Ice Cream vs. Frozen Dairy Dessert: What’s the Difference?

One is delicious. The other might be full of air.
Sometimes ice cream isn't ice cream.
Sometimes ice cream isn't ice cream. / Andriy Onufriyenko/Moment via Getty Images

Few people refer to pizza as a “circular sauce-based treat” or hamburgers as “bovine solids.” Yet if you browse the freezer section of your local grocery store, you’re likely to encounter cartons of ice cream that are labeled “frozen dairy dessert.”

This seems like a peculiar game of semantics and one that should alarm ice cream purists. So what’s the difference between the two?

Food labels aren’t filled out on a whim. They’re the product of standards and guidelines issued and overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is charged with making sure we have at least some idea of what we’re consuming. (The FDA’s roots are in the government asking volunteers to eat small amounts of poison, but that’s another story.) For ice cream, the FDA has a mathematical formula. Products bearing that label must contain at least 10 percent dairy fat and must also weigh 4.5 pounds to the gallon. The latter is important because no ice cream can have more than 100 percent overrun, or the amount of air equal to solids. In broad terms, the FDA wants to make sure anyone selling you ice cream is selling you sufficient dairy milk fat and not a carton full of air.

If a product flunks on both these counts, it can be sold—but manufacturers can’t call it “ice cream.” It’s now a frozen dairy dessert. Thanks to more air and less milk fat, it’s likely cheaper to produce.

The taste difference is obviously going to be subjective, but generally speaking, ice cream should have a creamier, denser presentation. Frozen dairy desserts will be lighter, with more air whipped into the finished product. They may also have more ingredients: Drumstick, the popular frozen cone made by Nestlé, is made with skim milk, coconut oil, palm oil, and soybean oil, among other ingredients.

Perry’s ice cream makes a point of boasting of their true ice cream status and also points out some variations within that definition. Some ice cream might be labeled “economy,” which meets the bare minimum standards. “Regular” ice cream falls below 100 percent overrun while adding a bit more milkfat. “Premium” ice cream might have as little as 60 percent overrun. “Super-premium” is as low as 50 percent, with milk fats as high as 18 percent.

Other companies may offer both. Breyers, for example, offers ice cream and frozen dairy desserts, a distinction that may not be apparent unless consumers examine the packaging carefully.

Still, ice cream is and likely will remain a catch-all term for anything creamy, frozen, and full of sugar. After all, no kid has ever screamed about the frozen dairy dessert truck coming down the street.

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