How Bad Are Coffee Creamers?

Untangling another case of labelling trickery

Since I moved out of my family’s house and started buying my own groceries, I was always mindful enough to stock up with coffee creamers. At first glance, they are excellent milk substitutes, especially when you take into account the fact that most of them are dairy-free. And although they never tasted as good, I was under the impression that they were superior to their carton counterparts due to the appealing low calorie-count and perceived convenience.

Coffee creamers usually also boast a long shelf-life and are very versatile. They mix easily into a cup of coffee, or tea for some people, or my personal favourite — hot chocolate.

Whenever I have friends come over to my place, I always end up making hot chocolate for everybody. They only ever take me 10 minutes to make, but people rave about how delicious and creamy my hot chocolates are. When I’m feeling particularly mischievous, I’ll make up a story about my family’s century-old hot chocolate recipe and make myself sound like a proper nutjob, but the 4-ingredient recipe is actually very simple and cheap: cocoa powder, hot water, hot milk, and a teaspoon of non-dairy creamer.

And people go head over heels for them. Naturally, I went crazy for them too. I observed that creamer-less hot chocolate could never taste as good, even if I had substituted the milk with more fancy brands. So up until fall of last year, I had been consuming non-dairy creamers with my mug of hot chocolate, every single morning.

That was until I came across an article about the dangers of coffee creamers. I opened the link and started reading it. As soon as I finished, I went to my kitchen cabinet and pulled out my jar of creamer. I quickly glanced over the labels, hoping desperately that the article was wrong about my creamer, or that mine was different. Alas, the truth was revealed, and my heart sank. I knew that the non-dairy label had duped me, and that I had to get rid of my powdered bleach, a term that the article had referred to creamers as.

This article set off a research quest to unravel the truth behind coffee creamers. If it wasn’t obvious to you, I wasn’t ready to part with my glorious hot chocolate mornings. But the deeper I dig, the more evident it became. Powdered non-dairy coffee creamers are bad and that’s a fact of life. After all, they are composed of highly processed chemicals and there’s nothing natural from them.

Crudely put, my coffee creamer was closer to Tylenol than it was to any kind of food. From a biological perspective, it should not even be considered food. Their chemical content is so high that a Mythbusters episode demonstrated how non-dairy coffee creamer can ignite an explosion — thanks to their sodium aluminosilicate additive.

The non-dairy, low-fat, sugar-free, (sometimes) vegan-friendly labels are deceitful tags placed by marketers and manufacturers to make it seem like what we’re consuming is beneficial for our health, when the furthest could be true.

A number of research and studies have backed this hypothesis. Dipotassium phosphate, which is used as a stabiliser and anti-coagulant in creamers, are also used as pH buffers in cosmetics and fertilisers. When consumed on a regular basis, they may potentially aggravate kidney damage and interact with certain medications.

Sodium Stearoyl Lactylates (SSL) are also sometimes used as a replacement to fats and sugars in non-dairy creamers, but the same chemical is used as a cleanser in cosmetic products. Consuming excess amounts of SSL can not only impair kidney function, but also cause a spike in sodium levels, which comes with another baggage of potential problems.

Some brands also contain high amounts of trans fats, which increases your LDLs (bad cholesterols) and simultaneously decreases your HDLs (good cholesterols). In turn, this can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. And while the recommended intake of trans fat is less than 2 grams a day, a teaspoon of non-dairy creamer can contain 1 gram of this nasty ingredient, that’s half our RDI.

And like all things in this world, not all creamers are created equal. Coffee Mate, which is considered by many to be the market leader in the coffee creamer playing field, is often misunderstood as being vegan-friendly. Although it may be true that there’s no real cream in it — hence being dairy-free — that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s vegan.

Coffee Mate is composed of an ingredient known as sodium casseinate. While only a very small amount is used (composition is usually less than 2%), they are not a vegan ingredient. They are derived from casein, which is a milk protein and a vital ingredient in the cheese-making process. Vegans beware.

Some brands of coffee creamers also like to add artificial sweeteners into the mix in order to give it a richer, more pleasant taste to coffee drinkers, which comes with its own set of health risks.

The overwhelming compilation of evidence slapped me hard on the face. My naiveté got the better of me for the past two years, but I knew I had to let go and say goodbye to my coffee creamer days.

I came to accept that in the case of coffee creamers, the risks far outweigh the benefits. The transition away from creamers was also a lot less painful than I imagined, considering alternatives were just as widely available on store shelves. For lactose intolerants and vegans, high quality dairy-free options such as soy milk and almond milk should be your best bet.

These options allow you to preserve the pleasant creamy texture of your cup of coffee without all the artificial additives. Do keep in mind that some brands like to add sugars or preservatives into the mix, so don’t forget to always check your food labels.

If you’re like me and don’t mind adding a bit of animal protein or lactose into your diet, then go for traditional pasteurised white milk. Although some will argue that cow milk is equally as bad, if not worse, than non-dairy creamers, they are at least less processed and therefore contain less artificial chemicals than their lactose-free counterparts.

As for me, I don’t think I’ll come back to my coffee creamers, even if it means I need to take a small compromise on the unforgettably endearing taste of my morning mug of hot chocolate.

Junior doctor, writer, photographer, and part-time social media strategist. Receive weekly updates from me ⤵

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