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The time has come. You have to start a diet.
Some people would choose a low-carb diet like keto or paleo. Others might try eating plans like WW (Weight Watchers) or the Mediterranean diet.
And almost all would begin by limiting the amount of sugar they eat.
There are, of course, an enormous number of sugar-free products on the market. To many dieters, they can seem like a lifeline.
“Sure, I have to cut down on the sugar in my diet – but how bad can it be? There’s sugar-free salad dressing and ketchup, sugar-free jelly and lemonade, even sugar free cakes, cookies and candy. I’m good!”
Not so fast.
Some of today’s sugar substitutes are indeed a healthy, acceptable substitute for the added sugars commonly found in zero- and low-calorie foods that line supermarket shelves. Other sugar alternatives, however, are just as bad for you – or even worse.
That brings us to coffee.
Many people regularly add milk or cream to their coffee, but they may not realize that most dairy products contain a lot of sugar.
Lactose is actually a form of sugar, too; it’s often called “milk sugar,” and it’s loaded with carbohydrates. Cream’s loaded with calories, too. So even when dieters skip the teaspoon or two of sugar they’d normally add to their coffee, they aren’t going “sugar-free” or carb-free if they add milk or cream.
Eureka! Sugar-free coffee creamer seems like the perfect solution.
It can be – but more often than not, commercial sugar-free creamers cause their own health, wellness or dietary issues.
Let’s start from the beginning.
What Makes Coffee Creamer Creamy?
There are several reasons why people add milk or cream to their coffee.
- It tastes good.
- It cools the coffee down.
- It helps “cut” the acid in coffee.
- It makes the coffee’s consistency creamier.
A good non-dairy coffee creamer can do much the same thing when it comes to taste, temperature and acid. But how does a product without milk or cream make something “creamier?”
The answer might surprise you. In most cases, commercial coffee creamers contain a combination of oil and either sugar or corn syrup – and corn syrup is simply another form of sugar – to provide the familiar, thick consistency that mimics milk or cream.
We’ll get to the sugar in a minute, but let’s first talk about oil.
Oil in Coffee Creamers
Until recently, grocery-store creamers contained hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil. You may know that oil better as trans fat, an ingredient so unhealthy that’s it’s been banned from many products. It’s still present in lots of powder coffee creamers, though.
Most manufacturers have recently replaced the hydrogenated oil in liquid coffee creamers with “high-oleic” oil; high-oleic canola oil and high-oleic soybean oil are often used in creamers. They’re oils that have been specifically created from sources that are lower in saturated fat, and higher in monounsaturated fatty acids. That makes them healthier than hydrogenated oils, although they still do contain some saturated fat. In other words, they’re “better” for you, not “good” for you.
Sugar in Coffee Creamers
The major brands of coffee creamers, like Nestle Coffee-Mate and International Delight, put sugar into most of their products. Coffee-Mate creamer usually uses corn syrup, which is pure glucose extracted from corn. International Delight doesn’t even look for some sort of alternative; they add sugar to most of their creamers.
Needless to say, the “regular” product lines from these major manufacturers aren’t even close to being sugar-free – which is why they each sell separate lines of sugar-free creamers.
So what do they use as sugar substitutes in their sugar-free products? They mostly use artificial sweeteners – although there’s one important holdout. Coffee-Mate still uses some corn syrup, choosing to put an asterisk next to it on the ingredient list, saying: “adds a trivial amount of sugar.” Hmm – that’s not sugar-free, now is it?
Even so, Coffee-Mate, along with International Delight and the other major brands you might be familiar with, all put artificial sweeteners into their sugar-free creamers.
Sweeteners in Sugar-Free Coffee Creamers
The “Big 2” sugar-free commercial coffee creamers, Coffee-Mate and International Delight, each contain the two same artificial sweeteners: sucralose and acesulfame potassium. You’re probably familiar with the first one, but may not know about the second.
If you regularly use sugar-free coffee creamers that you buy in the supermarket – or the ones that are commonly served in restaurants and sit next to office coffee machines – you should know the facts about both of these sweeteners.
