Ice Cream, Gelato, Sorbet, Sherbet, Or Granita?

Amazingly, after a brutal winter and an almost non-existent spring, Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer has come and gone and what is more summer than strolling down the street, ice cream (or gelato or frozen yogurt) cone in hand?.

The cold deliciousness of frozen desserts are hard to beat.  The choices abound – although eating a three scoop sundae with hot fudge, whipped cream, and other assorted toppings doesn’t rank at the top of the health-o-meter.

But, why not fit in the occasional indulgence?  With all of the options there are healthier, yet still delicious, choices to be had.  If on occasion you go for broke and set your sights on that sundae, just plan ahead to fit it in – and maybe go for two scoops instead of three — and hold the whipped cream.

The Difference Between Ice Cream And Gelato; Sorbet and Sherbet

Ice cream means different things in different countries. In the US, the government regulates what can be called ice cream but in some other countries ice cream can mean all frozen desserts.

Ice cream and gelato are usually dairy based.  The main differences are in texture, fat and air content, and ingredients. Gelato is made and stored at a higher temperature than ice cream, making it softer, smoother, and quick to melt. Both are usually made from sugar, milk, eggs, and flavorings although gelato is often made from fresh fruit. Gelato has less butterfat than ice cream, usually about 4 to 8% compared to ice cream’s 10 to 20%.

Gelato has a higher sugar content. The sugar/water combination acts like anti-freeze and prevents it from freezing solid. Most US commercial ice creams are frozen in an assembly line freezing process while gelato is frozen very quickly in small batches.

Both are churned during the freezing process which incorporates air. Most commercial ice cream contains about 50% air while gelato contains much less, generally 20-35% which produces a denser product with more intense flavor.

Ice cream, with its higher fat content, can be stored, frozen, for months while high-quality artisan gelato when stored carefully at consistent, low temperatures, only keeps its peak flavor and smooth texture for several days.


What’s In Them

According to federal standards, to be called ice cream, a frozen dessert must have a minimum of 10% milk fat: economy brands usually have the least and super premium brands have more.   Less than 10% makes it ice milk or light ice cream.

  • Premium ice cream has between 11% and 15% butterfat which makes it richer, denser, higher in calories, and often comes in gourmet flavors.
  • Regular ice cream – what you usually find in larger containers in the market — is somewhat less dense and contains 10% to 11% butterfat (perfect for milkshakes).
  • Economy ice cream, by law, has 10% butterfat.
  • Light ice cream has either 50% less fat or 33% fewer calories than the producer’s regular ice cream. Here’s the hitch: because of the starting point of fat content, light versions of premium ice cream can have more fat and calories than the regular version of other brands.
  • Reduced fat ice cream must, by law, have 25% less fat than the regular ice cream produced by the same vendor.
  • Soft serve ice cream is the same as regular ice cream but is served at a higher temperature.
  • French Style Ice Cream also called glace, has a custard base that includes eggs which makes it silky and rich.
  • Gelato (plural, gelati) has more milk than cream (if any) so its fat content is significantly lower. It doesn’t saturate your taste buds as much as ice cream so the flavor seems more intense. It is often flavored with fresh fruit, nuts, chocolate, and other natural flavors. Gelato is served at a higher temperature than ice cream — it usually looks more like frozen yogurt or whipped cream than ice cream.
  • Sorbet, which means water ice, is made from fruit, wine, or liqueur, but not milk, sometimes flavored with herbs and spices, and then whipped to lighten its texture. It is sometimes called, or used as, a palate cleanser.

  • Sherbet, like sorbet, is traditionally fruit flavored but with milk added for creaminess. By law it contains between 1 and 2% butterfat which makes it lighter in flavor and texture.

  • Granita is similar to sorbet but not whipped. Ice crystals give it a granular appearance and crunchy texture.


Nutritional Information

In general:

  • 3.5 oz of milk based gelato has between 120 and 160 calories, 4 g to 8 g of fat, and 30 g to 45 g of carbs
  • Milk and soy based gelato has between 3 g and 5 g of protein and sorbet, with no dairy, has no protein
  • A 3.5 oz serving of American ice cream averages 240 calories, 15 grams of fat, and 24 g carbs
  • These numbers are for naked ice cream and gelato – without sauce, toppings, nuts, and whipped cream.

Originally published in the May 2011 newsletter:   Eat Out, Eat Well.


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