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July 5, 2017
The Summer of Halo Top
Article Halo Top Ice Cream

An insurgent ice cream company pitches 240 calories a pint, and one-thirteenth the amount of sugar of traditional brands. And it tastes like ice cream (sorta, pretty close). For fans of Halo Top, the numbers make sense. For Halo Top the company, the number$ are adding up.

Since this is a story about Halo Top, it’s all but mandatory to open with an anecdote about the moment I first became aware of the magical ice cream that doesn’t make you fat.

For me, that might have been when a friend started eating a pint nightly in the months leading up to her wedding—so she could fit into her dress. Or when a gym-rat acquaintance began posting videos of himself wolfing down a whole pint after every workout. Or the time I tried my first spoonful—chocolate, the best flavor, of course—in which, armed with the low expectations that accompany a 240-calorie dessert, I thought to myself, this stuff is actually pretty good.

Maybe you’ve heard of Halo Top? Seen the barren freezer section at Whole Foods scoured clean of every flavor (even lemon cake)? Witnessed the barrage of social media posts featuring influencers buried in bathtubs of low-calorie ice cream á la Roger Daltrey?

For the uninitiated, Halo Top is—in the most basic terms—a healthier version of ice cream. Compared to generic brands, it contains a shocking one-fifth the calories, one-sixth the fat content and one-thirteenth the amount of sugar (along with an additional 25% more protein). And most crucially, perhaps, it actually resembles ice cream, both in texture, sweetness and creaminess, at least in comparison to other lackluster low-calorie frozen desserts on the market. It is, as one friend described it, a “god-cheating” dessert. It’s not surprising then that, since hitting shelves in 2012, Halo Top has exploded from a former niche health-food product into a frozen retail juggernaut, single-handedly changing the ice cream world in ways that no one could have imagined.

Consider this. Back in April, Halo Top debuted seven of its flavors in Wal-Mart stores across the country. Within a month, according to sales figures provided by the company, their products accounted for the seven top-selling SKUs (retail parlance for product codes) in the entire ice cream category. That meant that, at one of the nation’s largest retail chains, the least sold flavor of Halo Top outsold the best-selling flavor of every other brand. How did a low-calorie dessert invented by a lawyer with an aversion to sugar disrupt a billion-dollar industry? The answer says as much about human psychology as it does about culinary ingenuity.

For hundreds of thousands of years, human brains have functioned like giant vending machines. In exchange for consuming calorie-dense foods loaded with fat and sugar, our frontal lobes secrete the same chemicals produced by a shot of heroin—an evolutionary caveman reward for stocking up on extra nutrients to survive a long winter. In the last century of human history, however, we have actively sought ways to game this chemical arrangement; food scientists have concocted tactics to satisfy our desire for things that light up our gustatory pleasure centers without the caloric payload that necessarily accompanies them (diet sodas, for example). In this field of health-ified desserts, Halo Top founder and CEO Justin Woolverton might someday be considered the Jonas Salk of his generation. This is because Halo Top, especially if you let it soften for a few minutes before eating it like the label suggests, tastes remarkably like the genuine article. The lush creaminess, the velvety scoopable texture, the sweet-but-not-too-sweet balance of flavor—it’s all in there. In fact, comparing Halo Top to regular ice cream might even count as a disservice. The experience of eating it feels altogether separate from a scoop of, say, Baskin-Robbins. I wouldn’t go so far as to say you’ll feel healthier after eating a pint of Halo Top, but you certainly won’t feel worse.

The origin story of Halo Top begins with Woolverton, a disillusioned young lawyer in Los Angeles prone to episodes of hypoglycemia, seeking to create a dessert that was “lower in sugar, maybe with some protein, something like Greek yogurt.” I met Woolverton, a clean-cut 37-year-old dude who looks wholesome enough to host his own HGTV show, at a co-working space conference room in West Hollywood (Halo Top’s 40 employees all work remotely) where over the course of an hour he explained the process behind his wildly successful product, and the challenges in managing the rapidly growing company that sells it.

Around 2010, burned out from the legal world, Woolverton began experimenting in his own kitchen with a small Cuisinart ice-cream maker he bought off Amazon, producing and tweaking small batches of ice cream made with artificial sweetener. It would be over a year until he would found Halo Top in 2011—and another year until the ice cream itself landed in stores—but according to Woolverton, despite a long process of “trial and error,” the basic concept of his company wasn’t dissimilar from what he originally whipped up in his kitchen.

