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What separates ice cream from other types of cool treats? See more cool treats pictures.

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Americans love frozen desserts. We spend about $25 billion on the stuff and down some 1.5 billion gallons a year [source: Progressive Grocer]. Ice cream -- regular, low-fat and other varieties -- is the dessert we scream for the most, counting for 87 percent of all sales. Frozen yogurt, claiming 4.3 percent of the market, is a distant second [source: International Dairy Foods Association].

Added ingredients and flavorings create an endless variety of yummy dairy treats. But you'll find a lot of the same foundations in all desserts:

  • Milk fats and proteins supply richness and body. Milk fats are most responsible for the creamy smoothness, while proteins add firmness and that chewy texture.
  • Sweeteners turn the dairy products into dessert. They also contribute to texture. Sugar and corn syrup are the most common type of sweeteners.
  • Stabilizers help keep frozen desserts frozen as they travel from the plant to the store to your home. Otherwise, ice crystals would grow each time the product thaws and refreezes, making for a gritty texture. Only a little bit is added to desserts -- less than 1 percent.
  • Emulsifiers keep the milk fat globules evenly distributed among the liquid portion and the airy portion. As with stabilizers, most producers add tiny amounts of fats and oils (listed as mono- or diglycerides on the package) for this task.

Speaking of air and liquid, those are the two biggest components in frozen desserts, in both amount and importance. As part of other ingredients, water makes up the greatest part of desserts by weight. Air (called overrun) is whipped in for a pleasing texture and consistency. Without some added air, the food would resemble concrete -- both while scooping and eating.

It's the specific components and the ways they're combined that create different frozen confections. There's one for just about every taste, mood, health concern and budget.

  • Ice cream -- By United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards, a food labeled "ice cream" should have at least 20 percent milk solids and 10 percent milk fat by weight. Premium brands are fattier, typically 14 to 18 percent. Both milk and cream are used. Sweeteners account for another 15 percent or so.
  • Frozen custard -- A touch of egg yolk is what distinguishes frozen custard from commercial ice cream. Legally, custard only has to contain 1.4 percent egg yolk by weight, but some brands have more. The lecithin in the yolk is a natural emulsifier, imparting a richer, creamier texture.
  • Gelato -- Gelato hails from Italy, and its name is simply the Italian word for "frozen." Gelato traditionally is made using mostly or entirely milk. Having little or no cream reduces fat while intensifying flavors. Gelato's melt-in-the-mouth creaminess comes from sheer density: It's churned with relatively little added air.
  • Frozen yogurt -- Frozen yogurt blends yogurt (milk fermented with yogurt cultures) with an ice cream base of milk, cream and sweetener. The resulting dessert is both sweet and tangy, cold and creamy. If made with live cultures, frozen yogurt promotes digestive health by encouraging the growth of "friendly" bacteria in the intestinal tract.