (a plus, no?). More damagingly, its one-dimensional creamy flavour is trailed by an unpleasant metallic aftertaste
VERDICT: Nil-nil bore draw
Halo Top sea salt caramel (473ml, £5, Tesco – 320 calories) v Häagen-Dazs salted caramel (460ml, £4.20, Tesco – 1,128 calories)
The Häagen-Dazs salted caramel swirl needs more salt in order to assert itself amid that sickly sweet, cloyingly creamy ice-cream. The caramel brittle tastes more like butterscotch, too. But, it still trumps Halo Top, which has a pleasantly milky flavour but a strange texture (part mousse, part sorbet). The swirled-through caramel also lacks depth and character.
VERDICT: Häagen-Dazs holds on