Illustration of a colourful vintage bowl of gelato with mountains in the background, created for the blog post discussing the difference between gelato and ice cream ingredients. This image's background features a mountain landscape, hinting at the use of fresh, local ingredients in the gelato's creation.

The best gelato and ice cream both take their cues from nature. Illustration credit: Gina’s Gelato


Have you ever wondered why gelato melts so fast, why ice cream scoops are bigger, or why gelato feels creamier than its colder, airier cousin?

It’s science, my friend.

At first glance, ice cream and gelato might seem like different names for the same dessert, but a single taste reveals the contrast in textures and flavour intensities, hinting at a hidden science behind each. 

In this post, we’ll find out what differentiates these chill cousins, examining how the inclusion (or omission) of key ingredients — milk, cream, eggs, and sugar — create two different experiences of frozen sweetness.



As we work through the science behind each ingredient, you’ll discover the difference between gelato and ice cream ingredients. You’ll see why replacing any of those ingredients (e.g. making recipes sugar-free or dairy-free) isn’t just a simple swap—it’s a fundamental change that affects the texture, taste, and integrity of traditional, all-natural scoops.

Crafting a quintessential scoop of gelato or ice cream is a balancing act, where every all-natural ingredient plays a crucial role. It’s not just about sweetness or creaminess; it’s about understanding the science behind each ingredient and how it contributes to the overall experience.

Let’s look under the lid.


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All-Natural Ingredients: The Building Blocks of Traditional Scoops

Did you know a single scoop of gelato or ice cream contain around 200 billion billion (yes, that’s 20 zeros) water molecules? These partner up with fat to create the distinct textures of gelato and ice cream. But that’s not the end of the story — key players like milk, cream, eggs, and sugar each influence the identities of ice cream and gelato in distinct ways. 

Whole milk forms the universal foundation while heavy cream and eggs (or their omission) can firm up texture or preserve pure flavour integrity. Sugar sweetens to taste while affecting scoopability. 

Let’s start with milk. Specifically….

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Whole Milk: The Universal Base & Natural Emulsifier

Why whole milk?

We’ll get to that, but let’s first check out the overall properties of milk in general:

Proteins: heroes of stability and creaminess

Casein and whey, the tiny powerhouses that are milk proteins, help both with texture and ensuring your frozen treat doesn’t melt in a hurry. 

Think of them as microscopic chefs, pros on whipping up the following qualities:

  • Emulsifying: Their amphiphilic structure is like having two sides: one that loves water and another that loves fat. This allows them to connect the water and fat, resulting in tiny, evenly distributed fat droplets.
  • Scoopability: Casein builds a microscopic net that traps air bubbles and water. This prevents them from escaping and helps prevent the growth of large ice crystals, leading to a smoother texture. It also contributes (among other ingredients) to frozen desserts staying scoopable instead of turning into an icy block.
  • Texture: Whey proteins are like tiny coats, covering fat globules and stopping them from clumping together. This helps create tiny, evenly distributed fat droplets rather than chunks of fat.


Milk sugar: the dual role of lactose

Milk sugar, also known as lactose, primarily adds a touch of sweetness to gelato and ice cream. In a much smaller way, it also acts as a natural “anti-freeze.” Similar to store-bought sugar, lactose depresses the freezing point of water; and whole milk’s higher lactose levels help in lowering freezing points (but that’s not the main reason for whole milk — we’re closing in on that).


Water: freezing and crystal creation

The water content in milk plays a vital role in the freezing process, contributing to the temperature at which gelato and ice cream become frozen. 

However, water can be a double-edged sword. 

While water is essential for freezing, it also is part of the process in forming ice crystals. Larger crystals translate to a coarser texture, while smaller ones create a smoother experience. 

Fortunately, whole milk, compared to skim, has has a lower water content (and now we’ll get to the major reason for whole milk):



We’ve reached the point where whole milk vs skim milk plays to its biggest strength. The key player here is milk fat — particularly whole milk’s 3.5% fat content. This extra fat plays a crucial role, acting as a barrier to water’s shortcomings and coating its ice crystals to prevent them from growing too large. The result helps create a creamier texture.


Milk ratios: unveiling the differences

The magic happens when we check out the differing ratios of milk and cream:

  • Ice Cream: Here, we see a more balanced ratio of milk and cream, typically 1:1, with variations depending on the style. This creates a lighter, airier texture with a sturdier mouthfeel due to the higher fat content. However, this higher fat content also contributes to a coarser texture compared to gelato.
  • Gelato: This denser dessert relies heavily on milk (around 60-80%), with cream playing a minimal role (if used at all). This reliance on milk, compared to ice cream, results in a richer, less airy texture.