As with traditional ice cream, the base of Halo Top is milk and cream, though—as you might expect—it uses a much higher ratio of skim milk to heavy cream. Instead of sugar, Halo Top is sweetened with stevia, a plant-based extract that is 200 times sweeter than table sugar. In fact, stevia is so potent that is must be cut with a “flowing agent” called erythritol—a sugar alcohol that is similar in chemical structure to real sugar, but with only 60 to 80 percent of the sweetness and none of the caloric content. Erythritol is also not absorbed by the digestive tract. “If you’ve heard of Truvia, which is a brand of sweetener made from about 95% erythritol and 5% stevia, that’s similar to what we use,” says Woolverton. It’s worth noting that according to some users, erythritol is known to cause occasional gastric distress, although Woolverton maintains that he is aware of those concerns and believes “you would have to eat around four to five pints to feel any sort of negative effect.”

In April, Halo Top debuted seven flavors in Wal-Mart stores across the country. Within a month, their products accounted for the seven top-selling SKUs—retail parlance for product codes—in the entire ice cream category.

Replacing the sugar and fat, however, results in icy, spoon-snapping consequences. Traditionally, those twin gastronomic pillars of quality ice cream provide a velvety texture, keeping it from turning into a giant dairy ice cube. Stripped of sugar and fat, Woolverton’s solution was to add prebiotic fiber, a non-digestible plant fiber (in this case extracted from the lees, or residual yeast, left over from the production of soy sauce and sake) that adds the heft that sugar would have otherwise provided. The remaining components of Halo Top are less unusual. Eggs, the ingredient listed just after milk and cream on the package, are added as a texture-softening emulsifier; concentrated lactose protein (the kind you often see in nutrition bars) is added to increase satiety; while thickening agents vegetable glycerin, carob gum and guar gum are used to replicate the creamy feel of regular ice cream.

But one more invisible ingredient is crucial to the world-changing appeal of this product: air. All ice creams have air whipped into them, but some have more than others. Premium ice creams like Jeni’s, or even Ben & Jerry’s, usually have around 20% to 30% overrun—an industry term that measures the amount of air pumped into the mixture to give it a lighter texture—while those plastic tubs of “economy-brand” ice cream are sometimes made with up to 100% overrun, meaning the product is literally equal parts ice cream and air by weight. To keep its calorie count low, Halo Top leans toward the high end of the overrun spectrum at 82%, which means that every pint includes a little more than three-quarters of a cup of old-fashioned, calorie-free air.

Given its dietary sleight of hand, the most astounding aspect of Halo Top is not that it exists, but that it hadn’t somehow existed before. How did an amateur home cook, funded by family and friends, best an industry that every year spends millions of dollars on developing and marketing “light” ice creams? “Honestly, our advantage was being too stupid to know otherwise,” admits Woolverton. “All-natural” sweeteners like Stevia were relatively new to the market in 2011, and few food companies had begun experimenting with applications beyond beverages and baked goods, much less ice cream, a notoriously finicky product to manufacture.

For Woolverton, the biggest hurdle in the nascent days was finding not just someone to sell the ice cream, but someone to make it for them. “I was basically cold-calling ice cream factories around Los Angeles. I got hung up on often because no one knew who I was,” he admits. Finally, one co-packer, an industry term for companies that manufacture products for other businesses, agreed to let Woolverton use his equipment on a Saturday. “For some reason [the co-packer] assumed I was making marijuana ice cream,” he says. “He was actually disappointed when he found out otherwise.” The first round of production did not go as smoothly as expected—during the pasteurization process, in which the ice cream base is run through a series of heated tubes, the mixture was so thick that it actually burst the pipes. “There were nuts and bolts flying across the room,” recalls Woolverton.

After perfecting and streamlining the production process over time, the next step was finding stores that would sell the world’s first “all-natural low-calorie ice cream.” As with requests for production, initial pitches were met with silence or confusion. “Most buyers thought it was weird-sounding,” says Doug Bouton, a former lawyer and friend of Woolverton who helped co-found the company and now acts as its president and COO. “There was nothing to compare it to on the market, so most stores didn’t know where to put it.”

Halo Top was initially sold in L.A.-area health food stores like Lassen’s and Erewhon, where it did well, but the biggest windfall happened after Whole Foods took a chance on it and began stocking the ice cream. Once that happened, says Bouton, conventional grocery stores like Kroger were interested. Soon, Halo Top’s main problem became supplying enough ice cream to keep up with demand.

“Most grocery stores have their own product ecosystems based on research they’ve done. They keep track of how much people will buy certain foods, how much ice cream, and they order based on that information,” explains Bouton. “But it became very apparent on our end that people were eating Halo Top five times a week, or 10 times a week, which is far more than any supermarket expects customers to eat ice cream. It disrupted their stocking process.”

