An Inside Scoop on the Pros and Cons of Ice Cream and Other Frozen Treats

07/15/2016 Nutrition & Recipes Healthy Eating Nutrition Weight Loss

The heat is on, which means cold treats are in season. Before you indulge in that scoop of ice cream or gelato, learn what’s inside these frozen treats, their benefits, and their drawbacks.

strawberry cream bars

Summer is a season synonymous with ice cream and frozen desserts because nothing quite highlights a stroll through a park, picnic, or end of a bike ride than something cool and refreshing. 

When you have a craving for that frozen treat, it can be difficult deciding what kind to grab. Frozen desserts have different characteristics; wide variety exists even within the category of ice cream. Frozen yogurt, sorbet, sherbet, gelato, and ice cream have different textures, sweetness, density, and ingredients. These treats share one common characteristic: they’re all cold.  

Gelato and Ice Cream, Yogurt, and Sorbet

Gelato, ice cream, frozen yogurt, and sorbet are very different products, each with its own distinct composition and nutritional value. 

In the U.S., ice cream is actually required to have at least 10 percent milk fat, with most medium- to high-end brands containing between 14 percent and 17 percent. Ice cream is churned at a high speed to incorporate air into the mixture to create a smooth and fluffy texture. Ice cream typically contains more than 50 percent air after the churning process. 

By contrast, gelato contains between 3 and 8 percent milk fat, and 25 to 30 percent air. Gelato is denser than ice cream because it has less air; a scoop of gelato weighs more than the same amount of ice cream. 

Since the nutritional comparison is based on ounces of weight and not volume, a scoop of gelato that is the same size as a scoop of ice cream may have more total calories, fat, and sugar than ice cream. The serving size of a portion of gelato should be about half the volume size of ice cream. 

A typical 3.5-ounce serving of vanilla gelato contains:

    • 90 calories
    • 3 grams of fat
    • 10 grams of sugar

A typical 3.5-ounce serving of vanilla ice cream contains:

    • 125 calories
    • 7 grams of fat
    • 14 grams of sugar 

A typical 3.5-ounce service of sorbet contains:

    • 120 calories
    • 0 grams of fat
    • 30 grams of sugar

A typical 3.5-ounce service of sherbet contains:

    • 107 calories
    • 1.5 grams of fat
    • 18 grams of sugar 

A typical 3.5-ounce service of frozen yogurt contains

    • 105 calories
    • 1.5 grams of fat
    • 10 grams of sugar

Sorbet and Sherbet

The names sorbet and sherbet are derived from the Arabic word sharbah, which means “a drink.” However, these are very different treats.  

Sorbet, a tangy and fruity treat, is often served between courses of a gourmet meal to cleanse the palate and prepare for new tastes and flavors. People who are lactose intolerant can eat sorbets because they are dairy-free products. 

Sherbet is not the same as sorbet. Sherbet can contain milk, eggs, or gelatin. Sherbets in the United States must contain between 1 and 2 percent butterfat—still less fat than the typical ice cream.

Frozen Yogurt 

The beneficial live and active cultures found in some yogurt products can remain viable in frozen yogurt. The cultures remain dormant during freezing, but become active again when eaten and returned to the warm temperature environment of the human gastrointestinal tract. The use of probiotic products has become very popular as more people become aware of the important role of the gut microbiome in human health and well-being. 

Not all frozen yogurts use live and active cultures, so read the labels or inquire at your frozen yogurt shop or vendor.

Other Frozen Treats

Vegans who do not eat any products from animals can eat sorbet, sherbet, or ice cream equivalents made with peanut butter, almond milk, coconut milk, cashew milk, soy milk, and other dairy substitutes instead of dairy, eggs, or gelatin. 

What’s Inside Ice Cream?

Ice cream ingredients vary and can include cream or milk fat content, flavorings, sweeteners, stabilizers, emulsifiers, lactose, whey, and casein, as well as nuts and chocolate chips. 

The majority of commercial ice creams contain emulsifiers and stabilizers to prolong shelf life. These additives include:

    • Carrageenan, which is derived from algae or seaweed
    • Guar gum from guar beans
    • Xantham gum, which is produced by fermentation of glucose or sucrose by Xanthomonas campestris bacterium
    • Polysorbate-80, a synthetic compound made from fatty acid and sugar alcohol
    • Monodiglycerides and diglycerides from oils
    • Lecithin from soy oil

What might surprise you is that water and air are the two largest ingredients, by volume, in ice cream. Water makes up between 55 percent and 64 percent, and air between 3 percent and 50 percent of ice cream. Although air is a very large percent by volume, it has virtually zero weight. If you think that means you’re not paying premium prices for air when you buy ice cream, think again. Ice cream sold in the market as pints, quarts, liters, and half gallons uses a measurement of volume, even though half of it is air. 

Air is a necessary ingredient to provide a smooth, silky, creamy texture. Without it, the ice cream would be denser, harder, and feel colder to the tongue. Added air may also prevent ice crystals from forming.  

