Frozen desserts, always popular, strive even harder to attract consumers with desirable appearances, trendy inclusions and textures; the latter can slightly vary between gelatos and other ice creams.

Over the years, terms such as “premium,” “super-premium” and “gourmet” have been used to classify and differentiate ice cream and other frozen desserts. These terms are less defined by regulatory standards than by conventional wisdom and consumer expectations. While “premium” ice cream may typically have 12-14% milk fat, “super-premium” may have 15-18% milk fat. Both terms fail to include other elements of total milk solids, weight per gallon, total food solids and other compositional factors, as outlined in the standards of identity of “ice cream.”

In addition, these terms ignore critical, qualitative elements added during the actual manufacturing of the products. That is, they do not include amount, type or quality of flavor or colorings, eating characteristics (e.g., bite, chew, smoothness, creaminess, richness, etc.), packaging options, display and dispensing approaches, or conditions of consumption. However, consumers know what to expect, when claims of “premium” or “super-premium” are made. Thus, the terms, undefined by regulation, may be highly defined in terms of consumer expectations. The same is true in what one might call “ultra-premium,” “gourmet,” “gelato” and other upscale frozen desserts. In any event, the laws of chemistry and physics apply to all frozen desserts, no matter the claim. In fact, the laws of chemistry and physics give the opportunity to create new, novel “gourmet” styles of ice creams with significant technical points-of-difference from what is perceived as simple “ice cream.” Gelato is a good example.

“Italian-style ice cream,” commonly known as gelato, is a combination of the evolution of classical ice cream-making technologies, conventional wisdom and the need to meet ever-evolving consumer needs and expectations. One might consider gelato “gourmet” or “ultra-premium,” but, long ago, it may have been just plain “ice cream.”

A Focus on Gelato

The word gelato is from the Italian verbgelareor “to freeze” (gelato has nothing to do with gelatin, although gelatin could be an ingredient, if so chosen). Gelato is also used to refer to any number of frozen desserts, whether dairy or water-based. In the most common of terms, gelati are made from milk-based mixtures. Close alternatives are sorbetti (a.k.a. sorbetto or sorbet), made from fruit-based mixtures (fruit juices, juice concentrates, purees, etc.). What drives gelato really is the satisfaction of the perceived need by consumers for a high-quality, intensely flavored, boldly colored and garnished, smooth and creamy, “ultra-premium” frozen dessert. Without a doubt, there are well-crafted and executed gelato that can deliver superior eating qualities consistent with demand.

Gelato belongs in the generic category of foods known as “frozen dairy desserts” because of what it contains (dairy ingredients) and its form (a semi-solid food, intended to be eaten while frozen); the category also includes ice cream and similar products. Of course, the types or styles of “frozen desserts” can vary greatly and may even include products with no dairy solids at all (e.g., water ices, sorbets). Across the years, regulatory standards of identity have been established to define the nature of frozen dairy desserts based on technologies, concepts and manufacturing practices available at the time the “standard” was established. These typically have included percent milk fat, percent total milk solids, minimum weights per gallon, compositional features and limitations on ingredients used.

Changing Expectations

Of course, times change, technologies change and consumer expectations change. In response, industry has created products such as “super premium” and “premium” ice creams, reduced-, low- and no-fat ice creams, no-sugar-added and sugar-free ice creams, sorbets (gourmet or super-premium water ice), frozen yogurts (including multiple variations of the theme across the last three decades) and gelato (Italian-style ice cream). Gelato is only one of many examples of industrial response to changing consumer demands.

In light of existing standards of identity for ice cream, conventional wisdom tells us gelato fully retains the context and spirit of the standards, including the “form,” its intended use and nutritional composition, while fully delivering more in terms of flavor, color and overall eating experience. This means that gelato applies the very same ingredients and similar formulas and manufacturing technologies to create essentially the same physical food as standardized ice cream. For all intents, by conventional wisdom, it is ice cream. Further, gelato remains a source of calories and milk solids (protein, minerals, vitamins and fat) and may offer essentially the same nutritional value as standard ice cream. However, differences between ice cream and gelato do exist. These differences may appear to be razor thin on the surface, but result in much different freezing characteristics, presentation characteristics at point of consumption, heat shock resistance, eating character, coloring and flavoring. Thus, gelato is more of a style of ice cream, with the same intent at point of consumption; that is, to provide a sweet, flavorful, frozen dairy dessert that meets or exceeds consumer expectations.

