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I Scream, You Scream: What's In That Ice Cream?



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Growing up in Minnesota in the 1960s, one of our favorite commercials shouted out, “I scream, you scream! We all scream for… ice milk!” Of course, ice milk was the only alternative to ice cream, and this commercial touted ice milk as the healthy alternative.

Fast forward a number of years, and the options are mind-boggling. Not only does one select between the commercially marketed and premium brand ice creams, but every bucolic town with a cow or two has its own “homemade” ice cream for sale. Forget about ice milk and that quaint fruity sherbet of yore (although they are certainly still available.) Frozen yogurt, sorbet, and gelato have taken over the freezer section in supermarkets, and are popping up in franchise stores all across the United States, faster than prairie dogs from a hole.

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics from 1950 to 2000, Americans are actually eating less ice cream (18.1 pounds/person, 1950–59 and 16.5 pound/person in 2000), but nearly three times the amounts of lower fat ice creams and frozen yogurts. (Sherbet has held steady over the decades.)

Why scream for ice milk, though? What is the difference between that and ice cream — or any of the other frozen desserts?

The differences lie primarily in the percentages of milk or butterfat, the amount of sweetener, and dairy content. The ice milk for which we screamed cannot be more than 10 percent milkfat by weight, according to information found on Wikipedia., although www.icecreamgeek.com notes that on average, ice milk contains 3.5 percent milkfat. It contains the same amount of sweetener, however, as ice cream. In the United States, ice milk is now often labeled as “low fat ice cream.”

USDA standards for ice cream, set in 1977, state that for a product to be labeled ice cream, it must contain not less than 10 percent milkfat (also known as butterfat), and not less than 20 percent milk solids (the dried powder after all water is removed from milk, which lends a creamy texture to finished products). Ice cream can be made up of cream, concentrated, evaporated, or condensed milk and other milk products, skim or low-fat milk products, dried cream, milkfat butter, and/or butteroil, or any combination of those dairy products.

Ice cream may contain egg yolk solids, but not in excess of 1.4 percent. “Ice cream” with more than 1.4 percent egg yolk solids is frozen custard, also called French ice cream or French custard ice cream.

The Unlisted Ingredient: Air

The amount of air whipped into ice cream affects the quality of the ice cream. Premium brands and homemade varieties tend to have much less air, giving them a rich, smooth feel on the tongue. Beware, home ice cream makers, though: too much butterfat and not enough air is going to leave an unpleasantly thick cream slick on the tongue.

Goat’s milk ice cream can be found in many supermarkets, and must follow the same standards as ice cream made from cow’s milk.

Frozen yogurt contains — not surprisingly — yogurt. It is not regulated by the USDA, however, and may or may not contain live cultures. It may contain other dairy products, as well, such as cream or milk, and the lower fat, less highly sweetened frozen yogurt often has a more tart flavor than ice cream or ice milk. The milkfat content is generally .55 to 6 percent, and natural and artificial stabilizers can be used to improve the texture. If frozen yogurt, whether from a soft serve machine in a franchise branch or scooped from a carton purchased in the grocery store, contains yogurt cultures, they are most likely Lactobaccillus bulgaricus and/or Streptococcus thermophilos. Other probiotic cultures may be used, depending on the brand.


In Vancouver, Canada, Bella Gelateria boasts hourlong lines for its premium gelato, and in New York City, Amorino on University Place tempts customers with gelato flavors crafted into elegant floral displays atop cones. The dozens of other gelato shops, just in that one city, have followings based on originality of flavors, cost, and convenience. Locally, staff at Village Perk in Sandy Hook Center is happy to scoop out any of several gelato flavors from the specialty freezer, or pause in front of any supermarket freezer to peruse the selection of gelato there.

Gelato is the classic Italian frozen dessert, and according to Bella Gelateria owner James Coleridge, as quoted in the Vancouver Sun, “Gelato is 7 percent [milkfat]…20 percent air,” and served at minus 12 degrees. That is compared with 80 percent air injected into most ice cream, he said, and with a serving temperature 6 degrees warmer than ice cream.

The result is a dense, less solidly frozen product that generally contains no eggs (except for gelato custards), but is made up of milk, cream, and sugars, as well as fresh fruit or purees. There is no USDA definition for gelato, at this time.

