Gelato and ice cream aren’t the same thing, but how exactly are they different? 

Why do we scream for ice cream but not gelato? Why does gelato feel “classier?” Is one healthier than the other?

You have questions, and we have answers. Warmer weather is right around the corner, and while we’re not sure this will affect your choice of one over the other, we’re going to tell you the difference between gelato and ice cream anyway.  

The Scoop on Gelato

“Gelato” happens to be the Italian word for ice cream. Except, gelato lovers probably wouldn’t be pleased being lumped in with the “American ice cream” lovers. Gelato is actually quite distinct from what we know ice cream to be; one might call gelato ice cream’s richer, dense and intense cousin, but we’ll go over the details and let you decide for yourself.

While both gelato and ice cream are made from milk and cream, gelato uses a higher proportion of milk  and less cream. Using more milk and less cream is the main reason gelato tends to have lower fat and caloric content. Eggs are another differentiating ingredient; ice cream often contains small amounts of eggs, while gelato is usually completely void of them. Finally, gelato usually ends up being 5-7% fat, whereas ice cream is FDA regulated and required to contain a minimum of 10% milkfat. 

Gelato is churned at a much slower rate than ice cream and incorporates much less air (overrun is the term referring to the amount of air incorporated into a mixture as it freezes and mixes). This difference in the production process is part of why gelato is denser than ice cream and this density, in turn, affects the temperature at which gelato is stored and served.

Because of the lower fat content and higher density, gelato is typically stored and served about 10-15 degrees warmer than ice cream, somewhere around 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Other than this higher temperature making the gelato smoother and silkier, it also means you’ll have to eat it a bit more quickly if you don’t want it to melt on a hot summer day. 

Oh, it’s also fun to point out that authentic gelato isn’t simply scooped; it’s served with a spade. If you’ve been to a gelato parlor before, you’ve likely seen this flatter (spatula-like) spade being used to soften up the gelato before it’s placed in the cup or cone. We can recall that gelato may need this extra softening before serving because it is less airy and naturally stays colder. Besides the serving style being cool artistry on its own, people also love to watch the process. 

The Scoop on Ice Cream

We all scream for ice cream – how could you not?

Like gelato, ice cream is made from milk and cream, just with a higher proportion of cream to milk. Ice cream also sometimes contains eggs, although the amount will never exceed 1.4% as outlined by the FDA. Ice cream will have a noticeably higher fat content than gelato because of the extra cream, but this is what puts the “cream” in ice cream and gives us the creaminess we all know and love. 

The overrun of ice cream is much higher than gelato and can reach 100% (meaning the weight of the final product of ice cream will be double the starting weight of the base mix). Ice cream with 100% overrun starts to look pretty similar to whipped cream, so most ice creams stay around 50-70%. For comparison, gelato will typically have about 20-30% overrun. 

The amount of air in ice cream plays a role in why it’s stored at a cooler temperature than gelato; its lower density requires colder temperatures to help the ice cream maintain its shape and consistency. If gelato were stored at ice cream’s temperature, it would be almost rock solid and un-scoopable. Oh – un-spreadable, we mean ;). 

Which One Is Healthier?

How do we measure health? Calories? Sugar? Happiness?

Well, there are a few different elements that can play into this “health” equation. We know gelato has significantly less fat than ice cream, which may seem like a good thing, but it’s not that simple. First of all, fat isn’t a bad thing. Fat will help you feel fuller faster and stay feeling full for longer. So while a lower-fat gelato may seem intriguing at first, you may just end up going for round two or three rather than being satisfied after one serving of “fatty” ice cream. 

Lower fat doesn’t always mean lower calories either. Gelato sometimes contains noticeably more sugar than ice cream does to compensate for lacking flavor due to the absence of fat. We also have to talk about serving size. When dining out, standard measures of gelato are usually smaller than the sizes that ice cream. While this is partially because of ice cream’s higher “fluff factor,” which adds volume, we have to be mindful of what else we consume along with the treat itself (i.e., a biscotti and cappuccino accompanying the scoop of gelato or ice cream with additional syrups and toppings.

What about dairy and lactose and gluten (oh my!)? Ok, so the basis of both gelato and ice cream is some combination of dairy products, so neither are dairy-free in their “normal” state. The good news is that it’s 2021 and just about everything with dairy has a dairy-free alternative

Dairy-free ice cream is easy – there seems to be a new brand popping up almost every other day. We’ll save your time and direct you to the best one on the market right here. There aren’t that many dairy-free variations when it comes to gelato, but there is also sorbet, which is just as awesome. Note we’re saying sorbet, not sherbert; sherbert contains milk, sorbet does not. A good rule of thumb is unless the label specifies “non-dairy frozen dessert,” it likely contains dairy. 

Given that lactose is a sugar naturally occurring in milk, both authentic gelato and traditional ice cream will contain lactose. With sorbet being dairy-free and therefore lactose-free, we’d say it’s your best bet for a “lactose-free gelato.” Ice cream is the easy one again; there are plenty of lactose-free ice creams out there. You just have to find the good ones

And finally….wait – what’s gluten again? Gluten is a protein naturally occurring in wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten gets a bad rep, but it’s only a bad thing for people with Celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergies. Neither gelato nor ice cream will contain gluten on their own – it’s with the mix-ins we have to pay attention to. Additional mix-ins or toppings, like cookie crumbles, is how gluten might creep its way into your sweet treat. Cross-contamination during production also presents a risk, but government regulations ensure all labels explicitly state something along the lines of “made in a facility that also processes X, Y, and Z.” 

Now You Know

The next time you’re enjoying one of these frozen delicacies with friends, you can share how it’s different than the other one. 

On the first hot day of the summer, which one will you be reaching for first?


What Is Overrun & Why Does It Matter When Making Soft Serve Ice Cream? | Slices Concession

Ice Cream: Nutrition, Downsides, and Best Choices | Healthline

Lactose intolerance – Symptoms and causes | Mayo Clinic

The Gluten-Free Diet |