Your love of ice cream might turn a little frigid if you knew the cold, hard truth. That carton you just purchased might not meet official ice cream criteria.

Go ahead and take a peek at the pint inside your freezer. If it has the words “frozen dairy dessert” you’ve possibly been fooled. The reason that some packages have this alternative labeling is because the FDA regulates what products qualify as “ice cream.”

In order to earn the name “ice cream,” a product must meet two criteria. First, it must contain at least 10 percent dairy milkfat. Second, it must weigh no less than 4.5 lbs. per gallon and have no more than 100 percent overrun.

So, what exactly is overrun? Well, overrun refers to the amount of air pumped into the ice cream as it’s being made. The standard of about 50 percent overrun means that ice cream is made with one part of air to every two parts of cream.  Products with a high overrun will have a fluffier texture, while products with a lower overrun number —like a Haagen-Dazs or Ben and Jerry’s — are denser and creamier

By contrast, ice cream’s Italian cousin, gelato, is defined by having little to no air whipped in. (Fun fact: gelato will also take the most time to melt on a hot day.)

The FDA regulates the amount of overrun in ice cream to prevent manufacturers from selling consumers cartons primarily full of air instead of cream.

So anything you’re seeing in the grocery store labeled “ice cream,” you now know must have at least 10 percent milkfat and no more than 100 percent overrun. If it can’t meet these criteria, it gets slapped with the designation of “frozen dairy dessert.”


But if you’re an ice cream connoisseur, you know the different designations don’t end there. There is, of course, the aforementioned gelato, as well as frozen custard. Custard, sometimes called French custard, must contain at least 10 percent milkfat in addition to 1.4 percent egg yolk — any less egg yolk and it fall into ice cream’s territory.

soft serve

Soft Serve

Soft serve is molecularly similar to standard ice cream, but it’s stored and served at a higher temperature. It has a lower fat content but a super high overrun which gives it that light texture, and also allows the Dairy Queen staff to top it with that perfect swirl.

sherbet vs. sorbet

Sorbet and Sherbet

Sherbet and sorbet are another subcategory altogether — and both are better options for lactose intolerant folks. Sorbet is made without any dairy products or eggs. It’s simple ingredients list includes water (ice) and fruit puree or fruit juice. Sherbet (pronounced sher-bit) is not quite ice cream yet not quite sorbet. The FDA regulates that sherbet contains between one and two percent milkfat.

frozen yogurt

Frozen Yogurt

Affectionately called “froyo” by the under 30 set, the word “frozen yogurt” isn’t regulated by the FDA, so there is no standard for how much yogurt you’re actually getting in your frozen yogurt. It could contain any amount of sweeteners or syrups.

Other frozen dairy items

Other terms you may see on your frozen dairy product include “reduced fat ice cream,” “light ice cream,” “low fat ice cream,” and a few on the other end of the spectrum like “super premium ice cream,” or premium ice cream.” However, these special descriptions exist purely for marketing purposes and are not regulated by the government.

So there you have it. If you’re a purist, you might want to watch out for those tricky naming conventions. But if you’re just looking for a delicious sweet treat to help you cool down this summer, you can probably put this information behind you and continue to enjoy them all equally and often!

ALSO TRY, Why you might need to find a new favorite flavor of ice cream.

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Meghan is a full-time writer exploring the fun facts behind food. She lives a healthy lifestyle but lives for breakfast, dessert and anything with marinara. She’s thrown away just as many meals as she’s proud of.