Sherbet and sorbet are frequently confused, but are not at all the same product. Sorbet is sweet water with fruit juice, fruit puree, or even wine processed into a frozen dessert. No air is whipped into sorbet, nor does it contain dairy products.

Sherbet, on the other hand, can contain creams, milks, or butter milk. Water may be added, as well as fruit concentrates and other flavorings, and sherbet may contain caseinates (derivatives of milk proteins) for textural improvement. The acidity of the finished product also differentiates sherbet from other frozen desserts. Sherbet is a pasteurized product.

Then there are the water, or Italian, ices. These frozen treats are cherished by those who may not have dairy products, and according to www.milkfat.info, may not contain any milk product, egg yolks, and need not be pasteurized.

Catering to those unable to digest dairy products, soy and coconut milk frozen desserts also fill shelves in the freezer. There are no standards, currently, for these alternative “dairy” items.

The Taste Test

It all boils down to flavor, though. Newtown Bee staff recently suffered through a tasting of the various items. In a very unscientific procedure, waistlines were sacrificed in the spirit of assisting readers to make the tough choice between these products.

From the hundreds of products available, we opted to go with brands easily obtained at most markets, and one flavor: chocolate. We did not go to franchise or private outlets, and brand names were not a priority in selecting items to test. Those items tested were the Ciao Bella Sorbetto, dark chocolate, 6 grams total fat; Hood fat-free frozen yogurt, chocolate, 0 grams total fat; Oikos Greek frozen yogurt, chocolate, 3 grams total fat; Talenti gelato, double dark chocolate, 10 grams total fat; Turkey Hill natural chocolate ice cream, 10 grams total fat; Haagen-Dazs ice cream, chocolate, 17 grams total fat; So Delicious coconut milk chocolate frozen dessert; 7 grams total fat; and Big Y rainbow frozen sherbet.

Both of the dairy-free frozen products received decent reviews. The sorbetto was, hands down, the favorite so far as chocolate flavor was concerned. Although icier than any of the dairy products, it was a refreshing and satisfying dessert. Coconut flavor dominated the So Delicious item, but the texture was pleasant and enough chocolate flavor came through to give it positive marks, if avoiding dairy products is a must.

Does fat content matter? Even the small differences between the fat-free and Greek frozen yogurts were vast. The chocolate flavor was nonexistent to tasters in the fat-free option, and an icy texture was disappointing. On the other hand, the Greek frozen yogurt would be an acceptable choice for dessert, said most tasters.

One of the qualities of gelato that differentiates it from other frozen desserts is the precise temperature at which it should be served. Chances are, gelato purchased in a supermarket and stored in the home freezer is going to be a distant cousin to that scooped out in a specialty store. That said, Bee tasters forged onward, giving the Talenti gelato fairly good grades. Smooth, dense, and chocolaty, this was one product that had tasters going back for seconds “Just to be sure…”

On to the ice creams, Turkey Hill, while pleasantly creamy lacked enough flavor to excite tasters, and had an airy feel to the finish. It was Haagen-Dazs ice cream that received rave reviews, from flavor to texture. There may have been “thirds” and a scoop or two of the Haagen-Dazs tested in coffee, as a matter of fact.

The sherbet? It was an unfair comparison, as no chocolate sherbet could easily be found. If a flavorless, acidy, icy dessert is what one seeks, this was voted the best choice. In other words, on a scale of one to ten? Maybe a one, was the consensus.

Once the overall tasting was finished, tasters were asked, if presented with all of these choices, which would take the prize? It was Haagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream, the fattiest of all, and not the least expensive. A balance of creaminess, density, and flavor was important in the finished product. Close on its heels, was the gelato (also not so low in fat) and the sorbetto, because of its superior chocolate intensity.

I scream, you scream… there is a world of frozen flavor out there waiting to be discovered. Go for it.

A recent sampling by Newtown Bee staff of eight frozen chocolate desserts, available in local markets, found Haagen-Dazs ice cream to be top dog for flavor, density, and creaminess. Talenti double chocolate gelato and dark chocolate sorbetto by Ciao Bella were more than satisfactory, proving that for Bee tasters, at least, high milkfat content and intense flavor are winners when selecting among the hundreds of options available.            
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