Gelato is often mistakenly defined as the Italian word for ice cream. Despite their similarities, gelato and ice cream actually have a different composition and nutritional value. Gelato is more creamy and dense than ice cream and is often lower in calories, fat and sugar. Depending on the type and portion size you choose, gelato may not always be a healthier option than ice cream.
In order for a frozen treat to be legally labeled as ice cream, it is required to have at least 10 percent milkfat. Most medium- to high-end ice cream brands actually contain 14 percent to 17 percent milkfat. Ice cream is churned at a high speed to incorporate air into the mixture, creating a smooth and relatively fluffy texture. Ice cream generally contains more than 50 percent air after the churning process. By contrast, gelato contains between 3 percent and 8 percent milkfat and 25 percent to 30 percent air.
On average, a 3.5-ounce serving of vanilla gelato contains 90 calories, 3 grams of fat and 10 grams of sugar. A typical 3.5-ounce serving of vanilla ice cream contains 125 calories, 7 grams of fat and 14 grams of sugar. The fat in frozen treats coats your taste buds, preventing them from completely experiencing the flavors. Because the lower fat content in gelato means your taste buds can experience flavors more intensely, gelato does not need as much added sugar as ice cream to produce the same sweet flavor.
Gelato is denser than ice cream due to its lower air content, which means a scoop of gelato would weigh more than the same size scoop of vanilla ice cream. Since the nutritional comparison is based on ounces, unless you serve yourself a smaller scoop of gelato, you may be consuming the same calories, fat and sugar as ice cream. Fruit-flavored gelato may also contain additional sugar due to the natural sugars found in fruit. Many gelato shops top gelato with chocolate or fruit sauces, which also increase calories and sugar.
Tips for Healthy Choices
Determining which frozen treat is the healthiest option for you depends on your personal preference. If you are concerned about fat content, gelato will most often be lower in fat. If you are concerned about calories and sugar, request your gelato without toppings or sauces. If you have trouble moderating portion size, ice cream may be a healthier choice than the denser gelato. Several companies now offer reduced-fat ice cream which can be a suitable alternative.