Ice cream is airier than gelato and has a higher fat content while gelato is softer and packed with flavor. Both contain a lot of sugar, but gelato is traditionally made with less fat.

Walk around any urban center at the height of summer, and you’re bound to pass faces buried deep in a creamy, frozen dessert.

Although it may be difficult to tell the difference between ice cream and gelato from a distance, they are quite distinct.

This article explains the origins of ice cream and gelato, the differences between them, and which makes a healthier treat.

Gelato and ice cream are creamy, frozen desserts made from ingredients including dairy and sugar.

Origins of ice cream and gelato

While it’s unknown who invented ice cream, its earliest renditions trace back to ancient China. A mix of buffalo milk, flour, and ice was said to be a favorite dessert of King Tang of Shang (1, 2).

Later versions of the dessert included fruit, juice, or honey served over fresh mountain snow (2).

Ice cream evolved to include dairy from cows and eventually egg yolks, and it became a delicacy reserved for the elite. Cream ice, as it was called, graced the dessert bowls of Charles I and his guests in the 17th century (2).

However, ice cream did not become a popular dessert until the 19th century when technological advances in the dairy industry and refrigeration techniques allowed manufacturers to make and distribute it cheaply and in large quantities.

The first ice cream machine was invented in the mid-19th century (2).

Gelato was first made in Italy, though there is some confusion over where it originated. Some believe it was first made in Sicily while others believe it originated in Florence.

How they’re made

Gelato and ice cream share three main ingredients — dairy, sugar, and air. The difference lies in their proportions (2, 3).

Dairy (milk, cream, or both) and sugar are combined, mixed evenly, and pasteurized. Natural or artificial flavors are then folded in. Next, air is incorporated by churning the mix before freezing it (2, 3).

The overrun is a measure of how much air is added into the ice cream or gelato during production. Gelato has low overrun, whereas ice cream has high overrun (2).

Ice cream is churned fast, which folds in lots of air. Therefore, its volume increases by a large percentage as it’s being made (2).

In addition to containing more air than gelato, ice cream also packs more cream, which translates to a high fat content. What’s more, ice cream typically includes egg yolks, whereas gelato rarely will. Instead, gelato usually contains more milk (1).

Egg yolks can add fat and act as a stabilizer. Commercial ice cream can also include other stabilizers, such as guar gum. These help bind the water and fat in the ice cream batter (1).

Stabilizers also keep the batter free of large ice crystals, which can be unpleasant to eat (1).


There are many different origin stories for both ice cream and gelato. Ice cream contains more air and fat, while gelato has less air and more milk.

Gelato and ice cream are made a bit differently, and their nutritional profiles reflect this.

Nutritional profile

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines ice cream as a dairy product with at least 10% of its calories derived from fat. However, as much as 25% of the calories in a typical carton of ice cream can come from fat (1, 4).

On the other hand, gelato typically has a much lower fat content, at around 4–9% fat. It also packs more sugar than ice cream does (1, 3).

However, it’s worth remembering that both contain a lot of sugar. A 1/2-cup (78-gram) serving of vanilla ice cream can contain 210 calories and 16 total grams of sugar (5).

Meanwhile, an equal serving of gelato (88 grams) contains about 160 calories and 17 grams of sugar (6).

Given that they are both high in sugar and calories, they are meant to be consumed as an occasional treat.

Texture and flavor

Gelato is much silkier in texture and a bit denser than ice cream. This denseness allows gelato to pack much more flavor than traditional ice cream. Gelato also usually takes its flavors from natural sources (3).

Ice cream’s typically higher air content makes its texture soft and light. Although, it has more butterfat than gelato, which means it may not be as flavorful (3).

This is because butterfat coats your tongue, so it takes a bit longer for your taste buds to detect the ice cream flavor (3).

Serving style and uses

Gelato is traditionally served about 10–15°F (6–8°C) warmer than ice cream. This helps the flavors in gelato bloom, as your tongue isn’t as numb as it is when eating ice cream (3).

It’s served using a flat spatula called a spade, the maneuvering of which helps soften the dessert.

Meanwhile, ice cream is typically scooped with a deeply rounded spoon, with its higher fat content allowing it to be shaped into firm, round balls.


Gelato and ice cream both pack a lot of sugar. Ice cream is usually 10–25% fat, whereas gelato typically contains 4–9% fat. It’s worth remembering that both are best eaten as an occasional treat.

If you prefer a colder, firmer treat with a more buttery mouthfeel, ice cream will satisfy your needs.

If you prefer a more concentrated burst of flavor and silkier frozen treat that’s lower in fat, gelato is the way to go.

Whatever your preference, ice cream and gelato should both be eaten in moderation, as they are packed with sugar and calories.

Eating too many calories and added sugars can increase your risk of developing conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, cavities, and diabetes (7, 8, 9).

However, ice cream or gelato can be enjoyed as an occasional treat as part of a healthy diet.


Ice cream and gelato are high in calories and sugar, so you should limit your intake of both of these treats.

Ice cream and gelato are both popular frozen desserts.

Whereas ice cream is airier and has a higher fat content, gelato is softer and packed with flavor. Both contain a lot of sugar, but gelato is traditionally made with much less fat.

Either can be part of a healthy diet when consumed occasionally and in moderation. However, as with any food that’s high in sugar and rich in calories, it’s best to limit your intake for optimal health.