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Cream: Shaper of Texture

When it comes to texture in frozen desserts, it’s all about the interplay of fat with other ingredients, and cream can be the biggest contributor of that fat.


Gelato: milk-centric

Traditional gelato often adopts a minimalist approach, excluding cream entirely. This milk-based method produces smaller ice crystals with few air pockets, maintaining a uniform texture. This contributes to its denser, silkier texture with a characteristically soft scoopability. 

Regional variations might introduce small amounts (5-10%) of heavy cream for a slightly firmer feel. In either case, the minimal or absent use of cream translates to a much lower fat content (4-8% when including all sources of fat), making gelato generally lighter in the belly and with a perceptually creamier in the mouth than ice cream (weird how ice cream ironically feels less “creamy,” eh?).


Ice cream: (emphasis on “cream”)

Ice cream, on the other hand, embraces cream with open arms, often using a balanced 1:1 ratio of milk to cream. The generous use of heavy cream (usually 36% fat cream) creates the iconic ‘fluffy’ texture with a rough surface that we think of with scoops of ice cream.

The higher fat content (14-25% when including all sources of fat) translates to a firmer texture that tends to “coat your tongue” more. Additionally, this higher fat content contributes to a more firm, airier frozen dessert, as the air pockets created by the fat create more volume (part of the reason why a scoop of ice cream looks so big compared to gelato!).

Dairy Dynamics in Gelato vs Ice Cream

The composition of cream and milk is just as important as the quantity.

Dairy fat primarily consists of triglycerides, molecules with different fatty acid chains attached. These chains vary in length and saturation, impacting texture and melting point. 

Gelato’s reliance on milk often means the incorporation of shorter-chain fatty acids, which dissolve more readily at warmer temperatures, contributing to its smooth, melt-in-your-mouth sensation. 

Ice cream, with its higher cream content, includes more longer-chain fatty acids, leading to a slower melt and the tendency to coat the tongue with more fat.

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Showdown: Dairy-free vs tradition

Replacing dairy milk in gelato and ice cream poses significant challenges, as milk plays a crucial role in texture, flavor, and overall quality. Two common ways of replacing dairy in gelato and ice cream are with either lab-created bases or natural milk alternatives.

Manufacturers often turn to lab-created bases to replicate the creamy consistency and richness of dairy-based desserts. These bases typically contain a mix of synthetic ingredients, including emulsifiers, stabilizers, and artificial flavors, aiming to mimic the properties of milk without using natural dairy products. However, these lab-created bases are often unhealthy and can be detrimental to health due to the artificial components they contain, which may contribute to various health issues over time.

Non-dairy milk alternatives, such as oat milk, almond milk, soy milk, and coconut milk, offer plant-based options for those avoiding dairy. However, these alternatives can vary widely in terms of taste, texture, and nutritional content.

Oat milk, for example, has gained popularity for its creamy consistency and mild flavor, making it a suitable substitute in many recipes. However, oat milks have come under scrutiny for their added sugars, thickeners, and unhealthy seed oils which can affect healthfulness.

Almond milk, another popular alternative, is known for its light, nutty flavor. However, it is lower in protein and can be thin in texture, which may not yield the desired creaminess in gelato or ice cream.

Soy milk, on the other hand, offers a higher protein content and a creamy texture, making it a more suitable substitute for dairy milk in frozen desserts. The flip side is the bigger concern: soy milk has been found to have detrimental effects on hormone levels.

Coconut milk, with its rich, tropical flavor, can add a unique twist to gelato or ice cream but may also contribute to an unwanted coconut taste when used wide-scale. It also freezes harder than whole milk, creating the need for more sugar (if going all-natural) or artificial additives.


Eggs in Frozen Desserts: Adding Richness or Preserving Purity?


Ice cream: indulging in emulsification and flavour

Traditionally, ice cream incorporates egg yolks not only for their flavour but also for being small scientific marvels. These golden spheres contain lecithin, an amphiphilic molecule that bridges the gap between water and fat. 

Simply put, it prevents separation and helps ensure you’re not eating globs of fat with chunks of ice.

Beyond this matchmaking, egg yolks add fat to ice cream and a custard note, offering another layer to its flavour profile. 

