Behind Halo Top ice cream's low-calorie success

Halo Top's low-cal success

Can ice cream ever be healthy? A company called Halo Top Creamery is attracting more ice cream lovers with a promise of lower calories and less guilt.

Time magazine named it one of the best inventions of the year. Over the summer, it also became the best-selling pint of ice cream in the country, beating big names like Ben & Jerry's and Häagen-Dazs. The first Halo Top Scoop Shop opened in Los Angeles last month and more are planned.

For Justin Woolverton, the shop was even better than being a kid in a candy store. The Halo Top ice cream CEO was previewing his company's first offering of soft-serve flavors.

"It's pretty fun. It's kind of surreal," Woolverton told CBS News correspondent Jamie Yuccas. 

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Halo Top CEO Justin Woolverton CBS News

Just a few years ago, Woolverton was a litigator at a big-name L.A. law firm and hated his career.

"Everybody thinks it's gonna be Perry Mason or like for me, a John Grisham novel. And then you get there and it's just paperwork the size of your torso," Woolverton said. "You just decide to jump off a cliff and take a risk."

Prompted by a pop-up ad, Woolverton bought a $20 ice cream machine back in 2011. His homemade concoction with all natural ingredients sparked an idea.

"It was this eureka moment, where it tasted extremely good, even though it didn't have any sugar. It was rich in protein. It was all natural. … So I was like, 'Hey! You know what? Here is my escape from law,'" Woolverton said, laughing.

At the time Woolverton owed nearly $350,000 in student loans. He found a business partner, Doug Bouton, another disgruntled lawyer willing to go deep in debt to make ice cream. Their product hit stores in 2012, but at first it didn't sell.

"We always said I think on our worst day at Halo Top – and there were some dark days in the early years – it still beat practicing law," Bouton said.

Targeting millennials, they turned to social media, sending pints to YouTube influencers. But the key selling point became about calories. An entire pint of Halo Top has about the same number of calories as a single serving of other ice creams. Vanilla bean Halo Top is labeled as 240 calories per pint, and the cinnamon roll flavor claims 360 calories per pint.

It ignited a cult-like following online. Sales skyrocketed, with 17 million hard-packed pints sold in 2016. Under the lid it reads: "Stop when you hit the bottom" and "Guilt free zone – keep digging." 

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CBS News

But Samantha Heller, a registered dietitian, said the slogans aren't healthy for those struggling with portion control. 

"When the ice cream company can tell you to eat the whole thing, it's encouraging bulk eating and binge eating. And that is something we're actively trying to control in this country," Heller said.

Woolverton said it was his own health issues  that led him to create a product sweetened with stevia and erythritol, a sugar alcohol.

"My body doesn't do well on sugar," he said. "When you have a hypoglycemic episode, you just turn white. … You look like a zombie. You're shaking and sweating." He said his sugar "roller coaster" is more severe than most people's. 

The company is pushing to keep up with demand, churning out about 650,000 pints a day. Despite the large-scale operation, they don't own their factory, preferring to rent.

Woolverton works mainly from home, but staying small is helping him think big.

"I don't see any reason why Halo Top can't be global just like other ice creams are global," Woolverton said. "It could be the number one selling ice cream in the world."

It's a dream for him – and a delicious promise for ice cream lovers who never want just one taste.

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CBS News