The Difference Between America's Frozen Desserts

Frozen treats are popular, especially in the heat of summer, but long gone are the days when ice cream was the only dessert Americans demanded. Now, customers are as likely to ask for frozen yogurt as they are for ice cream1, and there are a growing number of specialty shops serving gelato, custard, and sorbet. Although it may be tempting to use these terms interchangeably for any frozen dessert, it's important to understand the differences between each of these treats.

The histories of ice cream, gelato, frozen yogurt, sorbet, and custard can all be traced back to a number of ancient civilizations that enjoyed desserts made from ice and fruit juice or dairy. Those include the Mesopotamians in 4000 B.C., the infamous Roman emperor Nero, and China's Tang dynasty.2 Today, credit for the origin of our modern frozen desserts is usually given to 17th century Italy, though the treats were then popularized in France before traveling to the American colonies.

What is Ice Cream?

According to historical records, ice cream as we know it today has been around since at least 1744, when Thomas Bladen, the proprietary governor of Maryland, served it to his guests.3 William Black, an attendee of a meal at the governor’s residence, is credited with being the first person to record eating ice cream in America. He wrote in his journal on May 19, 1744, “… after which came a Dessert no less Curious; Among the Rarities of which it was Compos’d, was some fine Ice Cream which, with the Strawberries and Milk, eat most deliciously.”4

Though well received by those of means, the dessert didn't become available to and popular with the masses until the 1800s, when a man named Jacob Fussell helped pioneer the ice cream manufacturing industry. By 1946, the average American consumed at least 20 quarts of ice cream each year.5, and today, the average American consumes closer to 23 pounds each year.6

Whether it's scooped into a cone or soft-serve dispensed into a cup, the ice cream we're used to and probably grew up eating is a mixture that contains, according to FDA regulations, at least 10 percent milkfat and no less than 6 percent nonfat milk solids.7 [cite: https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=135.110] Given these parameters, a gallon of ice cream should weigh at least 412 pounds. The FDA stipulates that products not containing the specified ingredient inclusions should be labeled as a "frozen dairy dessert."

Although extra flavors and additives may be included, ice cream is traditionally made from milk, cream, and sugar that is stirred together. Ice cream is aerated as it is mixed, and the term overrun refers to the amount of air that is added to the final product. The air added to ice cream makes it a less dense product than some other frozen treats.

Gelato vs. Ice Cream

Perhaps the biggest difference between gelato and ice cream is that gelato uses more milk than cream; unlike frozen custard, which is discussed below, traditional recipes do not include egg yolks as an ingredient.8 Gelato is also a denser product, since it is mixed more slowly than ice cream and does not contain as much air. Gelato became a tradition for wealthy Italians after its creation during the Renaissance, but it did not become available to the masses until 1686. That's when a Sicilian man, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, began serving it at his Parisian café, Le Procope, which continues to operate today.

Gelato finally immigrated to mainstream America several years ago, when versions of the Italian treat produced by ice cream heavyweight brands caught on with consumers and opened the door for restaurateurs hoping to serve the specialty dessert. In 2016, gelato's share of the American ice cream market was expected to grow by more than 30 percent.9

Frozen Yogurt vs. Ice Cream

Frozen yogurt is made with cultured milk, rather than the cream that ice cream relies on.10 Frozen yogurt is generally perceived as a healthier alternative to ice cream, but this often isn't true because the dessert contains just as much sugar, if not more, than ice cream. This hasn't melted the American enthusiasm for the frozen treat, though – market researcher IBISWorld reports that frozen yogurt is a $2 billion industry with an annual growth rate of nearly 12 percent.11

Sorbet vs. Ice Cream

Sorbet most closely resembles the frozen desserts enjoyed hundreds and thousands of years ago. It is made with fruit and sugar, but does not contain dairy. A fruit-based dessert that contains dairy is technically sherbet. This type of frozen fruit treat may be called "sherbert," but this is actually a misspelling of sherbet that has become a recognized variant.12

Custard vs. Ice Cream

The main difference between frozen custard and ice cream is that custard includes eggs. Per the FDA regulations for ice cream and frozen custard (Title 21 Sec. 135.110), frozen custard may be called "French ice cream" or "French custard ice cream." That means the French ice cream some Americans prefer is technically classified as frozen custard because it has "1.4 percent egg yolk solids by weight of the finished food: provided, however, that when bulky flavors are added, the egg yolk solids content of frozen custard may be reduced in proportion to the amount by weight of the bulky flavors added, but in no case is the content of egg yolk solids in the finished food less than 1.12 percent." The inclusion of the egg in frozen custard makes for a smoother, denser product.

  1. Americans eating less ice cream, paying more for good stuff. Greg Trotter, Chicago Tribune. Accessed July 2017.
  2. Snow in Summer: A Global History of Frozen Treats. Nate Barksdale, History. Accessed July 2017.
  3. Ice Cream's Always Gone Over Big in Washington. Nancy Baggett, Washington Post. Accessed July 2017.
  4. Journal of William Black. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Accessed July 2017.
  5. The History of Ice Cream. IDFA. Accessed July 2017.
  6. Ice Cream Sales and Trends. IDFA. Accessed July 2017.
  7. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. FDA. Accessed July 2017.
  8. Ice Cream vs Gelato: What’s the Difference? Huffington Post. Accessed July 2017.
  9. Amid Gelato Boom, The Hottest Thing in Ice Cream is Talenti. Forbes. Accessed July 2017.
  10. Here's the Scoop About Gelato Vs. Ice Cream Vs. Frozen Yogurt. Forbes. Accessed July 2017.
  11. Frozen Yogurt Stores: Market Research Report. IBISWorld. Accessed July 2017.
  12. The Scoop on Sherbet vs. Sherbert. Merriam-Webster. Accessed July 2017.