However, there is a trade off: the additional fat from egg yolks can mask more delicate nuances of other ingredients, like the pure fruitiness of a strawberry or the floral notes of lavender.

Eggless Variation: Philadelphia-style ice cream bucks tradition with its eggless recipe. This results in a lighter, airier experience compared to its custardy cousins. Think less dense than gelato, but fluffier than conventional ice cream, creating a solid platform for delicate flavours.


Gelato: prioritizing clarity and intensity of flavour

Gelato, renowned for its clean, intense flavours, often adopts a minimalist approach to eggs. 

Traditionally, many gelato recipes (especially from the Sicily region) omit eggs altogether, relying on milk and/or a little cream for texture. This allows the fresh ingredients to shine, unmasked by the richness of egg yolks. 

However, some regional variations of gelato might incorporate small amounts of egg yolks (see the note below) or…

A quick note about cornstarch: the traditional sicilian stabilizer

…cornstarch, particularly in traditional Sicilian-style gelato dating back to the 1600s. Cornstarch, when heated and blended into the milk mixture, stabilizes and thickens the base. It also helps prevent ice crystal formation. This contributes to the denser texture of gelato and unlike eggs, it doesn’t add fat or significantly impact flavour.

(and another) Note: northern nuances, southern simplicity

While gelato is often known for its minimalist approach to eggs, regional variations can take a twist. The classic debate in gelato is between northern- and southern-style gelato. In the north, tiny amounts of egg yolk might join the party. These are mere guest stars, enhancing texture without stealing the flavour spotlight. Conversely, traditional Sicilian gelato generally skips the egg yolk altogether, emphasizing pure flavour.

Ultimately, the preference for eggs in gelato and ice cream revolves around flavour and texture. Ice cream embraces them for their custard flavour and texture-enhancing properties, while gelato prioritizes pure flavour expression by keeping them out or using them sparingly.

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Whole milk, cream, eggs: why ‘great’ fat-free scoops aren’t actually all-natural

Illustration of a colourful vintage bowl of ice cream with a mountain lake in the background, created for the blog post discussing the difference between gelato and ice cream ingredients. This image's background features a mountain landscape, hinting at the use of fresh, local ingredients in the ice cream's creation.

Fat makes the ice cream go ’round. ;) Image: Gina’s Gelato

Crafting a fat-free version of gelato or ice cream presents a formidable challenge, as natural fats play a pivotal role in its texture, flavor, and structure.

To replicate the qualities of traditional recipes without fats, manufacturers resort to lab-created thickeners, stabilizers, and emulsifiers. These artificial additives not only detract from the simplicity and purity of all-natural ingredients but also raise concerns about their impact on health. And if trying to use all-natural but low or fat-free replacements, the compromise comes in texture and structure of traditional gelato and ice cream.

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Sugar: Sweetening the Differences Between Gelato and Ice Cream

TL;DR: Sugar & fat: a scientific partnership

The interplay between sugar and fat content is crucial to the softness of gelato and ice cream. Sugar acts as an “anti-freeze” to ward off fat and water’s tendency to freeze rock-solid. Gelato’s lower fat content necessitates less sugar, allowing for nuanced flavours. Conversely, ice cream’s higher fat demands more sugar for scoopability, potentially masking some subtlety but creating more pronounced sweetness. 


Gelato: subtle flavours shine

With less fat than ice cream, gelato requires roughly half the sugar of ice cream (6-8% vs. 10-16%). This “light touch” allows the true flavours of the ingredients to shine, allowing a more nuanced taste that avoids masking delicate notes like floral hints or tartness. 

Think of tasting the tanginess of fresh berries: strawberry gelato (lower fat) lets the fruit’s floral and tart notes come through, while strawberry ice cream’s dependence on fat and sugar dampen the more delicate notes of the berries, highlighting the sweet but covering the nuances. 

With gelato, sweetness plays second fiddle to the essence of the ingredients.

Here’s the science at play:

  • Sugar lowers the freezing point: Sugar acts like an “anti-freeze,” preventing water from turning into solid ice. Gelato’s lower fat content means it reaches the ideal scooping consistency around -12 to -10 °C (10-14 °F) vs ice cream’s -25 to -20 °C (-13 to -4 °F) using less sugar, minimizing interference with flavour perception.
  • With less ‘anti-freeze’ (sugar), gelato freezes at a warmer temperature than ice cream. This temperature difference significantly impacts flavor perception. Warm food’s flavours perceptiblly taste more intense than cold. Hence, gelato’s warmer temperatures enhance taste perception, resulting in greater perception of flavours. In contrast, colder temperatures, such as those of ice cream, can dull taste sensations, reducing the overall flavour experience.


