What's the Difference Between Ice Cream, Gelato, Frozen Yogurt and Custard?

ice cream cones
Americans love their ice cream so much that the average American eats more than 23 pounds (10 kilograms) of the stuff every year! Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images

Ice cream is arguably the best offering in the frozen aisle, but it's so much more than a chilly dessert. It's an experience. A bite of nostalgia. A spark for the senses. That's why the average American consumes more than 23 pounds (10 kilograms) of ice cream every year, according to the International Dairy Foods Association.

That's also why craft ice cream enthusiast and founder of Ohio-based Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, Jeni Britton Bauer, launched her now-national brand in the first place. (Of course that booming $11 billion ice cream industry didn't hurt.)


"It's like poetry to me," Britton Bauer says in an email. "Ice cream is all about scent. You can tell stories and transport people. Higher butterfat ice creams hold and carry more scent. The flavor blooms and builds as you eat it."

While ice cream has been around for centuries — Alexander the Great liked his snow and ice with honey and nectar while Nero Claudius Caesar seasoned his mountain snow with fruits, according to the IDFA — it's not the only frozen indulgence on the menu. Similar options like gelato, frozen custard and frozen yogurt also vie for every sugar-lover's attention. But can they come close to the deliciousness that is real ice cream? We talked with frozen dessert experts Jeni Britton Bauer and Bob Graeter of artisanal ice cream brand Graeter's to find out.


We All Scream for Ice Cream

America had its first accounted taste of ice cream in the 1740s, according to a letter dated 1744. The dessert went on to impress some of the most recognized figures in American history, including George Washington, who purchased $200 worth of ice cream in 1790, according to IDFA. Ice cream rose in popularity and accessibility as technologies evolved. But as the base of ice cream fans grew, so did the number of phonies. That's why the government standardized the dessert as part 135.110 in the Food and Drug Administration's Code of Federal Regulations, which includes stipulations on ingredients, production and composition.

"There were a lot of people making things that weren't really ice cream that they called ice cream, so the government defined it," says Bob Graeter, whose 150-year-old ice cream brand has built a cultlike following across the Midwest. "If somebody is selling ice cream, it has to meet this minimum standard. You can be better, but you can't be any less than that."


The core ingredients for ice cream are milk, cream, sugar and air. Yes, air. This fourth ingredient can make up between 30 and 50 percent of the ice cream's volume, according to the American Chemical Society. Overrun, the measurement of air volume compared to initial base volume, must be less than 100 percent. Premium ice creams typically have 50 percent overrun or less. The higher quality the ice cream, the less air it will have — so look for weight as a quality indicator for your next ice cream fix.

Ice cream is thick and creamy for a reason: It typically runs around 14 to 25 percent butterfat, according to The Food Network. (Gelato, for comparison, has 4 to 9 percent.) This composition "carries more scent to your nose ... and is more conducive to holding other ingredients like pastries and swirls," Britton Bauer says.


That Gelato's Delizioso

While ice cream is standardized by the U.S. government, gelato, which has no standardization, is like the wild, wild west. "Frozen vegetable oil and flavorings could technically pass as gelato in America," Britton Bauer says.

Of course, real gelato — the kind with milk, cream and sugar — is just as artisanal as ice cream. This dessert also has a deep history. According to Italy Magazine, slave runners traveled more than 60 miles (97 kilometers) to gather ice and snow for cooling banquet drinks. The gelato we know and love today began in the Renaissance, when an alchemist presented the sugary treat to the court of Florence's Medici Family. It's been a staple of Italian culture — and, slowly, worldwide dessert menus — ever since.


Production and freshness are two main points of distinction for this Italian dessert. "Typically it's made fresh, served fresh, it's lower in fat and high in solids. It's made in the back of the shops and merchandised out of case," Graeter says. "There are things packaged like ice cream that they call gelato because that's what they want to market it as, but there's not any standard of identity [like ice cream]."

Body is another differentiator between gelato and other frozen desserts. "The biggest difference is body," Britton Bauer says. "Most of the time, gelato is pasteurized but not homogenized. Homogenization gives body to ice cream."

Gelato is typically lower in fat and higher in solids than other frozen desserts.


Tart and Tangy FroYo!

True to its name, frozen yogurt often has the same live cultures (Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilis) as regular, refrigerated yogurt. While it's often marketed as a healthier alternative to ice cream or other frozen desserts, this largely depends on which flavor you pick, and how you dress it. According to Shape, one 16-ounce (453-gram) cup of original frozen yogurt can weigh in at 380 calories and 76 grams of sugar — and that's before you add any toppings.

While yogurt has been around for thousands of years, it didn't enter the dessert category until 1970, when entrepreneur H.P. Hood introduced "frogurt" soft-serve, according to Frozen Dessert Supplies. Capitalizing on consumers' desire for healthy foods, companies like TCBY took frozen yogurt mainstream in the 1980s. Similar to fashion fads, the froyo trend rises and falls in a 30-year cycle, Graeter says.


"Frozen yogurt is the dessert that refuses to die," he explains. "In the late '90s and early 2000s, yogurt shops were all over the place. Now, they're going away. That happens about every 30 years. Every generation discovers it then goes back to ice cream."

Flavor-wise, frozen yogurt does have its perks. Tartness makes it one of the best dessert options for frozen berries and fruit flavors, Graeter says. He also notes the froyo style is not stipulated under the Code of Federal Regulations.

Frozen yogurt
Frozen yogurt has a distinctive tangy taste that pairs perfectly with fruit toppings.
Or Hiltch/Getty Images


It's All About the Eggs in Custard

Frozen custard is similar to ice cream in ingredients and flavors, but according to the Code of Federal Regulations part 135.110(f), the correct nomenclature is ice cream unless it includes more than 1.4 percent egg yolk. If it has more, it's frozen custard.

"Frozen custard can be chewier because of the addition of egg yolks," Britton Bauer says. "Eggs play a role in the flavor as well." This thick, creamy and eggy dessert pairs well with flavors and add-ins like caramel, chocolates, cookie dough and peanut butter. According to Scooter's, a custard shop in Chicago, frozen custard often has a lower overrun percentage than ice cream.


While Wisconsin considers itself the custard capital, this frozen dessert actually made its first commercial debut in Coney Island, New York. Here, the Kohr brothers introduced the world to frozen custard, marketed as a creamier, slower-to-melt ice cream alternative, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But custard hardly caught on in New York like it did in the Midwest. Many regard the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago as the catalyst for frozen custard, although the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says Wisconsin's custard industry was already well established before that.

Either way, reports show Milwaukee now has the highest concentration of custard shops in not just America, but the world.


Custard, Gelato FAQ

What is the difference between ice cream and gelato?
Gelato is typically lower in fat and higher in solids than other frozen desserts. Most of the time, gelato is pasteurized but not homogenized. Homogenization is what gives body to ice cream.
What is a gelato made of?
Real gelato is made with milk, cream and sugar.
Is gelato worse for you than ice cream?
Ice cream is thick and creamy for a reason: It typically runs around 14 to 25 percent butterfat, according to The Food Network. Gelato, for comparison, has 4 to 9 percent butterfat.
Why is Italian gelato better?
Production and freshness are two main points of distinction for this Italian dessert. Typically it's made fresh, served fresh and it's lower in fat and high in solids.
Is Gelato vegan friendly?
No, authentic gelato isn't vegan because it uses milk and cream.