The reason why the early days of Halo Top were marked by cleared-out shelves was not because the company couldn’t produce enough ice cream, but because grocery stores’ inventory systems (many of them automated) were unable, or unwilling, to anticipate the demand. “We’ve gone on sales calls and been straight up accused of lying,” says Bouton. “We tell them to stock up and they say, these numbers don’t look right. But we have hard data that shows people are eating Halo Top much more often than they eat traditional ice cream.”

Beyond investing in customer research, Woolverton and Bouton also poured their resources into social media marketing, which they saw as offering “the most bang for our buck.” Promoted on the feeds of Instagram workout stars and weight-loss coaches, Halo Top quickly developed a cult following among a Venn diagram of health-oriented online communities—bodybuilders and fitness types championed the high protein content, while message boards like Weight Watchers Connect sung its praises for its low calorie count.

“There is a term in the tech industry called minimum viable product, and it’s this idea that once your product is ready, you should put it on the market, even if it’s a rough draft,” Woolverton says. “But in the food world, it’s different because you kind of only have one shot. We spent a long time perfecting Halo Top so that when people tried it, it would click. We felt confident that we were making really good ice cream.”

In 2016, as the grassroots obsession over the low-calorie ice cream reached new heights, both Buzzfeed and GQ published gonzo-exhibitionist stories in which the authors consumed nothing but Halo Top for a week, with (somewhat) positive results. According to Woolverton, despite the publicity they produced, the company had no idea those articles were being written until after they appeared online, and was understandably a bit skeptical of their suggestion. “We kind of read them looking between our fingers,” he admits. “We weren’t sure what to expect.” The company, of course, does not condone what some online fans have dubbed the “Halo Top Diet,” nor does it officially endorse consuming their ice cream every day, but it does acknowledge that their products enjoy a particularly fervent fan base compared to most food companies.

Earlier that same year, Halo Top released 10 new flavors, bringing its grand total to 17. Most are familiar-sounding, from pistachio and black cherry to mint chip and red velvet. All were developed using customer feedback or requests posted to the company’s social media pages. Three of the newer releases—peanut butter cup, cookie dough and sea salt caramel—now account for the top three best-selling Halo Top flavors. Woolverton admits that it’s occasionally difficult to cram a decent level of cookie dough into each pint while still keeping the calories down, but has increased the allotment to allow for what he calls “levels of decadence” (the new flavors range from 240 to 360 calories per pint).

And despite initial setbacks in production, Halo Top now works with six different co-packing facilities in the L.A. area to produce its ice cream, which is available in 17,000 stores in the United States and Australia. “You can buy us in pretty much any grocery store now,” says Bouton. In 2016, the company sold over 13.5 million pints, its most profitable year yet. The year prior, sales were fewer than one million.

Even though Halo Top remains a relatively small company compared to heavyweights like Ben & Jerry’s or Häagen-Dazs, it’s easy to understand why Halo Top has begun to push the ice cream industry in an entirely new direction, especially when an average pint retails between $4 and $5. Just look to the debut of newly minted rivals like Enlightened Ice Cream, which offers flavors such as Butter Pecan and Frozen Hot Cocoa. “You’re seeing these private equity firms flood other ice cream companies with money trying to reproduce our success,” says Woolverton.

As with most food companies, Halo Top’s recipe is not patented but rather a trade secret, much like the Coca-Cola formula (food patents are notoriously easy to rip off). Overall, Woolverton expects a huge growth in low-calorie dessert over the new few years. “I think there’s this new frontier of foods you can make with stevia and erythritol.”

As they celebrate the company’s five-year anniversary this month, Woolverton and Bouton mention plans to add more flavors and perhaps expand their production further, but insisted they don’t plan on being anything other than a health-oriented ice cream company. “Everyone has their own term for healthy,” says Woolverton. “Natural and minimally-processed foods are healthy to an extent, but when the country is facing an obesity epidemic you have to include low-calorie, high-protein options too.”

A fair criticism of Halo Top would be to ask, would you rather have a few bites of full-steam ice cream or an entire pint of something lighter? Most of us would like to assume the former, perhaps fancying ourselves dessert connoisseurs who appreciate quality over quantity. Any familiarity with human nature (and Halo Top’s sales numbers), however, doesn’t bear that thinking out. Yes, it is not quite ice cream. In fact, it exists in that uncanny valley between real and imitation, so close to the genuine product that it almost stands out more by comparison. But for many of us, the thrill of digging through an entire pint of chocolate ice cream with no residual guilt is worth the slight compromise that Halo Top offers. And if Halo Top is but one success in a wave of reimagined junk foods to come, perhaps the future of health food will be sweeter than anyone imagined.

Garrett Snyder

Garrett Snyder is a food writer based in Los Angeles, and the co-author the upcoming Night + Market cookbook. His work has appeared in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Los Angeles magazine, GQ, Thrillist, PUNCH, and Tasting Table.