Ice cream: sweetness takes centre stage

The higher fat content in ice cream demands more sugar (10-16%) for scoopability and to prevent iciness. This creates a sweeter flavour profile where the sweetness itself takes center stage. 

But there’s a trade-off: While sugar enhances the familiar sweetness of ice cream, it can mask subtler notes, like delicate floral hints or nuanced fruits.

Here’s the science at play:

  • Fat and Scoopability: The higher fat content in ice cream creates a thicker mixture that would freeze harder without additional sugar.
  • With more “anti-freeze” (aka sugar), ice cream freezes at a colder temperature than gelato. This temperature difference between gelato and ice cream significantly impacts flavour perception. Warm food’s flavours perceptibly taste more intense than cold. Hence, gelato’s warmer temperatures enhance taste perception, resulting in greater perception of flavours. In contrast, colder temperatures, such as those of ice cream, can dull taste sensations, reducing the overall flavour experience.
  • Sweetness Masking Subtle flavours: Sugar can mask subtler notes, especially delicate floral hints or nuanced fruits. This is because sugar molecules can bind to taste receptors, potentially reducing their sensitivity to other flavours.

Types of sugar

Beyond sweetness, different sugars play unique roles in crafting the perfect scoop of gelato or ice cream, influencing taste, texture, and freezing:


Common Players:

  • Granulated Refined Sugar (cane sugar/sucrose): This workhorse is added primarily for sweetness and its ability to help control the freezing point. It also contributes to texture.
  • Milk Sugar (lactose): While not as sweet as other sugars, lactose contributes to creamy body and mouthfeel, adding subtle sweetness and preventing excessive ice crystal formation.

Guest Appearances:

  • Raw Sugar: Similar to white sugar but with molasses notes, it may add depth to specific flavours but can introduce unwanted colour or grittiness.
  • Fruit sugar (fructose, a consideration when using fruit in gelato or ice cream): Natural fructose found in fruits that are blended into the gelato also sweetens while lowering the freezing point. However, excess fruit and its inherent fructose can lead to iciness.

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Alternative sweeteners: the no-cane sugar challenge

While the allure of sugar-free or sugar alternatives in gelato or ice cream is understandable, achieving this using alternative sweeteners is not as simple as it seems. Both all-natural sugar alternatives (like stevia, monk fruit, agave) and other sugar derivations (less natural or lab-created) present significant hurdles. 

  • Intensity vs. Bulk: Stevia and monk fruit are incredibly sweet when compared to sugar, up to 100x more powerful. However, they lack the “bulking” properties of sugar, which contribute to body and texture. This can lead to icy, thin gelato, requiring complex adjustments with other ingredients to compensate.
  • Freeze Factor: Like sugar, agave nectar can lower the freezing point, but its high fructose content exacerbates iciness and interferes with creaminess. Additionally, its flavour profile may not always blend with other natural ingredients.
  • Beyond Sweetness: As we’ve discussed already in this section, sugar’s role extends beyond sweetness. It interacts with other ingredients, contributing to freezing point and  mouthfeel. Alternatives often lack these functionalities.

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Sugar substitutes & the all-natural ethic

Seemingly successful sugar-free gelato & ice creams are not also made of 100% all-natural, whole ingredients. This is because the all-natural, traditional ingredients in gelato and ice cream mean that each “simple” ingredient actually plays a crucially complex role. 

Substituting sugar with commercially available “sugar-free” ingredients or pre-made bases defeats the “all-natural” goal. These ingredients and pre-made bases frequently rely on lab-derived sweeteners like polyols (sugar alcohols) or other artificial sweeteners, or they make use of other ingredients to make up for the loss of cane-sugar’s properties. 

Not only can these alternatives introduce their own challenges, they don’t align with traditional craft philosophy.

Just like in science or in baking, even minor adjustments in a gelato or ice cream recipe can drastically alter the final product. Interrupting this balance with substitutes means compromising on either taste/texture or all-natural simplicity.

