Photo: Kevin Pang

I had a conversation with my colleague Kate recently, who graciously allowed this old fart to peek into the mysterious world of the twentysomething-female psyche. She told me about a recent phenomenon on social media among her peers:

I see a lot of women my age—late 20s, early 30s—Instagramming their Halo Tops. I’ve tried to figure out why it’s this particular ice cream and not Ben & Jerry’s or something, and I think it’s because it signals that “treat yo’self” mentality without signalling “I’m a huge slob eating an entire pizza #selfcare”.

I, too, have seen this surge in Halo Top awareness, both online and in supermarket freezer cases, and curious to understand why they’ve broken through the public awareness bubble where many other brands before have failed. One theory: Their decision to market themselves as “healthy ice cream,” as opposed to invoking words such as “diet,” “low-cal” and “fat-free,” which has always felt like ice cream at 75 percent. The innovation with Halo Top is printing the number of calories in big, bold typeface—I like this approach of removing the abstraction of “diet” and telling the consumer outright: “Go nuts on that entire tub, it’s still fewer calories than a ham-and-cheese sandwich.” Several of its competitors are now emulating Halo Top’s caloric-flaunting tactics.

If Halo Top is branding itself as “healthy ice cream,” the question for the consumer is how successfully do they replicate the taste, texture, and richness of full-fat ice cream?

It was impossible to purchase all 26 of Halo Top’s listed available flavors (they also offer 14 dairy-free options), so we purchased six that felt like an accurate representation: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, mint chip, birthday cake, and black cherry. On the whole, the biggest difference between Halo Top from full-fat ice creams is its airiness. It doesn’t feel like your tongue is awash in cream, which to me is a good thing because it doesn’t leave that slick inner-mouth residue. The Halo Toppiness of Halo Top ice cream is mostly tactile. Flavor-wise, Halo Top opts for stevia, which replicates the natural taste of cane sugar fairly well—any aspartame or saccharine-like artificiality is a major turn-off.

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Let’s talk about the flavors we sampled one-by-one, with the help of some enthusiastic office testers.


Vanilla Bean

Calories per container: 240
Tasting notes: Because we approached this as “light ice cream,” our brains were seeking out differences between this and full-fat ice cream. In that spirit, you do notice a difference: Halo Top’s feels icier—simultaneously creamy and slushy—it lingers less on the palate, and seemingly dissolves easier. But the vanilla flavor is pronounced, and tastes more like vanilla beans scraped from a pod than vanilla extract from a bottle. So we find this rather close to the real deal.

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Chocolate

Calories per container: 280
Tasting notes: Chocolate is naturally more robustly flavored than vanilla, so this flavor fills the palate more, and texturally resembles full-fat ice cream more than the vanilla. (One person says this feels like amusement park frozen custard.) As for the flavor, we offered ideas of what this chocolate tasted like, and we all agreed: It’s a dead-ringer for a Wendy’s Frosty.

Strawberry

Calories per container: 280
Tasting notes: We’ve had memorable ice cream with hunks of strawberries embedded, and Halo Top’s version isn’t nearly as satisfying as that. One person said the flavor was of a strawberry hand candy, and another noted it most resembled Strawberry Quik.

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Mint Chip

Calories per container: 240
Tasting notes: Here again, that airy texture comes into play. Mint is a less-rounded flavor than, say, vanilla. When you have something with the relative sharpness of mint, it doesn’t mask its less-creamy texture that chocolate would (see above). So one person quipped this tub tasted like a minty ice cube. I didn’t have that extreme opinion, although it does taste like a weaker version of Baskin-Robbins’ mint-chocolate chip, which to me, remains the pinnacle of the genre. At the very least, Halo Top’s version could’ve benefited from more chocolate chips.

Birthday Cake

Calories per container: 280
Tasting notes: If you asked me to name my preferred ice cream flavors, birthday cake wouldn’t be in the top 20. However, I found this the most successful and faithful of Halo Top’s interpretations. This has the full-bodied richness of standard ice cream, with a flavor that tastes like flower frosting on a cake and Dunk-A-Roos dip.

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Black Cherry

Calories per container: 280
Tasting notes: Here’s an ice cream where your eyes deceive your taste buds. It’s the color of lavender, and your brain interprets a bold hue like that as full-flavored. Unfortunately, the flavor is understated. You get the slightest suggestion of berries, with a perfumed aftertaste of rose petals. It’s not bad; it’s just disappointing: You almost wonder it’d be better if you sampled this blindfolded.


Results

Six people took part in our taste test. Three said their favorite was vanilla, two said chocolate, and I voted for birthday cake. Our least favorites were split evenly between strawberry and black cherry. Conclusion: Color us impressed. There used to be a clear demarcation between full-fat foods and its low-fat versions. Science and technology has rendered that line blurrier than ever.

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