Sucralose is an artificial sweetener that is calorie-free, even though it’s actually made from sugar. It’s produced by changing the chemical makeup of sugar molecules, allowing it to pass through the body without being digested; that means it doesn’t contribute carbs or calories to the diet, and doesn’t affect blood sugar levels. That change also makes sucralose about 600 times sweeter than the sugar it’s produced from.
Even if you haven’t heard of sucralose, you probably know about (and have used) Splenda. The word sucralose and the brand name Splenda are often used interchangeably, but they’re really not the same. Explaining the reason requires a slight detour, but we think it’s important to understand the difference.
Sucralose is the primary ingredient in the sugar substitute Splenda. What most people don’t know, though, is that Splenda also contains a small amount of maltodextrin (a processed carbohydrate) and dextrose (a form of sugar). Why? Sucralose is so sweet that only a tiny amount is needed to provide the sweetness found in a teaspoon of sugar. The manufacturers have to use other sweet ingredients in order to make Splenda user-friendly. So sucralose is calorie-free and zero-carb, but Splenda isn’t.
With that bit of trivia out of the way, back to sucralose.
Sucralose is commonly used as a sweetener in all types of foods. That’s because in addition to being extremely sweet and zero-calorie, it also remains extremely stable when cooked, baked or frozen.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified sucralose as “Generally Recognized as Safe.” That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s the best choice.
First of all, research has shown that sucralose and other zero-calorie artificial sweeteners can stimulate the appetite, leading people to crave sugary foods that do contain calories. That’s borne out in the end result; studies show that most people who swap artificial sweeteners for sugar end up gaining weight, not losing it.
And even though sucralose is “safe,” that doesn’t mean there are no health concerns surrounding it. There’s some evidence that the substance changes the makeup of the gut microbiome, potentially causing inflammation that could lead not just to digestive system issues, but also to more widespread inflammatory issues ranging from joint pain to migraines.
This sweetener may sound more familiar when it’s described by its other names, acesulfame-K or Ace-K. Acesulfame-K is a synthetic sugar substitute marketed as Sweet One, and it’s not as sweet as sucralose, “only” 200 times sweeter than sugar.
Like sucralose, though, Ace-K is classified GRAS by the FDA, it’s calorie-free and doesn’t impact blood glucose levels, and it’s used to sweeten many “sugar-free” products because it’s a stable substance that holds up well to heat and cold.
There’s a downside, though. Like sucralose, it’s an artificial sweetener – meaning it could have a negative impact on weight and the gut microbiome.
Are there better alternatives to sucralose and Acesulfame potassium? Yes, and we’ll get to them after we finish dissecting the ingredient lists for popular sugar-free coffee creamers.
What Else is in Sugar-Free Coffee Creamers?
The other common ingredients found in non-dairy, sugar-free creamers aren’t as problematic for those on diets – but that doesn’t mean they’re ideal, either.
- Sodium caseinate or micellar casein: Each of these proteins is a milk derivative left after the lactose (milk sugar) is removed from milk. They’re theoretically left in most creamers in order to provide the protein that milk or cream would usually contribute. However, that means that even though the creamers are lactose-free, they aren’t dairy-free. That could be an issue for those allergic to milk proteins, and also means that most creamers aren’t vegan-friendly.
- Mono- and diglycerides (emulsifiers), dipotassium phosphate (buffering agent), natural and artificial flavors: These ingredients are all recognized as safe, but they’re either synthetic or “barely natural” products.
- Carrageenan: This is a controversial thickener commonly used in food. Once again, it has the FDA’s green light, but there are studies linking it to digestive system problems like bloating and diarrhea, as well as inflammatory diseases. A large number of advocacy groups, including Consumer’s Union, continue to push the FDA to reconsider its approval of carrageenan for those reasons.
At this point, you might be hesitant to use the popular brands of sugar-free coffee creamers. But it wouldn’t make sense to decide one way or the other without checking out their nutritional profiles first.
Sugar-Free Coffee Creamers and Nutrition
One of the biggest questions has already been answered, of course. Mainstream sugar-free coffee creamers (with the exception we’ve already mentioned, Coffee-Mate) are zero-sugar products and also cholesterol-free. They contain a small amount of carbs (one gram or less) and fat (1-2 grams) per tablespoon, substantially less than you’ll find in the companies’ regular products.