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Why all-natural, 100% from-scratch scoops are simply better

Ever found yourself excited to go for an ice cream, only to end up feeling a bit queasy afterward? If you’ve experienced this, you’re not alone. Here’s why those indulgent treats sometimes leave us feeling less stoked post-scoop:

Most ice cream parlours and gelaterias, if they’re not using mass-produced tubs from big manufacturers, rely on pre-made bases—filled with lab-created ingredients—to which they simply add milk or water. The additives in these bases serve various purposes, from enhancing flavors, creating consistently scoopable textures, to extending shelf life.

That’s why so many ice cream and gelato shops have so many flavours, and why each one has the same texture.

It’s also why gelato that’s piled high above the rim of the metal container is a tell-tale sign that a shop is using pre-made bases.

(Not natural.)

But here’s the issue: These shortcuts come at a cost. They can lead to digestive discomfort (aka tummy aches), leaving you regretting that scoop and potentially not reaching for another in the future.

It’s a sad thing to skip out on enjoying this nostalgic dessert when the discomfort is completely avoidable!

Craftsmanship takes a backseat when convenience and profit margins dictate the ingredients. The art of making ice cream or gelato from scratch, using simple, natural ingredients, has become extremely rare in today’s fast-paced world.

And that’s too bad — not just for the craft, but also for our bodies.

Preserving the traditional craft is essential. Real gelato and ice cream, made using only pure, recognizable ingredients, not only taste better but also leave you feeling simply satisfied. There are no side effects or regrets.

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The Reality Check: Not Expecting All-Natural to Fulfill All Things for All People

“The average [scoop shop] on the street corner rarely has that kind of cash, or sufficient time and knowledge, to seek such perfection. So the industry sells relatively inexpensive shortcuts in the form of packaged products in which most ingredients are pre-measured and mixed…

“With kits like these, the gelatiere can just add water or milk … Throw in some emulsifiers, stabilizers, and thickeners and a few shakes of unearthly colors, if that’s what your customers like, and you’re all set. You’ve made a gelato which technically can be called “artisanal” because it didn’t come from a factory in a frozen package, ready to eat. It’s easy and cheap; it’s just that it can taste, comparatively speaking, like sweetened glue from the Arctic Circle.” – The Secrets of an Italian Gelato Master

While products with alternative ingredients like sugar-free sweeteners and non-dairy ‘milks’ have their place, it’s important to be realistic about the challenges they create in making traditional, fully natural gelato or ice cream.

Though tasty scoops may be possible, creating authentic gelato and ice cream with the same standard of texture, body, and flavour using alternatives are extremely difficult (and more likely darn-near impossible). 

The final product will likely be significantly different from traditional expectations.

Authentic gelato and ice cream are crafted with meticulous attention to traditional ingredients and methods, not only as desserts but also as a celebration of heritage and culinary artistry. 

In the end, the importance of having a traditional scoop vs one made with alternatives is a personal decision swayed by many factors, including dietary, ethical, or cultural considerations.

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Embracing the Slow Food Movement: Ingredients You Can Trust

Illustration of a colourful vintage bowl of gelato with mountains in the background, created for the blog post discussing the difference between gelato and ice cream ingredients. This image's background features a mountain landscape, hinting at the use of fresh, local ingredients in the gelato's creation.

Tradition wins (in our eyes, at least). The difference between gelato and ice cream ingredients may set them apart, but they are tied together by centuries of masters at the craft, perfecting the balance of simple ingredients to make the frozen desserts we still love today. Image: Gina’s Gelato


At Gina’s Gelato, we strive to preserve traditional tastes and textures using honest, old-fashioned ingredients.

We are firmly rooted in the slow food movement, using simple, real ingredients – the kind you recognize and can pronounce. No hidden sugars, cryptic additives, or ingredients that leave you wondering. Our kitchen places priority on ingredients sourced from our region whenever possible. We treat these ingredients with respect, meticulously making everything on our menu from scratch.

This also means we aren’t intentionally “free” from any ingredient — except those created in labs. If one of our desserts is “x”-free, it’s because it was always meant to be. You’ll see this in our sorbetto (traditionally dairy-free, using water instead of milk), and amaretti cookies (traditionally wheat-free; made by grinding and sifting our own almond flour). 

Honouring heritage: carrying on the legacy of real desserts

We honour the heritage of desserts, carrying on the intent of culinary masters, our forefathers (and mothers) in the kitchen who paved the way. 

Our focus is on meticulously scratch-made all-natural desserts using as-local-as-possible ingredients, supporting our regional food producers, and providing a place where those who share our values can indulge.

When you know exactly what is in your food, you can make mindful decisions about how often and how much to indulge; we’re here to champion that.

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