Dairy-Free Coffee Creamer

Remember when you were in school, and the cafeteria regularly served something that could only be described as “mystery meat?”

Most of us have the same reaction today when ordering our morning cup of coffee in a diner or fast food place – and it’s accompanied by a few small round containers filled with what can best be described as “mystery liquid.” It’s not much different if you’re visiting an office break room, and there’s a jar of “mystery powder” next to the coffeepot.

What is that stuff?

Sure, we all call it coffee creamer. But seriously, what is it? Milk? Cream? Half-and-half? Is it even a dairy product?

If there’s a label on it, it might say “non-dairy coffee creamer,” “dairy-free coffee creamer” or just the always-worrisome generic name, “creamer.”

Those who don’t have milk allergies, aren’t lactose-intolerant, aren’t vegan and aren’t particularly health conscious won’t give it a second thought. They need their coffee, after all.

For others, though, the difference between dairy, dairy-free and non-dairy is important. For very good reasons.

Let’s sort out the confusing names, and then check out the best dairy-free coffee creamer options.

Dairy vs. Dairy-Free vs. Non-Dairy

“Dairy” and “non-dairy” would seem to be an easy distinction to make. It’s not. And when you introduce “dairy-free” into the equation, it’s even more difficult to figure out exactly what you’re eating or drinking.

Dairy

Dairy products are basically what you think they are. They’re produced from a mammal’s milk, and that doesn’t just mean cows. Goat’s milk, sheep’s milk and human milk are all dairy.

Lactose is the “milk sugar” that’s naturally contained in dairy products. When someone’s body can’t process lactose properly, doctors describe them as lactose intolerant.

Lactose intolerance is more common than you might think. The U.S. Library of Medicine says that around 30 million American adults are lactose intolerant to some degree; that’s nearly 15 percent of the population.

Those who are lactose-intolerant suffer often-severe reactions in their gastrointestinal tracts when they drink “normal” milk or eat dairy products, because their intestines can’t break the lactose molecules into simple sugars that the body can use.

Most can avoid the problems by substituting lactose-free products, which have had the lactose removed before being sold. Those products are known as lactose-free – but they’re still dairy products, since they’re made from milk.

In short, lactose-free coffee creamer isn’t dairy-free.

Dairy-Free

Common sense would tell you that dairy-free means that a product contains no dairy ingredients. Dairy-free milk, for example, is usually plant-based; soy milk, oat milk, and any type of nut milk like cashew milk, coconut milk and almond milk, are all dairy-free products. So are all of the creamers made from them.

There’s a slight problem, though. The government doesn’t actually have a legal definition for the term “dairy-free,” so some smaller companies call their products “dairy-free” even if they’re really not. It’s always important to read the labels to be sure.

Non-Dairy

Here’s where things get even more complicated, because non-dairy doesn’t mean dairy-free. Seriously. Let’s sort that out.

So far, we’ve talked about the lactose, or milk sugar, that causes big problems for those who are lactose-intolerant. But milk also contains what are called “milk proteins,” casein and whey. The process of producing lactose-free milk doesn’t do anything to the proteins; they can be removed, but they’re usually not.

Casein and whey are believed to provide substantial health benefits, but they can cause major health issues for some people. A milk allergy is usually an allergy to casein, and it can manifest in hives, rashes, congestion, bloody stools, and occasionally, anaphylactic shock. Additionally, vegans do not eat animal products or byproducts, and milk proteins fall into that category. Both groups need to know if there‘s casein (or whey) in their dairy.

Unfortunately, the government doesn’t help. Even though the FDA doesn’t legally define dairy-free, it does define “non-dairy” – and for some reason, non-dairy products are allowed to contain casein, whey, or their derivatives. Many products, including non-dairy creamers, contain ingredients like “caseinate milk derivatives” which are forms of casein.

Bottom line: “non-dairy” isn’t good enough for vegans or those with milk allergies. For them, a product must be “dairy-free.”

As we consider the best choices for dairy-free coffee creamers, bear that in mind; we’ve eliminated many options which are non-dairy, because they don’t qualify as dairy-free.

Are Dairy-Free Coffee Creamers Really Creamers?

It depends on how you define “creamer.”

You now know that anything labeled “dairy-free” contains no dairy – so by definition, there’s no cream in dairy-free creamers. Instead, the term is used to describe the purpose of creamers, rather than their content.

“Creamer” is a physical substitute for the cream (or milk) most of us grew up putting into our coffee. It’s designed to mimic the creaminess, texture and flavor of cream, while providing the same primary benefits: lowering the acidity of coffee while cooling it down a little. Some manufacturers use the more-accurate term “coffee whiteners” for creamers, but most people understand that there’s no cream in the little container or big jar of coffee creamer.

So what is in the container or jar? It may simply be nut or plant milk, but that’s extremely unlikely. Much more often, the content of dairy-free creamers can surprise you.

What’s In Dairy-Free Coffee Creamer?

Milk and cream have distinctive tastes, which are almost impossible to replicate with a plant-based replacement. Most dairy-free milk has a very different texture as well.

That’s why you’re likely to find some or all of these ingredients in your dairy-free coffee creamer:

  • Vegetable oil: This is usually what gives creamers their creaminess. Unhealthy hydrogenated vegetable oils containing trans-fats used to be quite common. Now, you’re more likely to find coconut or palm oil in your creamer.
  • Sugar or sugar substitutes: Some creamers contain a sweetening agent as well. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re trying to watch your sugar and carb consumption.
  • Flavorings and food colorings: They may be natural, or they may be artificial. The flavoring may be the reason you choose a particular creamer, or it may be there without your “knowledge.” Either way, it’s important to do due diligence and read the label.

