Choosing an ice cream isn’t as simple as vanilla and chocolate anymore. Slow-churned, non-GMO, no-sugar-added, grass-grazed — your grocer’s ice cream section is a display of never-ending banners, slogans, and callouts, all vying for your attention with a very wide array of pricing options. The freezer is crowded, the goalposts are always changing, and new arrivals seem to come every week.
Amid all the claims, there’s one distinction you won’t see on the front of the carton. It has nothing to do with "all-natural, real” ingredients, or whether or not it’s "grand," but it's the one that grocers and the dairy industry use behind the scenes to measure quality.
The One Ice Cream Metric That Matters to Grocers
The one metric that grocers and the dairy industry use to determine the quality of ice cream is overrun, which, in the simplest terms, is how much air is in your ice cream. The lower the overrun, the lower the air content, and the better the quality of ice cream.
To get a bit more technical, overrun is a measurement of the volume of air relative to the initial volume of mix or base (typically milk, cream, and sugar). One hundred percent overrun, for example, means that every pint of mix or base will provide two pints of ice cream. In other words, half the content in your pint is air.
In order to be called ice cream (vs. "frozen dessert"), the FDA requires an overrun of less than 100 percent, but the good stuff — in the dairy industry "Premium" or "Super Premium" — has an overrun of less than 50 percent. And you can feel that difference when you pick up a pint of ice cream: Higher-quality ice creams weigh more than their lower-quality counterparts.
Butterfat also comes into play, but it's really a symptom of overrun. If you have less air, you have more room for fat; if you have more air, you have less room for fat.
The Secret Taxonomy of Ice Cream
In terms of actual categories, there are four that frozen food buyers in the grocery industry use: Economy, Regular or Standard, Premium, and Super Premium. With the exception of Economy, which is the lowest common denominator (i.e., it just meets the standard of ice cream set by the FDA), there's some wiggle room. In many Kroger stores, for example, Ben & Jerry's would be considered "Super Premium," where at a Whole Foods or Forager's, "Super Premium" is reserved for the Jeni's and Three Twins of the world.
Here's a closer look at the behind-the-scenes classification of ice cream — and how your favorite pints stack up.
Mmm, economy. If the word makes you think of the ice cream equivalent of the middle seat in an overbooked flight to Orlando, you’ll be happy to know that no economy-level ice cream brand will ever label their products as such.
This ice cream style meets the bare minimum for what constitutes as ice cream (at least 10 percent butterfat and an overrun of less than 100 percent). Think: big, bottom-shelf buckets with little to no branding or individual styrofoam cups with cardboard lids on the school lunch tray. This stuff is super inexpensive and can feed a crowd.
Regular or Standard
In a world where everything is special, it’s unlikely that you’ll find an ice cream brand that identifies itself as Regular. This soft, airy ice cream typically served in half gallons includes Breyer’s, Edy’s, and grocery-store brand ice creams. With an overrun of close to 100 percent, it is still relatively affordable and takes up the majority of freezer real estate at traditional grocery stores.
There’s quite a jump from Regular or Standard ice cream to Premium, and it’s not just in price. These pint-sized ice creams like Ben & Jerry's and Häagen Dazs are more dense, a result of a lower overrun (less than 50 percent) and a higher percentage butterfat (14 to 16 percent).
Super Premium is the wild west of the grocery shelves. It’s the newest ice cream category, and its rules are still being set. Each store has its own consideration of what makes up Super Premium, and many stores don’t even have this category. While some stores consider anything less than 50 percent overrun to be Super Premium, some brands reach far beyond this standard, coming closer to 15 or 20 percent.
If you're budget-conscious, this might not be the stuff for you: Pints typically run $8 and up — although just because it's expensive doesn't mean it's "Super Premium." Look for indicators like third-party verified claims (B Corp, Non-GMO and Certified Organic), partnerships with other artisan brands, and an ingredient list that's short and sweet. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and Hello My Name Is Ice Cream are two great examples.
Of course, quality is in the eye of the beholder. You might like your ice cream rich and high in butterfat, or you might prefer the "lower-quality" ice creams for their airy texture and lower calorie count.
Do you prefer more or less air in your ice cream? Share in the comments!