Characteristics of gelato vary greatly. These characteristics, of course, are reflections of consumer expectations and acceptance. Typically, gelatos are more strongly flavored and more vibrantly colored than classical ice cream. Ingredients such as colors and flavors tend to make gelato more compatible with “natural,” “organic,” “free trade,” “local,” “global” or other market strategies. These market positionings can include small batch sizes, made on premises, Italian-sourced flavorings and “Italian-sized servings” (whatever that means). Compositions tend to fall within the range of ice cream. Milk fat contents can vary from 1-2% up to 15% or more, within the range of low-fat to full-fat ice creams, but with no intended nutrient content claims.

Formulation and Processing

As in the case of ice creams, non-fat milk solids and sweeteners vary in relationship to the functional needs of the mix and the finished dessert at point of consumption. Those functional needs and a desire for stronger, bolder flavors can result in elevated sweetness levels and, therefore, sweetener needs that are in excess of standard ice cream. Overrun or density of the finished gelato can vary as well, but typically range from no injected air (near 0 overrun) to 15-20% overrun. The total amount of “food solids” per serving increases as well, again not with any target relative to the content of specific nutrients. As with all other frozen desserts, the size and number of air cells affects both the body (chew) and texture (smoothness, creaminess). The same can be said about ice crystals created during freezing/whipping. Small is good; large is not good.

Gelato is most typically frozen in batch freezers, although continuous freezers can be used for the packaged version. Even batch freezers used for the initial freezing/whipping of gelato mix, where the focus is on the condition under which gelato is being dispensed from the freezer, can vary from conventional ice cream batch freezers. An example is a variable speed freezer with a variable speed dasher (the device which agitates and whips the mix, while scraping ice particles from the interior surface). In this type of equipment, the dasher operates at a relatively low speed during the initial stages of freezing. As freezing progresses, the speed of the dasher is increased to control ice crystal development and facilitate discharge of product. Some types automatically increase dasher speed, as the amount of freezing water increases. This is done by measuring the conductivity of the mix, which increases as the level of electrolytes in the unfrozen portion is increased; this is a result of freeze concentration. Some freezers of this type are capable of discharging product at temperatures as low as 9°F (remember, typical ice cream draw temperatures may be between 20-24°F).

Although packaged gelato for retail sale exists, most gelato is held, dipped and served in the semi-soft state close to the physical form in which it emerges from the freezing/whipping process. This differentiates it from so-called “soft-serve” frozen desserts, which are dispensed from the freezer directly to the consumer without an intermediate holding step. It also differs from the handling of conventional packaged or bulk ice cream, which is subjected to a secondary freezing step known as “hardening” for subsequent storage and distribution.  Hardening involves taking the temperature of the product, which is normally packaged in the range of 20-24°F, as quickly as possible to 0°F or lower. Storage and distribution then involves temperatures in the range of -20 to -40°F. These ultra-low temperatures allow for rapid freezing of water to help maintain small ice crystal size and smooth, creamy texture across multiple months of storage. Preferably, the product is warmed to temperatures of between 0-5°F for consumption. The interval between initial freezing and consumption is measured in weeks and months. During that time, ambient temperature fluctuation and natural processes within the ice cream inevitably cause ice crystals to grow, which creates a major limitation (coarse, icy texture) on shelflife (i.e., acceptability).

With gelato, the semi-soft product is dispensed from whipping and freezing directly into shallow rectangular pans from which product is displayed and dispensed for consumption. Product is held at temperatures substantially higher than those at which conventional ice cream is consumed, with no hardening applied. Frequently, enhanced eye appeal is created by artistically distributing particulates or syrups appropriate to a particular flavor over the surface. Finally, visibility in the gelato “dipping” cabinet is enhanced by the full view of multiple products and by tilting the display pans at an angle toward the consumer. Novel lighting patterns can also enhance the display of the gelato.

In comparison to conventional ice cream, the warmer eating temperature of gelato dipping cabinets provides a softer, creamier texture that allows for a more dynamic sensation and enjoyment of richer, more natural and fuller flavors. Although the handling of gelato does not expose it to the conditions that cause texture deterioration (i.e., “heat shock,” due to temperature variation), as in packaged and bulk ice cream, the way in which it is handled creates other elements of vulnerability to loss of quality (i.e., acceptability).

Properly handling gelato involves a relatively short time between its initial production and consumption. Since it may be held at warmer, but more constant, temperatures, it may be concluded that gelato requires less attention to the role of composition and stabilization on the control of water mobility, when compared to packaged/bulk ice cream. This is not the case. Although gelato is not exposed to the long periods of temperature fluctuation that can cause increased ice crystal size in ice cream, there are other conditions that accelerate the growth of ice crystals and the consequent development of coarse texture. As a result, careful attention to controlling ice crystal growth in gelato remains important.

