What’s the Difference Between Ice Cream and Gelato?

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To even the most well-trained eye, it can be hard to decipher the difference between two very similar products with three identical ingredients just by looking at them and sometimes even by tasting them. Is there a difference?

History of Ice Cream

Up close view of vanilla ice cream being scooped
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Although the two desserts might look similar, they still have very different histories. Ice cream is older with origins that date back to 600 C.E. The exact origins are unknown, but the earliest mention of a frozen dairy treat is from the Tang Dynasty in China. Since there was no refrigeration technology back then, ice cream was a delicacy that had to be prepared and eaten immediately and only the elite could afford it. The Tang emperors were especially fond of ice cream.

For ancient Chinese emperors, ice cream consisted of cow, goat, or buffalo milk that was heated with flour. It featured a substance harvested from evergreen trees called camphor to provide additional flavor. The mixture was then put into a metal tube and lowered into an ice bath, so it would cool and harden.

Ice cream has remained popular throughout history. The ancient Romans ate a flavored iced dessert. In the 16th century, the British came up with their own version of ice cream and in the 18th century, the U.S. was working on perfecting the recipe as well. Thomas Jefferson even created his own recipe for vanilla ice cream that’s very similar to what we eat today.

History of Gelato

Up close view of berry flavored gelato being scooped
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Gelato was invented in Italy around the 16th century during the Renaissance. It started as just a flavoring that was used in drinks and other desserts. Later, a man named Bernardo Buontalenti invented egg cream gelato, which is very similar to modern gelato. Buontalenti served his creation to affluent families in Italy who sang its praises and made it a national hit.

The first international gelato shop was opened in Paris in 1686, where it earned the same reputation that it had in Italy. Over the next few centuries, gelato became a worldwide sensation enjoyed by millions.

What’s the Difference?

Ice cream shop with multiple bins of different flavors of ice creams
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Both ice cream and gelato are made using the same three ingredients: dairy, sugar, and air. The major difference between the two is in the proportions. To make both ice cream and gelato, you must mix the dairy, sugar, and flavorings before churning the ingredients together to add air.

The main difference that most people notice is the texture. That’s because ice cream has more air in it than gelato. Ice cream is churned faster to add more air and give it its whipped texture. Gelato is churned more slowly, so it comes out smoother with less air. Ice cream also has a higher percentage of cream and often includes egg yolks. There are some gelatos that have egg yolks, but they’re less common.

Health Differences

Ice cream shop with various fancy ice cream concoctions behind glass
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Both gelato and ice cream can help satisfy your sweet tooth, but which one is healthier than the other? Gelato contains less cream (and less fat) compared to ice cream, so it has to be the better choice, right? Technically, it is, but it’s not that simple.

If you take one serving of ice cream and one serving of gelato and compare them side by side, gelato will have about 75% of the calories, 42% of the fat, and 71% of the sugar compared to ice cream. This seems to make it the unhealthier choice until you realize that a serving of gelato is smaller than a serving of ice cream.

Since a pint of gelato has less air and volume, it has a lot more substance than a pint of ice cream. If you make the volumes equal, the statistics change. If you compare a half-cup of each, gelato has almost double the calories and sugar of ice cream!

If it’s a rainy weekend and you’re ready for some binge snacking while watching Netflix, a pint of ice cream is the healthier choice, although neither dessert is good for you in a large amount. If you just want a taste, a serving of gelato will be kinder to your waistline than a serving of ice cream.

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