I’ll never forget when the ice cream shop at the corner of Nine Mile Road and Beech Road in suburban Detroit changed its name from “Custard’s Last Stand” to “Elizabeth’s Frozen Delights.” Even at only eight years old, I had a feeling the name change would be accompanied by a less appealing menu — a hunch that was confirmed when all I saw the next time I walked in was soft-serve yogurt machines.
And yet, the fat-free frozen yogurt my mom had to convince me to try was as sweet as anything I’d ever sampled from Custard’s Last Stand. I left the newly minted Elizabeth’s Frozen Delights both delighted and confused. How was it that something advertised as yogurt — which is undeniably not on the level of ice cream in the hierarchy of frozen treats — could so convincingly usurp its superior, creamier cousin?
What are the differences between ice cream and frozen yogurt?
The basic ingredients of ice cream are milk or cream, a sweetener (but usually sugar) and whatever additional flavorings are required by the occasion. Frozen yogurt is pretty much the same, consisting of milk solids, a sweetener (again, usually sugar), milk fat, yogurt cultures and additional flavorings. If you’re wondering what yogurt cultures are, they’re bacteria added to sugars and milk that cause fermentation and the creation of lactic acid. Not only does this fermentation provide the finished yogurt product with a tart flavor, but the presence of yogurt cultures has been associated with everything from increased intestinal health to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
Although yogurt is widely praised for its probiotic benefits since it’s known to increase the amount of beneficial gut bacteria operating within the human digestive system, no standards exist for regulating the quantity of healthful bacteria that are used to concoct health-boosting yogurt. So while the inclusion of yogurt cultures in a blend of froyo may be sufficient to cement its nominal definition as frozen yogurt, whether or not it’s as healthy as other strains of yogurt is anybody’s guess. This isn’t to say that frozen yogurt companies are being misleading or untruthful; there’s just no way to be sure.
Let’s say there were no yogurt cultures in frozen yogurt, would it still technically be healthier than ice cream?
Well, let’s compare the frozen yogurt and the ice cream offerings of one of the most famous makers in the world of both products: Ben & Jerry. Fortunately, they offer froyo and ice cream in at least two overlapping flavors, including Cherry Garcia, making such a comparison pretty easy.
Cherry Garcia Ice Cream: Cream, skim milk, liquid sugar, water, cherries, sugar, egg yolks, coconut oil, cocoa (processed with alkali), fruit and vegetable concentrates, cocoa powder, guar gum, natural flavors, lemon juice concentrate, carrageenan, milk fat, soy lecithin
Cherry Garcia Froyo: Water, skim milk, liquid sugar, cherries, corn syrup solids, sugar, cream, coconut oil, egg yolks, nonfat yogurt powder, cocoa (processed with alkali), fruit and vegetable concentrates, cocoa powder, guar gum, natural flavors, lemon juice concentrate, carob bean gum, carrageenan, yogurt cultures, milk fat, soy lecithin, vanilla extract
A few things should leap out at you here. First of all, the ice cream version has 50 percent more calories than the frozen yogurt version, which is almost certainly due to the fact that the foremost ingredient in the ice cream is obviously cream as opposed to the frozen yogurt’s water. In cases like these, I’d immediately expect the caloric difference to be made up through additional sugar being added to the item with reduced fat, but the frozen yogurt actually has slightly less sugar than the ice cream when you dive into the numbers, although the differences between them are practically inconsequential.
It sounds like frozen yogurt is healthier no matter what!
Not so fast. The other thing that should jump off the page at you is the fact that five additional ingredients are required to provide frozen yogurt with its shelf life and consistency. Call me old-fashioned, but I always prefer to see fewer ingredients on an ingredient list. The more artificial ingredients you’re dealing with, the greater the likelihood that you’re going to experience some unforeseen side effect.
So you have a lot to consider in this scenario: An abhorrence of artificial ingredients or a fondness for naturally creamy textures should have you reaching for the ice cream. On the other hand, if you’re trying to dodge unnecessary calories, you have a strong sensitivity to dairy products or you prefer to cite the relative healthiness of your desserts in your sweets-consumption defense, frozen yogurt is the selection for you.
But while we’re not exactly talking banana splits, it is pretty much splitting hairs.