The dynamics of ice crystal growth at temperatures below the freezing point of frozen dessert mixes are complex and beyond the scope of this article. However, it is critical to know that limiting ice crystal size in gelato or any other frozen dessert is part of what makes that product smooth and creamy. Thus, at the higher temperatures at which gelato is held for consumption, substantially less water is frozen. As a result, more water is available to participate in the inevitable growth of ice crystals that occurs at these temperatures. In addition, with more “free” water, the concentration of the stabilizing influences of other ingredients (stabilizers, emulsifiers, proteins, large molecular weight carbohydrates, etc.) is reduced. Because of these factors, gelato is vulnerable to the development of textural defects. Therefore, controlling ice crystal growth via the management of water mobility is equally as important, if not more so, than would be the case for conventional ice cream compositions.

When ingredient selection, formulation, freezing/whipping, coloring, flavoring, dispensing and serving are properly balanced and managed together, the result is frozen desserts that truly offer a “gourmet” eating experience.

One manufacturer refers to its gelato as a “voluptuous, ultra-indulgent gelato…quintessential Italian experience, like an exotic summer spent strolling the piazzas of Florence or roaming the hillsides of Tuscany…a velvety texture and pure intense flavor that indelibly, luxuriously lingers on your tongue. Made with all-natural ingredients…will envelop you in the passion of Italy.” Meets our expectations! Gelato anyone? Dr. Bruce Tharp is owner of Tharp’s Food Technology, Wayne, Pa. Dr. Steven Young is principal of Steven Young Worldwide, Houston, Texas.
For more on gelato, gourmet and other ice cream styles, and other aspects of ice cream science and technology, join Dr. Bruce Tharp and Dr. Steve Young for Tharp & Young On Ice Cream Technical Short Course, Workshops and Clinics. 2009 programs include Singapore (April 20-24), Mexico City (September 21-25) and Las Vegas (December 2-4). For more information, go to or call 610-975-4424 or 281-596-9603.

Website Resources: To look for other articles on these topics, including articles written by Bruce Tharp and Steven Young, trends in frozen dairy desserts and stabilizer systems, seePrepared Foods’ searchable website for thousands of archived articles

International Inclusions

“Oh, gelato with jalapeños! That’s so Latin American,” exclaimed Julia Gallo-Torres,Prepared Foods’ managing editor and the daughter of Peruvian parents, when she heard about this issue’s cover photo. Ciao Bella’s dark chocolate jalapeño, a new flavor in its select series line of gelatos, is both innovative, yet familiar. Confectioners such as Hebert Confections, Laura Secord and Redstone Foods have recently combined jalapeños with their chocolate candies, reports Mintel International’s GNPD. The Ciao Bella Gelato retails in a pint tub and has an all-natural, premium positioning.

Food and culinary trends, such as tropical fruits and superfruits, ethnic, exotic and fusion cuisine, can all be transitioned into tantalizing frozen desserts by the addition of inclusions. Take tropical fruits and superfruits, for example. The private label Safeway Select offers premium mango ice cream “loaded with real mango pieces and passionfruit swirls.” A review of Mintel’s GNPD turns up Sobeys Compliments Balance branded blueberry pomegranate swirl bars, as well as Laloo’s Black Mission Fig Goat’s Milk Ice Cream, with real figs. If that is not exotic enough, there is Choctál’s Exotic Chocolate Ice Cream Collection, with Costa Rican chocolate, Ghana chocolate, Dominican chocolate and Kalimantan chocolate.

“Baked goods” inclusions have also moved beyond the familiar cookie dough. Mintel’s GNPD show the Greek gods Pagoto Ice Krema brand recently launched a Greek-style ice cream made withbaklava. Additionally, cinnamon sugartostadashave appeared in fried ice cream varieties introduced under Unilever’s Breyer, Wal-Mart’s Great Value, Dean Foods’ Deans Feature Flavor and Inter-American Products’ Private Selection brands the last couple of years.

Lastly, despite the different types of inclusions used, both Ciao Bella’s dark chocolate jalapeño gelato and Safeway Select’s mango ice cream’s textures are further enhanced through use of guar gum, locust bean gum and carrageenan. The mango and passionfruit preparations use pectin for stability, as well.
-Claudia D. O’donnell, Chief Editor