Your Ultimate Guide to Decoding the Differences between Ice Cream, Frozen Yogurt, Frozen Custard, Sorbet and More

Your Ultimate Guide to Decoding the Differences between Ice Cream, Frozen Yogurt, Frozen Custard, Sorbet and More

What’s in a name?

We researched the differences between all your favorite frozen treats so you don’t have to get brain freeze in thinking about it.


Ice cream has so many relatives - frozen yogurt, gelato, sorbet, sherbet, and frozen custard to name a few. We have yet to meet one that we didn’t like (heck, we even created a snazzy vacuum-insulated bowl to keep our fav treats from melting). But, despite their similarities, there are some pretty specific criteria for each of these frosty treats.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are responsible for keeping frozen treat manufacturers in check and have strict rules on each product's ingredients and composition. So, when you crack open a pint, you know exactly what you're getting, no matter which brand you choose. Whether you’re grabbing a scoop of frozen custard in Miami or in Minnesota, you should end up with a pretty similar product, regardless of where they were made.

The base for ice cream and most other frozen treats are made up of only a few ingredients - milk, cream, sugar and air (yep, air). Manufacturers develop their own proprietary recipes with different proportions of the base ingredients (and those delicious added flavorings) but they must play by the FDA’s rules if they want to name their products accordingly.

When it comes to frozen treats, the amount of air that's incorporated can make all the difference in taste and texture. Air adds fluffiness but its addition decreases the richness and makes for a less expensive product. (For the science behind the different ice cream components and how they impact melting check out our post here). Higher quality (or premium treats) often have less air incorporated, resulting in a denser, heavier and more indulgent (aka delicious) product. Lower quality (and also lower calorie) desserts use more air to displace the more expensive (and also calorie dense) ingredients.

Want to know what really sets ice cream apart from all those other frozen desserts? Keep reading to get the full scoop on what makes ice cream ice cream, what a ‘frozen dairy dessert’ really is, and why the Italians are onto something sweet with their gelato serving technique.


Strawberry ice cream topped with fresh strawberries in a black Calicle insulated ice cream bowl

Ice Cream
While we often refer to most scoopable frozen treats as ice cream, the FDA has some serious standards for our fav dessert. To qualify as ice cream, products must contain a minimum of 10% milk fat and no less than 10% non-fat milk solids, so it has at least 20% of its total weight from milk solids. It must also weigh no less than 4.5 lbs per gallon of finished product to ensure it's not just a bunch of fluffed up air.

Premium brands like Ben & Jerry's, Häagen-Dazs, and Graeter's use higher amounts of milk fats (14-18%) and less air which gives their decadent treats that extra richness.

Frozen Custard
If we’re keeping in the family, frozen custard would be ice cream's closest cousin. Ice creams often contain some amount of egg, but when the egg yolk solids surpass 1.4%, it becomes known as frozen custard or French ice cream. Anything with less egg is simply considered ice cream. Compared to ice cream, frozen custard has less air incorporated making it denser and richer.

Frozen Yogurt
Surprisingly, the FDA does not actually have any standards on frozen yogurt composition, however, several states including California have their own guidelines.
The California Food and Agricultural Code states that frozen yogurt must be fermented after pasteurizing. Pasteurization involves briefly heating the dairy base to a high temperature to kill harmful bacteria, then cooling it quickly. After this, it is cultured with specific bacteria, including Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Streptococcus thermophilus, and Lactobacillus acidophilus. These bacteria ferment the dairy in the same way as when making regular yogurt. With a minimum of 3.5% milk fat, frozen yogurts are often (but not always) lower in fat than ice cream but they tend to contain more sugar. Finally, to bear the frozen yogurt label, the product must weigh at least 4 lbs per gallon.


Mounds of vanilla gelato with a berry swirl

Gelato, which translates to "ice cream", is ice cream's Italian cousin. It differs from American ice cream as it contains less milkfat and less incorporated air, resulting in a denser and richer frozen treat. Although there are no specific criteria set by the FDA for gelato, the Italian government requires their gelato to have a minimum of 3.5% milkfat.
Cool fact: Gelato is served at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream which keeps it incredibly soft and creamy. Delizioso!

Ice Milk
Despite its name, ice milk is not just frozen milk. Containing between 2 and 7% milk fat and at least 11% total milk solids, it’s often found labeled as “light” or “reduced-fat” ice cream. As the name suggests, it's a much less rich and typically less expensive relative to ice cream.

Frozen Dairy Dessert
When a dessert fails to meet the FDA's strict criteria to be classified as ice cream, it is labelled as frozen dairy dessert. Frozen dairy desserts typically contain milk, sweeteners, and flavorings, but may also include other ingredients such as stabilizers and emulsifiers. They are often marketed as lower-fat or lower-calorie alternatives to traditional ice cream.


Three scoops of pink and white sherbet with raspberries for garnish

Sherbet (or Sherbert)
The final member of the dairy-based frozen dessert family is sherbet, sometimes spelled sherbert. This fruit-based dessert has minimum weight of 6lbs per gallon, along with a milk fat content ranging from 1 to 2%. The inclusion of dairy lends creaminess to this refreshing treat.


Three scoops of orange sorbet garnished with a trio of mint leaves

Sorbet might be the favorite uncle in this cool family. Made from pureed fruit, sugar and water, this treat contains no dairy or eggs, making it a sweet choice for those seeking vegan or allergy friendly treats. Sorbet lacks the creaminess of dairy based frozen desserts and has a somewhat icier texture.


Container of lemon granita surrounded by lemons

Hailing from Italy, granita is a frozen dessert made by freezing a mixture of water, sugar, and flavorings, such as fruit juice or puree, coffee, or herbs. Unlike sorbet, granita is not churned and instead is scraped with a fork several times during the freezing process to create a coarse, icy texture similar to shaved ice. This refreshing treat is often enjoyed as is or topped with fruit, whipped cream, or a splash of liqueur.

If you’ve never heard of this one, you're not alone. We were surprised to come across an unknown frozen dessert while preparing this post. This ice cream alternative is typically dairy-free and made with vegetable oil or other vegetable fats. Like ice cream, it can weigh no less than 4.5 lbs per gallon and can have no less than 6% fat. Mellorine was introduced after World War 2 when there was an abundance of cottonseed oil that was no longer needed by the military. Considered lower quality and less creamy than ice cream, you would be hard pressed to find this ice cream imitation in your grocery freezer today.

Did we miss any? From decadent ice cream to sweet sorbet, there are plenty of options to choose from, each with a unique flavor, texture, and composition that sets it apart from the rest of the freezer aisle. Whichever treat you choose, we want you to enjoy every bite. That’s why we created our insulated bowls. Shop them here to keep your favorite scoops at the perfect consistency without meltdowns and savor every blissful bite.