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A dietitian explains if high protein ice cream is better for us than the regular stuff.

High protein ice creams are a recent addition to the supermarket freezer shelf and they’re taking the calorie counting world by storm. They’re low in sugar, calories and fat and high in protein, fibre and come in all forms of ‘indulgent’ sounding flavours; think Cookies & Cream, Peanut Butter and Salted Caramel, just to name a few. Sounding too good to be true? Let’s have a look.

How do protein ice creams stack up nutritionally?

One serve of protein ice cream (½ cup) contains 70 calories and 5g protein, along with 3g fibre and only 2g fat. In comparison, the same size serve of regular ice cream contains roughly 180 calories, half the protein and five times the amount of fat. You’ll notice the difference even more if you choose to consume the whole tub (as often advertised by these low-cal protein providers). One pint (around 500mL) contains approximately 300 calories and one pint of regular will put you back roughly three times that, at 1100 calories. What’s the reason for this huge difference? The ingredients.

What’s in protein ice cream?

Regular ‘gourmet’ style ice creams contain recognisable ingredients like cream, milk, sugar, egg yolk along with various flavours like biscuits, chocolate pieces etc. The ingredients that you’ll find in these low-cal, high protein ice creams are considerably different. You’ll find:

Stevia

Stevia is made from a super sweet herbaceous plant. It is called a non-nutritive sweetener, meaning it doesn’t have any kilojoules or carbohydrates, and is roughly 100 times sweeter than regular sugar. Stevia is free from glucose and fructose, so it has a minimal effect on our blood sugar. Downsides of stevia include its slightly bitter aftertaste. Even though you could argue it’s a ‘natural’ sweetener, it’s still very sweet. Research has found that sweeteners can stimulate the desire for more sugar. As a result, it’s pretty easy to eat the whole tub, and then you could end up looking for something more later on to satisfy that sugar craving.

Erythritol

Erythritol is a sugar alcohol which isn’t metabolised by our body during digestion; it is also calorie free. It performs no known function in our bodies and is excreted out soon after we eat it. Whilst safe for use in Australia, it is known to cause gastrointestinal upset, with many reporting side effects of diarrhoea, headaches and general discomfort.

 

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Xylitol

Xylitol is another sugar alcohol; most brands tend to use either xylitol or erythritol in combination with regular sugar to ramp up the sweetness. Like erythritol, it can lead to digestive discomfort in some individuals, particularly when consumed in large quantities. There has also been talk that sugar alcohols and sweeteners can cause cancer, however there’s no proven evidence to substantiate these claims. I tend to leave it up to the individual, some feel comfortable consuming sweeteners, others don’t.

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Prebiotic fibre

To achieve their ‘high fibre’ claims, many of these ice creams contain prebiotic fibres, also known as inulin. These fibres are found in plants like chicory root and help to bulk out the ice cream, giving it more texture without the calories.

Organic vegetable gum

Vegetable gums are made up of indigestible polysaccharides (chains of sugar molecules). They’re often used in processed foods because of their unique properties that add desirable texture and increase shelf life.

 

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How much protein do we actually need?

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend approximately 15-25 per cent of our total energy intake comes from protein – this equates to roughly 45-65g of protein a day. For most Australian women, getting enough protein isn’t an issue, so deficiency is very rare. There is a misconception that we need to consume HUGE amounts of protein, but our bodies can only process and absorb so much. And at the end of the day, there are plenty of natural sources of protein out there, including lean meat, fish, eggs and legumes, foods that are all a lot more nutritious than ice cream.

Are protein ice creams “guilt-free”?

I don’t agree with the whole “guilt-free” eat-a-whole-pint marketing pitch of these companies. This messaging creates an underlining food-shaming tone, and almost glorifies binge-eating. As a dietitian, I firmly believe and advocate for a diet of everything in moderation. We shouldn’t feel bad for eating a serve of delicious ice cream every now and then. I worry that these low-cal products aren’t even satisfying and people may fall into the trap of over-consuming the product and eat more than they normally would. Even though it is low calorie, it is still a large volume of food, and training ourselves to eat more than we should isn’t something I’d encourage.

The verdict.

At the end of the day, if you’re going to sit down a pint of ice cream it’s probably better to pick the protein variety than regular ice cream, as long as you’re not worried about the artificial sugars. But there’s alternatives I’d suggest instead. A homemade dessert consisting of some fresh fruit and yogurt or custard would be my recommendation. Best to keep the ice cream (either variety) for special occasions.

Are you a fan of protein ice creams? Which brand and flavour is your go-to? Tell us in a comment below.

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Video by MMC
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