There’s a catch, though. The creamers all list nutrition facts per serving size of one tablespoon – but a real serving of these creamers is three tablespoons per cup of coffee. That means that using Coffee-Mate or International Delight sugar-free creamer would really add 3-6 grams of total fat to each cup. That’s very different.
It’s the same story for calories. The sugar-free creamers contain 15-20 calories per tablespoon, but a three-tablespoon serving would add 45-60 calories. Admittedly, that’s about half the calories you’ll find in their regular lines of creamers, but it’s still not ideal.
One final note: there are no other nutrients of note in sugar-free coffee creamers. No iron, potassium, calcium or vitamin D, for example, and even with the added ingredients they contain, no notable amounts of potassium or protein, either.
Let’s move on to one of the other reasons that people use creamer: taste. We finally have something positive to discuss.
Sugar-Free Coffee Creamer Flavors
When you’re shopping for sugar-free creamer at your local store or on Amazon, you won’t find the incredible assortment of flavors that the major manufacturers offer in their full-sugar product lines. No Almond Joy or Cinnabon sugar-free flavors from International Delight, no M&Ms or Cinnamon Toast Crunch sugar-free creamers from Coffee-Mate, and none of the exotic flavors you’d find in a Starbucks latte.
However, the selection you will find is pretty tasty.
- Coffee-Mate sugar free flavors: French vanilla, coconut crème, hazelnut, Italian sweet crème, chocolate caramel, chocolate crème, caramel macchiato and vanilla caramel coffee creamer.
- International Delight sugar free flavors: hazelnut, caramel macchiato, white chocolate mocha, pumpkin pie spice, and sugar-free French vanilla coffee creamer.
Commercial Sugar-Free Coffee Creamers: The Bottom Line
Are sugar-free creamers (or no-sugar creamers, as they’re sometimes labeled), a good choice for dieters?
Not necessarily. They may taste good and make your coffee creamy. They may contain no sugar (or, in the case of Coffee-Mate, “a trivial amount of sugar.” They may be better for you than creamer varieties with twice the fat and calories.
But if you’re really looking for milk and cream alternatives that are healthy choices to add to coffee, there are more sensible options.
Alternatives to Conventional Sugar-Free Coffee Creamer
We’ll break these down into categories.
Unsweetened Plant and Nut Milks
“Unsweetened” is the key word in this category, since many of the plant milks sold in grocery stores contain added sugar, flavorings or thickeners. Those ingredients will all add to the milk’s calorie and carb totals.
Hemp milk, oat milk, cashew milk, almond milk, pea milk and coconut milk are some of the choices to consider. You might have to get used to the somewhat-different flavors of these milks, but they’re delicious – they just don’t taste exactly like dairy milk. And they’re all sugar-free, of course.
Hemp milk is the best option, with just four calories, 0.3 grams of fat and zero carbs per tablespoon. Almond milk is close behind with zero carbs, two calories and almost zero fat. Coconut milk is perhaps the tastiest, but each tablespoon contains 35 calories and 3.5 grams of fat. (Coconut cream is even more carb- and fat-heavy, in case you were wondering.) They’re all healthy, though, and some also are rich in nutrients; hemp milk, for example, contains just as much nutritional value as dairy milk, with more omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Keto Coffee Creamers
You might not be following a keto diet, but don’t walk or scroll past the keto section when you’re shopping for sugar-free creamer. Several of them contain no sugar, are zero- or low-carb products, and provide additional health benefits.
NutPods is a very good choice, but we prefer Super Creamer from Super Coffee.
Super Creamer does contain a small amount of cream, but it’s sugar-free, relatively-low in carbs and fat, all-natural, and even gluten-free. It also contains several other ingredients you won’t find in commercial coffee creamers: enough milk protein isolate to add 10 grams of protein per serving, healthy MCT coconut oil that provides health and cognitive benefits, and the non-nutritive sweetener monk fruit extract.
This creamer is fresh and refrigerated, it’s available in coconut mocha, caramel, sweet cream, hazelnut and French vanilla flavors, and it’s sold in 25 fl. oz. cartons. In a nutshell, it’s sugar-free, delicious, and good for you.
Written by Liz Moore
Published: November 1, 2021
Last Updated: November 2, 2021
10 min read