The range of ice cream products stocked in supermarkets is impressive, and can certainly tide you over between visits to your favourite gelato bar.
But with so many ice cream brands and styles now on offer, it’s no longer as simple as choosing between vanilla or chocolate when considering which product to buy. For starters, what's the difference between ice cream and gelato? Why do some ice creams contain additives? Is there a taste trade-off when choosing low-cal ice cream? And which premium-tier products are worth the splurge?
In 2019 we reviewed and tested vanilla ice creams, from brands including Connoisseur, Haagen-Dazs and Sara Lee, to help answer these questions and more.
The words ice cream and gelato are often used interchangeably, but the main difference is that ice cream is regulated for its milk fat content.
To be sold as 'ice cream' a product needs to meet certain requirements for milk fat and food solids. Crucially, it must contain at least 10% milk fat. Reduced fat versions must contain at least 25% less fat than standard ice cream, and low fat versions must contain no more than 3% fat.
'Gelato' is the Italian word for ice cream, but there's no standard definition for gelato in Australia. Gelato can be both milk-based and fruit-based, and doesn't necessarily contain dairy products. According to gelato producers, gelato is generally lower in fat – closer to 5% compared with 10% or higher for ice cream – and churned less than ice cream. Churning (or whipping) incorporates air into ice cream causing it to increase in volume – what's referred to in the industry as 'overrun'. When less air is incorporated into the mixture, this results in a more dense consistency with a colder, fresher eating sensation – a common attribute of premium-tier ice creams, as well as gelato.
A French word, sorbet describes a frozen mixture of sweetened water and fruit juice or purée. Fruit-based, dairy-free gelato is sometimes referred to as sorbet.
Read the ingredients list and you'll see that ice creams sometimes contain a number of different additives, most commonly emulsifiers, stabilisers and thickeners. The main reason they're there is to help retain an ice cream's smooth and creamy texture.
In many foods emulsifiers help prevent fat and water from separating into layers, while stabilisers and thickeners (such as vegetable gums) perform the similar functions of increasing stability, increasing viscosity (thickness) to a desired consistency and maintaining the uniform dispersion of substances in solid and semi-solid foods.
For ice cream specifically, the emulsifiers help to promote the formation of a whipped fat structure in the product during freezing, which gives good melting resistance when being eaten. The emulsifiers also promote a longer shelf life and creaminess in the ice cream. Stabilisers and thickeners give a rich, creamy mouthfeel.
When a freezer goes through its cycles – warming up and cooling down again – small ice crystals present in the product can eventually grow into larger ones over time, typically resulting in a coarse texture and iciness. The stabilisers and thickeners play a useful role to limit the increasing size of ice crystals during storage.
Where traditionally ice cream producers would have relied on a food ingredient, specifically eggs, to help perform these functions, there are a few reasons why they may choose to use additives as an alternative.
Additives are more robust and easier to store and transport than eggs. Eggs are also a common allergen, so removing them from the recipe makes the product more widely accessible. Crucially, additives are more consistent in price and availability than eggs and are significantly more cost-effective.
Premium ice cream is an indulgence and you'd expect there to be cream, milk, eggs and sugar in abundance – with their associated fat, sugar and kilojoules.
Low calorie ice cream offers a guilt-free (or at least, lower guilt) experience, but when you remove the kilojoules are you also removing the deliciousness?
In our 2019 taste test we threw premium low-calorie product Halo Top Vanilla Bean into the mix to see how it compared.
This product's selling point is that it's '280 calories per tub', which in a 473mL tub works out to be 456kJ per 100g – about half the amount that's in the other premium products, on average. It's low fat, and has at least 50% less sugar than the other premium products we tested, with much of its sweetness coming from non-nutritive (low or no kilojoule) sweeteners erythritol and Stevia rather than sugar.
Verdict: Halo Top is certainly a healthier option, but in our blind taste test it failed to impress – its taste test score of 64% was the lowest.
Premium ice cream is a boutique-looking product from your supermarket freezer that comes in a range of luxurious-sounding flavours, often in tubs of one litre or less, that tend to cost more than your standard family favourite.
The 'premium' classification is based on label claims about quality or ingredient provenance (such as 'gourmet', 'super premium', 'indulgent' or '100% sustainable Australian cream'), aesthetics (usually smaller, fancier tubs) and price point, rather than a requirement to meet particular product specifications. But if you're paying a price premium, it's reasonable to assume you'll get a better tasting ice cream.
To test this theory, we included bestselling standard tier ice cream Streets Blue Ribbon Classic Vanilla in our 2019 blind taste test.
Verdict: With a taste test score of 79%, Streets Blue Ribbon wasn't the best on test – six other products received higher taste scores – but it wasn't the worst. And this family favourite was the cheapest (it helps that it's available in a two-litre container).
Of the eleven premium vanilla ice creams we taste tested in 2019, the following three ice creams – including two of the cheapest products we tested – received an overall score of 80% or more, and got top marks in our expert panel blind taste test.
For full details of all products in that test, including which ice creams are gluten free, check out our premium ice cream review.
Connoisseur Classic Vanilla
Overall score: 81%
Experts say: "Good, clean vanilla flavour and aftertaste. Smooth body and mouthfeel. Good dairy flavour."
