What's the Difference Between a 'Frozen Dessert' and Ice Cream?

And more importantly — why should you care when you're walking down the freezer aisle?

Walking down the frozen food aisle at the grocery store was probably a childhood highlight that may have carried over to adulthood for many. Dessert options ranging from frozen pies to popsicles, ice cream, and an assortment of other frozen desserts.

But what is the difference between a "frozen dessert" and ice cream aside from what you see written on the packaging? Plainly: the ingredients list and how they're made, but it goes a bit deeper. In fact, there have been lawsuits over frozen desserts masquerading as ice cream. The differentiating factors are real, so here's the scoop:


"The most simple way to explain the difference between ice cream and a frozen dessert is that ice cream is made from milk/cream (dairy) and frozen desserts are made with vegetable oils," Tim Krauss of Mammoth Creameries told Allrecipes. "Ice cream has a very long history of being a rich and creamy treat. In its purest form, ice cream is very simple: only a few ingredients starting with milk or cream. While the typical non-dairy frozen dessert is made from a base of highly processed ingredients like vegetable oils, flours, sugar, and artificial fillers and gums."

Aaron Butterworth, senior product developer at Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, broke it down even further, differentiating between a frozen dairy dessert and a simple frozen dessert.

"You can absolutely have a delicious frozen dairy dessert and enjoy an indulgent experience," she said. "Sometimes, in fact, it can be taken out of the running to be called ice cream because it has too many mix-ins or toppings that change the density of the product! In some cases, a manufacturer may be making a 'fortified' product, like a protein-enriched ice cream. You can still get that 'ice cream experience' from these products, although they don't meet the requirements to be called ice cream. Frozen dessert, on the other hand, doesn't necessarily have to contain dairy! It can source other types of fat entirely and contain no dairy."


Jeni Britton Bauer knows a thing or two about making ice cream. As a pioneer of the artisan ice cream movement, Bauer is the ice cream maker and entrepreneur behind Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, and a James Beard Award recipient for her cookbook, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams At Home.

"One of the biggest differences with our ice creams is that we never use ice cream mixes," the ice cream maven told Allrecipes. "We are ice cream nerds—rearranging the molecules and putting them back together, and using the power of milk proteins to build texture, not gums or emulsifiers. We do this for every flavor. There is no one set base recipe — every ice cream has its own formula, depending on the ingredients."

So while ice cream is churned and dare we say, cultivated, without losing cone-trol... frozen desserts are typically made, packaged, and frozen, with less scientific nuance behind the finished product.


How products are labeled seems pretty straightforward, right? Not so. Ice cream is labeled as ice cream, but frozen desserts can be a bit more confusing and are often labeled based on flavoring, not ingredients.

"It is easy to confuse frozen desserts with ice cream these days as some packaging labels do not want to bring attention to the fact that they are not real ice cream," Krauss shared. "Alternately, you'll find frozen desserts marketed as 'non-dairy ice cream' to appeal to the dairy-free market, when in fact, it is not ice cream at all."

Butterworth agreed, sharing the specific food standards that need to be met for accurate labeling.

"When making ice cream, there is something called SOI – Standard of Identities," Butterworth explained. "To be called ice cream, there has to be a minimum amount of butter fat and MSNF, or milk solids non fat, and the product has to have a certain density measured in weight per gallon. For a 'frozen dairy dessert' or a 'frozen dessert' those SOI standards don't apply. They still taste and look like ice cream, but they cannot be called ice cream as they do not meet the minimum legal requirements of ice cream."

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