What's the Difference Between Ice Cream, Gelato, Sorbet, and Sherbet?

Not all frozen treats are created equal.

Is the difference between sorbet and sherbet just a matter of pronunciation? Is frozen yogurt just "healthier" ice cream ? And what's the deal with gelato vs. ice cream? The terms are used interchangeably in conversation all the time. But the USDA adheres to precise guidelines when it comes to labeling frozen treats in the supermarket.

Want the scoop? Here's our handy guide to seven of the most common frozen desserts.

01 of 07


Blood orange sorbet in a glass

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This frozen delight contains just fruit and sugar—no dairy. It's often churned in an ice cream maker, which makes it scoopable but not creamy. Restaurants use sorbet as a palate cleanser during multi-course meals because its intense fruit flavor is extra-refreshing. Bonus: It's incredibly easy to make at home.

02 of 07


Rainbow sherbet in a bowl

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Halfway between sorbet and ice cream, sherbet is basically sorbet with a bit of milk added. And it is always fruit-based.

03 of 07

Granita (aka Italian Ice)

Watermelon Mojito Granita
Antonis Achilleos

Like sorbet, granitas are often made from a puree of fruit, sugar, and water. The difference is in their texture. Unlike sorbets, which are smooth-churned, granita purees are scraped repeatedly during the freezing process, loosening their structure into icy flakes.

04 of 07

Ice Cream

Victor Protasio

The USDA requires this frozen favorite to contain at least 10 percent milk fat (which is exactly what it sounds like: fat from milk). It must also get churned during freezing, and (surprise!), be sweet. Want to make your own? Check out our collection of quick ice cream recipes.

05 of 07


A person holding chocolate gelato on a cone

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"Gelato" means "ice cream" in Italian. But the two are not exactly the same. While gelato has a custard base like its American cousin, it also contains less milk fat and less air churned into it during freezing, which makes its texture denser. Also, because gelato is traditionally served at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream, it feels a bit softer and looks glossier.

06 of 07

Frozen Custard

Frozen orange custard on a cone

cbonsign / Getty Images

This uber-creamy treat is exactly the same as ice cream, except for the addition of egg yolk to the base. It tends to be dense and soft (more the texture of soft-serve than hard ice cream), and is most commonly sold in the Midwest and South.

07 of 07

Frozen Yogurt

Four cups of frozen yogurt with different toppings

Internationally / Getty Images

Instead of milk or cream, yogurt gives this frozen dairy dessert its creaminess. But besides that, it's made the same way as ice cream. There are millions of ways to dress it up; here are some of our favorites.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which of the following is a healthier option: sorbet or gelato?

    Gelato contains more calories and fat thanks to the use of milk. Because sorbet is just fruit juice and sugar (no dairy), it has less calories and is therefore a healthier option.

  • What are the three differences between gelato and ice cream?

    While gelato and ice cream are both dairy based, there is a difference in how they are made and how they taste. The USDA requires that ice cream be at least 10 percent milk fat. And while gelato means "ice cream" in Italian it's different than the American version in that it has a lower fat content and less air churned in to it, making it denser and more glossy.

  • What makes sorbet different from sherbet?

    Sorbet is strictly fruit juice and sugar while sherbet is fruit juice, sugar, and a bit of milk. The result is a creamier consistency for the sherbet and brighter, more vibrant flavor for the sorbet.

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  1. USDA. Ice Cream Standard. Accessed April 14, 2023.

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