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How Much Different Are Ice Cream and Gelato, Really?

They’re both full of the same dairy products, served cold and totally delicious. What am I missing here?

It’s certainly reasonable for someone to have the mistaken belief that “gelato” is just the Italian word for ice cream. After all, Google Translate certainly seems to think so, and that’s good enough for most.

Apparently, native Italian Erma Sasso didn’t seem to think there was much of a difference between gelato and ordinary ice cream either when she was interviewed about her desserts by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in August 1957. When asked what distinguished her homeland’s frozen dessert from ordinary American ice cream, Sasso attributed the difference to the molds that her gelato was packed into as it was being frozen.

The fact that gelato and ice cream are synonymous in some circles may be attributable to the fact that Italians possess one of the most legitimate claims to being the inventors of ice cream, with some ascribing its creation to an unorthodox culinary request of mountain snow mixed with honey and wine made by Roman Emperor Nero. Regardless as to gelato’s precise origin, there are some key differences between gelato and ice cream, and knowing them can spare you the embarrassment of appearing to be misinformed in the presence of folks who you’d much rather prefer to impress.

So what are the differences between ice cream and gelato?

Well, obviously we’re going to have to do a comparison of ingredients and nutrition; that’s simply how we do things around here!

Let’s examine a basic grocery store gelato and compare it to a similar grade of ice cream. In this case, we’ll be pitting Talenti Madagascan Vanilla Gelato against Breyers Natural Vanilla Ice Cream. In terms of ingredients:

  • Talenti Madagascan Vanilla Gelato: Milk, sugar, cream, dextrose, vanilla extract, sunflower lecithin, carob bean gum, guar bum, natural flavor, lemon peel
  • Breyers Natural Vanilla Ice Cream: Milk, cream, sugar, vegetable gum (tara), natural flavor

This is interesting, inasmuch as we recognize that ingredients are listed in order of their quantity, and the swapping of the placements of sugar and cream on the respective labels would seem to indicate that gelato either possesses a larger quantity of milk, sugar or both than ice cream. Either that, or it retains substantially less cream. In reality, it’s usually the latter: Ice cream is commonly characterized by its possession of far more cream content than gelato, while the Italian creation has far more milk. Gelato also has more of an artisanal charm to it, since it’s typically churned and served partially unfrozen, as opposed to the high-speed manufacturing process that produces most ice cream, which is almost always served frozen. 

However, we wouldn’t be fully ourselves unless we also performed a normalized nutrient comparison between the two products. As per usual, the two products go as far out of their way as they possibly can to obfuscate our understanding of their true differences. Each considers a serving to be two-thirds of a cup, but the weight of a Breyers ice cream serving is 88 grams, while a serving of the exact same volume of Talenti gelato is 129 grams. That’s an inescapable example of the difference density will make.

To set things straight, let’s institute a 1:1 ratio, thereby establishing a true serving of each product at 100 grams. When we do that, we land at 193 calories per 100 grams of Breyers and 203 calories per 100 grams of Talenti. A 10-calorie differential is nothing to concern ourselves with; it’s one extra minute on a treadmill for most people. 

As for a few other nutritional components of the two icy treats…

Frankly, there isn’t enough of a distinct difference evident here that truly tips the scale toward a clear winner, or that would cause someone in the know to advise you to select one frozen (or mostly frozen) dessert over the other on a nutritional basis. But if you’re as thrifty as I am, the fact that 1.5 quarts (or 3 pints) of Breyers costs $5.49 while the same quantity of cash will score you only one pint of Talenti may make enough of a difference to sway you on financial grounds. 

Then again, a wise friend once admonished me that owning all of the fine wine in the world is of little value to the man who truly desires a beer. So what are the real differences between gelato and ice cream? Texture, density, price and probably the perception of sophistication. Because gelato sure sounds a lot more like something you’d eat at a Roman cafe than a plain ol’ scoop of ice cream.