Non-Dairy Creamer Versus Real Cream

Since Pream and Coffee-Mate were introduced in the 1950's, non-dairy creamers have become a common fixture in the home, workplace, and food establishments where coffee and tea are served. If you've ever wondered how these products stack up to real cream, here's the low down.

Non-Dairy Creamer

Non-dairy creamer is a milk or cream substitute that is typically used for flavoring coffee and tea. It comes in either liquid or powder form and is termed "non-dairy" because it contains no lactose, a sugar that is found in milk and other dairy products.

Regardless of brand, non-dairy creamers tend to have the following ingredients in common: Corn syrup, maltodextrin, and other sugars, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (usually coconut, palm kernel, safflower, or soybean), sodium caseinate (milk protein derivative but not a source of lactose), dipotassium phosphate (powder that moderates acidity), mono- and digycerides (fats that add texture and help prevent oil separation), carrageenan (a stabilizer), and natural and artificial flavors and colors.

The corn syrup and other sweeteners are used to mimic the sweetness that dairy products get from lactose. The partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are used in place of milk fat in a bid to simulate the texture and rich, fatty flavor of real cream. Sodium caseinate is used to add thickening, whitening, and a hint of dairy flavor. Strangely, even though it is derived from milk, products made with sodium caseinate can be termed non-dairy because it contains no lactose. Go figure.

Real Cream

Cream is a dairy product made from the natural butterfat in raw milk. It comes in several grades depending on the fat content. In the United States, the most common types of cream are: half and half (10.5-18% fat), light cream (18-30% fat), medium cream (25% fat), whipping or light whipping cream (30-36% fat), heavy whipping cream (36% or more fat), extra-heavy or double cream (38-40% or more).

As a creamer for coffee and tea, the most commonly used grades of cream are half and half and light cream. Milk, which has a considerably lower fat content than cream, is also used. It's fat content ranges from nearly zero in skim milk to 3.25% in whole milk.

Calories and Nutritional Differences

A main selling point of non-dairy creamers is that they contain less fat than their real cream counterparts. For example, a 1 tbsp serving of Coffee-Mate, a popular non-dairy creamer, has 20 calories and 1g of fat. This compares to 20 calories, 1.8g fat for half-and-half and 29 calories, 3g fat for light cream.

In spite of their lower fat content, some people consider non-dairy creamers to be less healthy than real cream because of the high level of processing, artificial ingredients, and the presence of trans fats due to the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Note that trans-fat is not listed on the label of non-dairy creamers because the serving size is so small (if a product has less then 0.5 grams of fat per serving, labeling laws allow food companies to round that number down to zero).

Shelf Life

A big advantage of non-dairy creamer is a longer shelf life than cream. For example, Coffee-Mate powder has a shelf-life of up to 24 months while Coffee-Mate liquid creamer should be used within 14 days after opening or before the use-by date, whichever comes first.

In comparison, an opened container of half-and-half should be used within 7 to 10 days of opening or by the use-by date printed on the container, whichever comes first.

See Also

A close cousin of non-dairy creamer is fat-free half-and-half. A well known product in this category is Land O Lakes Fat-Free Half & Half. It contains many of the same ingredients as non-dairy creamer except sodium caseinate and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil are replaced with nonfat milk and a small amount of cream (small enough that it can still be labeled as fat-free).