What Exactly is Ice Cream? (And what isn’t it?)

As we began researching this article, it quickly became painfully apparent that we ourselves had no idea what ice cream actually was. Unfortunately, it seems fairly difficult to define ice cream without sounding like a chemistry textbook, but we’ll try our best.

Ice Cream Sundae

The first line of Wikipedia says that ice cream is a frozen food typically eaten as a snack or dessert. This is certainly accurate, although us here at Ice Cream International often eat it as a main meal as well. But there are also gelatos, sorbets, custards… what is the line that separates them?

Well, it depends on who you ask. Gelato means “ice cream” in Italian, so some people use various terms interchangeably. However, the United States’ FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has a specific standard on what products for sale can be labeled specifically as “Ice Cream” to avoid deceiving consumers. We’re going to analyze ice cream from the perspective of that standard.

Gelato here at ice cream International.
According to the FDA, this is not ice cream. (It’s still delicious though.)

The standard is humorously dense and, at the risk of scaring away our readers, we’re going to include a quote from it defining ice cream. (We promise we will stop sounding like a chemistry textbook or the US Government after this.) According to the FDA, “Ice cream is a food produced by freezing, while stirring, a pasteurized mix consisting of one or more of the optional dairy ingredients specified in paragraph (b) of this section, and may contain one or more of the optional caseinates specified in paragraph (c) of this section subject to the conditions hereinafter set forth, one or more of the optional hydrolyzed milk proteins as provided for in paragraph (d) of this section subject to the conditions hereinafter set forth, and other safe and suitable nonmilk-derived ingredients; and excluding other food fats, except such as are natural components of flavoring ingredients used or are added in incidental amounts to accomplish specific functions.”

What’s interesting is that there are no required ingredients in ice cream. There is a set of optional dairy ingredients, and it must contain at least one. This means that ice cream does not have to contain cream. It could only contain milk. Or butter. “Frozen butter dessert” doesn’t sound quite as tasty, does it? Though since butter comes from cream, it kind of makes sense once you think about it.

Since there are no required ingredients, let’s look one level deeper at the composition of ice cream. Ice cream is composed of water, ice, milk fat, milk protein, sugar, and air. To us, the “air” is actually quite interesting. It’s an ingredient you don’t generally think about, but without it, you get a rock-hard lump of ice in your freezer that is not really edible. This is why you need an ice cream churner, it whisks air into the ice cream as the ice cream freezes.

If you think this is as cool as we do, we highly recommend this book. It covers the composition of ice cream in great detail and also has some delicious recipes!

The FDA does have some rules about this composition. Ice cream must contain at least 10% dairy milkfat. It also must weigh at least 4.5 pounds per gallon, which means that manufacturers cannot whip too much air into it. The percentage of air in ice cream is called “overrun”; the FDA limits this to about 100%, meaning equal parts air and non-air. If you pick up two equal-volume containers of ice cream, one might be lighter. This is because it is more overrun and has more air whipped into it. This means you’re actually getting less ice cream for your money. While this seems like a useful dieting trick, it’s more likely you’ll find the ice cream less satisfying and filling and eat more of it in one serving.

There are some so-called “Premium” and “Superpremium” ice creams; Ben & Jerry’s from the USA is one of the most common superpremium examples. These terms indicate that the ice cream has a higher fat content and less overrun. The ice cream is denser and richer, and is correspondingly more expensive, but you can now see that the expense is at least partially justified.

What about all the “Frozen Dairy Desserts” that are becoming so common in the USA? They remind me of the time I was served a “fermented milk product” on an airplane; I was quite leery but it just turned out to be yogurt, or at least something quite similar. A “Frozen Dairy Dessert” does not meet the FDA requirements for being called “Ice Cream”, so, it might not have enough fat, be too overrun, use nondairy fats, or something else. There are subcategories of frozen dairy desserts, such as “Reduced Fat Ice Cream” and “Lowfat Ice Cream”, which have their own FDA requirements.

As for custards, gelatos, etc.? Some terms are regulated by the FDA, some aren’t. We’ll be discussing some of the history and meaning behinds these terms in later blog posts.

Well, whether it’s a bowl of ice cream or frozen dairy dessert, we hope you enjoy. And hopefully this post helps you appreciate the soul-satisfying deliciousness of homemade, all natural, real ice cream.




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