Monarc (Aldi) Indulge Vanilla Opulence
Overall score: 81%
Experts say: "A pleasant, creamy mouthfeel and lingering aftertaste. Slightly icy texture. Excellent dairy/vanilla flavour balance."
Woolworths Vanilla Bean
Overall score: 81%
Experts say: "Distinctive vanilla flavour. Smooth and creamy texture. Good dairy notes."
For a delicious homemade ice cream, follow this recipe from CHOICE home economist Fiona Mair.
You can use this recipe with most ice cream makers and benchtop mixers with ice cream maker attachments. We made our ice cream in a KitchenAid Stand Mixer (Pro Line Lift Stand Mixer 5KSM7581) using its ice cream maker attachment (Model 5 KICA0WH).
French vanilla ice cream recipe
If your ice cream maker requires that you place the bowl in the freezer ahead of time, make sure it's in the freezer for at least 24 hours before you start preparing the custard. For a soft serve consistency you can serve straight after churning. For a firmer texture, freeze ice cream for at least three hours after churning.
- 300mL pure cream
- 300mL full cream milk
- 8 egg yolks
- 200g caster sugar
- 500mL thickened cream
- 1 vanilla pod, seeds removed
- Pinch of salt
1. Prepare custard
In a medium saucepan, gently heat the pure cream and milk until very hot but not boiling. Remove from heat and set aside.
Place egg yolks and sugar in a bowl and using a benchtop mixer or hand mixer whisk on medium speed until thickened slightly (approximately one minute).
Continue mixing, gradually adding the heated cream and milk until combined.
Pour mixture back into the saucepan and add vanilla pod and the scraped seeds. Cook over a gentle heat stirring constantly until slightly thickened, but not boiling (the mixture should be steaming).
Transfer the resulting custard into a large bowl and stir in thickened cream and salt. Remove the vanilla pod and discard.
Cover with plastic wrap allowing the plastic to touch the custard so as to protect from forming a skin. Refrigerate for at least eight hours.
Prepare the ice cream maker attachment or an ice cream maker following manufacturer's instructions.
Select speed suggested by manufacturer and while running, pour chilled custard into the ice cream maker bowl, being careful not to over-fill the bowl.
Continue churning for 20 minutes, or as suggested by manufacturer.
At the end of this time your ice cream should be the consistency of soft serve. For a firm ice cream pour into a container and freeze for at least three hours.
Makes approximately 15 half cup serves.
Cost: Approximately $0.70 per 100mL (we used quality ingredients. Cost can be reduced by using cheaper ingredients).
We included ice creams identified as 'premium' in the Retail World Annual Report – as well as by their packaging (sold in tubs 1L or less), label claims and/or price points – that are available nationally through at least one of the major supermarket chains. For comparison purposes we tested the vanilla flavour only. All of the premium products included in our taste test meet the minimum milk fat requirements for 'ice cream', according to the producers.
Our experts tasted the ice cream samples blind (without knowing the brands) in a randomised order, which was different for each expert.
Experts independently judged all ice creams, scoring each sample for flavour and aroma, texture and presentation. The overall score is made up of taste 90% (50% flavour and aroma, 30% texture, 20% presentation) and nutrition 10% (100% Health Star Rating, calculated from the details in the nutrition information panel and converted to a percentage). We recommend products with an overall score of 80% or more.
(Left to right) Craig Davis, Petra Sugiarto, Robyn Gray, Tiffany Beer, Garry Baker.
Garry Baker has worked in product development and management for the food industry for more than 30 years, primarily the dairy and ice cream industries, and most recently in the area of ingredient technology. He's been on ice cream judging panels for the NSW Royal Agricultural Society's Sydney Royal Competitions since their inception, for the Dairy Industry Association of Australia (DIAA) and Dairy Australia's Australian Grand Dairy Awards (AGDA), as well as ice cream and gelato competitions internationally.
Tiffany Beer is a consultant food technologist who works in food safety and compliance. She is passionate about good food and is a dairy products judge and associate cheese judge for the Sydney Royal Cheese & Dairy Produce Show and dairy products judge for the AGDA.
Craig Davis is a professional food technologist, trained to PhD level from the University of New South Wales. He initially worked in academia and government research with the CSIRO before moving into the food industry about 30 years ago, chiefly in the area of food ingredient manufacture, dairy in particular. His expertise in ice cream includes all facets of formulation, processing and sensory properties. Craig has been an ice cream judge for many years in high profile competitions in both Australia and New Zealand.
Robyn Gray has worked in the food and flavour industry for over 30 years, with a technical background focused in ice cream and general dairy textures, and more recently flavour delivery systems. Robyn currently works in the flavour industry and regularly exercises her expertise on judging panels for Australian food competitions, including the AGDA.
Petra Sugiarto has an academic background in food technology and microbiology and has been working in the food industry for more than 20 years, in particular the dairy industry in various applications including yoghurt, cheese, ice cream/gelato, dairy desserts. For the past 14 years she's been on the judging panels for the DIAA and Sydney Royal Cheese & Dairy Produce competitions and for the AGDA.