In the food industry, the term “overrun” is used to describe air added to foods such as ice cream. If one liter of solid and liquid ice cream ingredients is aerated to double the volume of the mixture to a total of two liters, the overrun is 100 percent. Most commercial ice creams aim for an overrun of 75 percent to 100 percent, with super-premium ice creams achieving overruns of about 20 percent. 

The Food and Drug Administration has standardized the weight of ice cream to not fall below 4.5 pounds to the gallon. This weight standard has limited the amount of air that can be added to the ice cream to 50 percent by volume.

Ice cream also contains a minimum 10 percent of milk fat—which might reach up to 19 percent in premium ice cream. Ice cream contains between 12 percent and 16 percent sweeteners. Between 9 percent and 12 percent of ice cream products contain milk solids, which includes proteins like casein and whey, and carbohydrates like lactose. 

Pros and Cons

Every treat is different. Here’s a basic breakdown of the pros and cons of various types of ice cream, gelato, and sorbet.

Homemade frozen desserts: have the advantage of freshness, and do not require stabilizer and emulsifier additives. Most emulsifiers have a high fat content and a number of people have sensitivities to these products, which can cause gastrointestinal gas.  

Gelato: has a lower fat content. Fat can coat the taste buds of the tongue, preventing them from completely experiencing the flavors. Since gelato has lower fat, its flavor is more intense. And because it’s more flavorful, it doesn’t need as much added sugar as ice cream. 

Sorbet or nonfat frozen yogurt: is lower in calories. One scoop of sorbet or soft-serve nonfat frozen yogurt is about 125 calories and shouldn’t contain any saturated fat. This compares very favorably with half a scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream, which typically has 145 calories and 6 grams of saturated fat. You could have a full scoop of sorbet and still come out ahead when counting calories and fat grams. 

However, sorbet and frozen yogurt can still contain a lot of sugar. 

If you are lactose intolerant, there may be less intestinal gas issues because the sorbet is lactose free, but the increased amount of fructose can still be an issue.

Keep in mind that ice cream and gelato are not without health and medical risks, and not just from the complications of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and the intestinal gas of lactose intolerance. An ice cream or gelato headache, commonly described as “brain freeze,” occurs when a very cold substance is in contact with the warm roof of the mouth and palate. This triggers a reflex via nerves that control how much blood flows to the head, causing the blood vessels to dilate with the swelling triggering pain. 

Ice-cold foods can also trigger esophageal spasm, cough, wheeze, bronchospasm, asthma, throat clearing spasm, and other conditions. 

A Few Ice-Cream Making Tips

The average person in the United States eats about 14 pounds of ice cream per year. Ice cream and frozen desert makers consider that number very low compared to the amount people were eating in 1946. In that year, Americans celebrated the end of World War II and sugar rationing by eating a whopping 23 pounds of ice cream per person. 

Consumption has decreased substantially since that time, although the availability and ease of making ice cream at home has improved. Most newer home ice-cream makers no longer require the use of salt. 

If you have an old-fashioned maker that surrounds the churning tub with ice while it's turning, adding salt lowers the freezing point. This reduces the temperature of the ice and salt mixture to below the normal freezing point of water, making the cream mixture cold enough to freeze. Using liquid nitrogen to rapidly freeze ice cream gives it an even richer and smoother texture.

The secret behind creamy, low-fat “slow churned” ice cream is a protein from the ocean pout fish, which raises the freezing point and keeps the ice cream creamier. This protein coats the fine ice crystals, preventing it from recrystallizing. 

How to Store It

A fluctuation in temperature is the most common reason for a layer of ice to form on ice cream, so avoid repeated thawing and freezing, and do not leave your ice cream sitting out of the freezer. When the small crystals melt and re-freeze, they give the ice cream a lumpy texture.  

Set your freezer between -5° F and 0° F (-18° C to -21° C) and keep the ice cream in the main part of the freezer, instead of on the door where the temperature is higher. 

How to Enjoy It Responsibly  

Eating less ice cream will not only reduce your fat and calorie intake, it can actually increase the pleasure you get from it. According to a recent study, individuals who eat ice cream regularly, or in larger portions, have less activity measured in the reward center of the brain than in those who indulge on occasion. 

In other words, eating less ice cream can boost your happiness. And that’s a great combination for any diet plan. 

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About the Authors

Danielle Weiss, M.D.

Integrative Endocrinologist & Founder of Center for Hormonal Health and Well-Being
Danielle’s educational experience has taken her across the U.S.A., from an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego to New York University School of Medicine, residency at Scripps Mercy San Diego, and Endocrinology Fellowship at Stanford University. She is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and in Endocrinology and Metabolism. She is happy to return back to her hometown of San Diego to her private Endocrinology practice . Within the broad field of Endocrinology, her areas of expertise include the management of obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and nutritional counseling, thyroid, pituitary, adrenals, lipids,...Read more
Joseph B. Weiss is a gastroenterologist, clinical professor, and author of more than 10 books on health . Weiss, who is double board certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology, has more than 30 years of clinical, administrative, and research experience. He earned his medical degree from Wayne State University School of Medicine and completed his internship and residency in Internal Medicine at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center in Orange, California. Dr. Weiss completed a clinical and research fellowship in Gastroenterology at the University of California, San Diego, where he has been an active member of the...Read more