Yummy! A quick guide to what is and isn’t ice cream

By mbrooks on April 10, 2019
(Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images)
By Matthew Brooks
You know what your preference is between ice cream and gelato, sorbet and sherbet, frozen custard and frozen yogurt. Do you know what is in these desserts that makes them different?
The differences is in more than a name and more than a flavor traditionally associated with each dessert. In some cases, the USDA dictates the presence and amount of an ingredient there must be in order to place the label of ice cream, gelato, or whatever else on the product.

Ice cream

Ice cream must consist of 10% milkfat in order to be called ice cream. Ice cream contains cream, milk, and sugar. Be sure to check the label when buying ice cream because brands may use the label “frozen dessert” to skip the requirements of putting cream into the ice cream. Egg yolks aren’t required to make it ice cream, but it does happen.
The government won’t let just anything be called ice cream.(Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

While on the subject of milkfat, 2% milk is called 2% because it has 2% milkfat. Whole milk has 3.5% milk fat.

Ice cream commonly has air pumped into the mix, making it lighter in texture than gelato or frozen custard. Yes, this means gelato and frozen custard gives you more frozen dessert by weight than ice cream because there is less air in gelato and frozen custard.

Frozen yogurt

Frozen yogurt might be the least consistent product among frozen desserts. Frozen yogurt may have lots of milkfat or not much at all. It may have live bacteria or none at all. The FDA does not regulate frozen yogurt, though some states do.
In Utah, frozen yogurt must be made from at least 3.25% milkfat. Frozen lowfat yogurt must have 2% milkfat. Frozen nonfat yogurt must have less .5% milkfat. All frozen yogurt must be fermented from a certain bacteria.


Gelato is the popular Italian dessert.  Gelato, like ice cream, uses cream, milk, and sugar. It does not use egg yolks. The USDA does not set a milk fat requirement for gelato. The decreased amount of milkfat plus the decrease in air during churning means the gelato has dense consistency that feels more luxurious than ice cream.
What is gelato? Gelato is simply Italian for “ice cream.”

Some people say gelato has stronger flavors than ice cream. There is a scientific basis for this! Gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream. Gelato is served around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Ice cream is served as cold as -10 degrees. The flavors of a gelato are enhanced because the warmer temperature makes the flavors easier to taste than with ice cream.

Gelato is commonly flavored with fruit. If fruit is the primary flavor and the milkfat is decreased it is a sherbet.


Sherbet is a frozen fruit dessert with 1 to 2 percent milkfat. This means sherbet can be made at home because it can be made with the milk in your fridge. No heavy cream is required to make it right.

Adding fruit brings out flavor because frozen dairy by itself doesn’t have a taste. Peach melba with raspberry sorbet. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)


Sorbet contains no milk, nor any other dairy products. Sorbet is just fruit and sugar. If that sounds appealing, consider yourself lucky because sorbet is easy to make at home.

Frozen Custard

Frozen custard, like gelato, is dense and has an egg base. They are both made of eggs, milk, cream, and sugar. Frozen custard uses a egg yolk base that it a thick, creamier texture. They are both served warmer than ice cream.

Frozen custard is a more dessert for the volume because it isn’t artificially inflated with air. (Photo by Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images)
The FDA requires frozen custard to have at least 10% milkfat and 1.4% egg yolk. If the right amount of milkfat is there and but not enough egg yolk, its just ice cream.

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