Ice Cream or Not Ice Cream?

Photograph by Flickr user gabriela talarico
Photograph by Flickr user gabriela talarico / Photograph by Flickr user gabriela talarico

As we plod through the heat wave of the summer, few things are more refreshing than an ice cream treat. The biggest problem is getting it from the store to the house before it melts! But if you look in the supermarket aisle full of frozen treats, the products range from popsicles to ice cream to generic "artificially-flavored frozen non-dairy dessert," whatever that means. Ice cream by any other name would taste as sweet, right? Actually, what you get in most frozen treats is standardized by how they are labeled. You should know what you're getting in ice cream, ice milk, sherbet, frozen custard, sorbet, etc. Note: these definitions and usages are for the United States only. Your ice cream may vary.

In the United States, ice cream must contain 10% milk fat, plus nonfat milk solids that bring the solid milk content to 20%. There are some exceptions to these standards when the content of "bulky flavorings" (such as chocolate) are within certain parameters. Ice cream must contain no more than 1.4% egg yolk. If the content goes beyond that, the product is labeled frozen custard. Ice cream doesn't even have to use cream, as long as the dairy products used fit the milk fat and nonfat milk solid standards. The dairy ingredients may be milk, evaporated milk, skim milk, butter, butter oil, buttermilk, or cream in various forms.

rainbow sherbet
rainbow sherbet /

Photograph by Flickr user Carr23.

Sherbet is a fruit-based frozen dairy dessert, which must have between 1% and 2% milk fat, and the same amount of nonfat milk solids. The total solid milk content should be between 2% and 5%. Fruit content in sherbet must be 10% for most fruits, including tomato and rhubarb, 6% for berries, and 2% for citrus fruits. Have you ever encountered tomato or rhubarb sherbet?


is an ice cream substitute that I'd never heard of until today. The USDA standards for


are that it contain pasteurized milk, but the fat content may come from

an animal or vegetable source besides milk

. The fat content must be 6% and the protein content must be at least 2.7%. Once again, these standards may be adjusted slightly to account for the composition of the flavoring ingredients. A federal court just last year said mellorine

should not be classified as a dairy


for the purpose of import tariffs.

Morris Ice Cream Van
Morris Ice Cream Van /

Photograph by Flickr user Danny McL.

Ice milk

standards state that the product contains

no less than 3.25% milk


and no more than 0.6% vegetable gum or gelatin. Courts have held that products named "Icy Kream" and "Ice Cremo" were misleading when attached to desserts that only met the ingredient standards for ice milk.

Frozen Custard Diner
Frozen Custard Diner /

Photograph by Flickr user Jeremy Brooks.

Frozen custard

must meet the same milk content standards as ice cream, but custard contains

more than the 1.4% egg yolk


for ice cream. Frozen custard may also be labeled as "French ice cream."

The Meadows
The Meadows /

Photograph by Flickr user Alex Valli.

Frozen yogurt


no particular labeling standards

in the United States. For a product to be called yogurt, the

National Yogurt Association

says it must contain two strains of beneficial bacteria:

streptococcus thermophilus


lactobacillus bulgaricus

. However, the cultures do not have to be live -they can be killed by heat treatment or, of course, freezing.

Strawberry Swirl
Strawberry Swirl /

Photograph by Flickr user Joshua Zamrycki.

Soft serve

is ice cream, ice milk, or other frozen dessert that is

stirred while being frozen and usually has air whipped into it

, making it softer and easier to eat. The amount of air may range

from nothing to 60%

depending on the vendor. Too much air may make a cone look huge, but it also causes the soft serve to melt too fast. If a product is advertised as "soft serve ice cream," "soft serve frozen custard," etc. it must conform to the standards of that product, minus the air.

Strawberry sorbet with Gingersnaps
Strawberry sorbet with Gingersnaps /

Photograph by Flickr user starleigh.


is a frozen dessert made from

sugar and water


flavored with fruit juice, liqueur, or


and contains no dairy products at all. That makes it similar to what we refer to in the U.S. as slushes, popsicles, and Italian ice (which only sometimes contain any real fruit juice). In normal usage, the term sorbet is reserved for a fancier dessert.

Gelato. /

Photograph by Flickr user Lucee.

Gelato is the Italian word for ice cream. However, the term is used for Italian-style ice cream, which is served warmer and just slightly melted. That's good, because ice cream in Italy is churned more slowly and contains less air than American-style ice cream. It also contains less milk fat, so the label gelato is often used for a frozen dessert that does not quite meet U.S. milk content standards.

Guess which one is mine
Guess which one is mine /

Photograph by Flickr user Tilemahos Efthimiadis.

Frappe is a word that simply means "chilled or partly frozen." As a product, it is a term used for sherbet, milkshake, and iced coffee -and possibly other products. If you aren't sure of what you are ordering, you should ask.