Black coffee isn't everyone's cup of tea. Neither is cream for that matter. People use non-dairy creamer for all kinds of reasons: dairy allergies or intolerance, veganism, they're stuck in a hotel or conference room without a fridge and it's just there. Some folks actually prefer coffee creamer to actual dairy and hey—love what you love and don't apologize. But as you're popping foil tops off those little plastic tubs, ripping open packets of powder, or glugging your favorite brand into your mug at home, do you ever wonder what's in non-dairy creamer? Spoiler alert: There's a dairy derivative in there, along with plenty of other stuff that may (or may not) surprise you.
The word creamer is a clever way to dance around the fact that there isn't actually any cream in these so-called coffee whiteners, in the same way that a chocolaty product doesn't need to contain any chocolate. It's a collection of ingredients designed to mimic the taste and feel of cream while remaining shelf stable. For a hotel, office, or restaurant without tons of extra fridge space to spare or any margin for wasted, expired milk or cream, non-dairy creamer is a godsend, even if it may or may not be your particular flavor jam.
Here's the breakdown of a few major players.
International Delights coffee creamers don't contain lactose, but they do list contain sodium caseinate, a milk derivative, as an ingredient. The FDA classifies this as a non-dairy ingredient because the processing is different from that of other dairy ingredients, but this shelf stabilizing agent does make the product off-limits to vegans. The French Vanilla flavor also includes water, cane sugar, palm oil, dipotassium phosphate, natural and artificial flavors, mono- and diglycerides, sodium stearoyl lactylate, polysorbate 60, carrageenan, and salt.
The oil, mono- and diglycerides are there to boost the body of the creamer. The sugar and sodium stearoyl lactylate offer sweetness. Dipotassium phosphate keeps the mixture from coagulating, Carrageenan (a food additive that comes from red seaweed) staves off separation. Polysorbate 60 emulsifies, thickens, and stabilizes. These substances are all technically legal and edible, but no one's saying they're supercalifragilistically awesome for your system (quite the opposite in some quarters), so maybe don't go chugging down non-dairy creamer by the pint, mmmkay?
Original Coffee Mate in liquid form contains water, corn syrup solids, high oleic soybean and/or partially hydrogenated soybean oil and/or partially hydrogenated soybean and/or partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, sodium caseinate, mono- and diglycerides, dipotassium phosphate, artificial flavor, and carrageenan. Mostly the same stuff, but with corn syrup for sweetness instead of cane sugar, and some rather processed oils of various sorts.
The powdered variety of Original Coffee Mate contains much of the same stuff, minus the water, with coconut and/or palm kernel and/or soybean oil, sodium aluminosilicate to keep it from caking, and annatto, which is a pretty common coloring agent from the seeds of the achiote tree.
Hood Country Creamer, which you have more than likely seen in those individual little diner tubs, contains water, corn syrup, sunflower oil, sodium caseinate, mono- and diglycerides, sodium stearoyl lactylate and dipotassium phosphate.
Go forth and lighten your coffee knowledgeably. Or just learn to drink it black.