You might think about adding just a splash of raw, unsweetened plant milk to your morning coffee, but that can lead to disappointment. Alternative milks don’t mix well with coffee, because they separate out almost immediately. They also don’t have the same consistency – that’s why manufacturers add thickening agents to their dairy-free coffee creamers.

Most people choose instead to look for a healthy, dairy-free creamer with a plant or nut milk base. How do you know it’s healthy? The best way is to check the ingredient list. The amounts of calories, fat and carbs per serving are important, of course, but also make sure that oil and sugar aren’t the first ingredients listed (they’re listed in order by the amounts used) and that the creamer doesn’t contain trans-fats.

Unsweetened creamers are the best choice if you plan on adding your own sweetener. Look for low-calorie or low-fat choices if those fit your diet best. And plain or “original” flavors of dairy-free creamers will probably have fewer calories, less fat and less sugar than the fancy ones.

Needless to say, taste and consistency matter as well. How can you judge those before buying? By reading reviews. We happen to have some right here.

Best Dairy-Free Coffee Creamers

Most of these products are available at your local grocery store or on Amazon.

Healthiest Choices

Califia Farms Almondmilk Creamer

Califia makes a variety of delicious dairy-free creamers with the proper consistency to blend well with coffee. Its unsweetened Almondmilk creamer has a noticeable almond taste, but it’s sweetened by added coconut cream; the result is yummy and healthy.

No oil is added to this creamer (another plus), yet it has a good mouth feel and froths well. There are just five calories and no carbs per tablespoon, and only half-a-gram of fat. It’s vegan, gluten-free, soy-free and non-GMO, and unlike many competitors, it doesn’t contain carrageenan as a thickener. Calcium is added to provide the bone support benefit found in milk.

Califia Farms sells several dozen similar sugar-free non-dairy creamers with similar attributes, Almondmilk Better Half (more like half-and-half than cream) among them. There are a number of great flavored options, though, including hazelnut and French vanilla. Love lattes? The Califa Barista blends are super-frothy.

So Delicious Organic Coconutmilk Creamer

This company has been specializing in dairy-free products for years, so it’s not surprising that their creamers are well-designed and quite good for you. The organic Coconutmilk creamer is made from just coconut milk and water (and a couple of natural additives) so it isn’t as thick and frothy as the Califia Farms creamers, but it mixes well with coffee and the taste is great. Calories are a decent 15 per tablespoon, with no carbs, one gram of fat and no added sugars; it’s a vegan and non-GMO product. There are caramel and French vanilla flavors as well.

Nutpods Original Unsweetened Almond+Coconut Creamer

If you’ve been on a keto, paleo or another low-carb diet you’re probably familiar with Nutpods, since their products are approved by Whole30 (one of the most popular commercial low-carb diet plans). Their Almond+Coconut creamer contains ten calories, no carbs and one gram of fat per tablespoon, there’s no added oil or sugar, it’s sweet and tasty, and it blends easily with coffee. There are a number of really good flavors (including cotton candy and toasted marshmallow!), plus two flavors of oatmilk creamer.

Best of the Rest

Silk Original Dairy-Free Soy Creamer

This one isn’t the best for you, but it’s the best mainstream soy creamer and it may be the easiest non-dairy option to find. It’s vegan and non-GMO, but it does contain added cane sugar, corn oil and thickeners, which is why it lands lower down on our list. Even so, the nutrition numbers aren’t as bad as you’d expect: 20 calories, 1.5 grams of fat and two grams of carbs per tablespoon.

Nutiva Organic MCT Creamer

Nutpods is popular with keto dieters, but Nutiva may be an even better choice. It contains organic coconut MCT oil that those on a low-carb diet put into their coffee to make it “Bulletproof.” It also contains coconut sugar and coconut milk powder – so we hope you love coconut. There are 40 calories and three grams of fat per tablespoon, though, but just one gram of carbs.

Laird Turmeric Superfood Creamer

Lots of coconut flavor here too, since this one contains coconut oil and coconut sugar, but the added turmeric provides a nice taste twist along with health benefits. There is olive oil added for consistency. 15 calories, 0.75 grams of fat, a little over one gram of carbs.

Trader Joe’s Original Coconut Creamer

Obviously, you can only buy this creamer at Trader Joe’s, and if you’ve shopped there you’ll probably guess this is the least-expensive option. It’s a good one, although it does contain cane sugar in addition to coconut milk. Each tablespoon contains just five calories, one gram of carbs and no fat.

Ripple Original Plant-Based Half-and-Half

No relation to Fred Sanford’s favorite wine, Ripple makes a dairy-free creamer with a pea protein base. That may sound odd, but it makes for an even frothier cup of coffee once you add it. Sunflower oil isn’t an ideal additive, though. 20 calories, two grams of fat, and less and a gram of carbs per tablespoon.

Not Dairy-Free But Still Good

We wanted to finish with two excellent creamer choices that aren’t necessarily dairy-free or even non-dairy coffee creamers – but worth considering if avoiding milk isn’t your most important consideration.

  • Super Coffee Super Creamer: This is one more good choice for keto dieters, because Super Creamer contains coconut MCT oil. It also contains cream and whey protein concentrate, though. 

Coffee-Mate Natural Bliss: Coffee-Mate has been around forever, but more recently they introduced their Natural Bliss line of products. Some, like the Almond Milk Sweet Crème, are plant-based and non-dairy; others like the Classic Caramel, are made with milk, cream and cane sugar, but still low in saturated fat.

Written by Liz Moore

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