What the heck is COFFEE-MATE, anyway?

COFFEE-MATE was introduced in 1961 as the first “non-dairy creamer” on the market, and today it remains the most popular such product in the world. Manufactured by Nestlé out of Glendale, California, COFFEE-MATE comes in over 25 flavors including gingerbread, Parisian almond crème and peppermint mocha.

But what the hell IS COFFEE-MATE? Mostly, it’s sugar and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (which contains trans fats). So why does the label say, “trans fat free?”

And why in the world do people drink this stuff?

COFFEE-MATE is a fine example of an ongoing American trend towards “foodstuffs” instead of food. Chocolate-flavored candy instead of chocolate. Processed cheese substance instead of cheese. Non-dairy creamer instead of cream. Who cares about the quality of food, as long as you can buy a LOT of it for a little money? Unfortunately, this is the attitude of many Americans today – but what is the real price of eating foodstuffs instead of food?

Cream, by definition, is a dairy product, and therefore a product labeled as a “non-dairy creamer” is obviously… what exactly? In many parts of the world, COFFEE-MATE must be called not creamer but “whitener,” as the label of “cream” misleadingly implies a dairy product.

Whether you call it whitener or creamer, one thing is probably true; you don’t know what it is. No one seems to know what gives COFFEE-MATE that creamy texture without any dairy.

The first tip-off that something is amiss in the world of COFFEE-MATE is that the product’s ingredients are not listed on its website.

For the following list, I went to the grocery store and wrote them down in the dairy aisle, because it is impossible to find a solid list online.

Until now:

Ingredients of COFFEE-MATE Original (Liquid):

Water: H20

Corn syrup solids: Used mostly in imitation dairy foods, corn syrup is a type of sugar (mostly dextrose) that is made from cornstarch.

Partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil: All partially hydrogenated oils contain high levels of trans fats, which are brutal to your body. These cheap, human-tweaked fats were adopted heartily by grocery manufacturers in the 1970’s, a move that some say helped to kick off the American obesity epidemic. Soybean oil is perhaps the worst, as some contend that it depresses the thyroid gland and lowers your energy level.

However: COFFEE-MATE is legally allowed to say it is “trans fat free” because the serving size is so small. But don’t be fooled: COFFEE-MATE contains trans fats!

Sodium caseinate: A milk protein that contains no lactose, stabilized to have a longer shelf life. It is a major component of cheese and provides many nutrients and essential amino acids.

Mono- and digycerides: Simply put, these are fats. They are emulsifying agents used to extend shelf life, and you will often see them in foods that also contain trans fats. In fact, some nutritionists are calling them “the next trans fats.”

Dipotassium phosphate: Also known as phosphoric acid, this water-soluble salt prevents coagulation and is “generally regarded as safe” by the FDA – aka it’s been in use since the 50’s.

Carrageenan: Extracted from red seaweeds, this food additive is a type of vegan gelatin and has been in use for hundreds of years.


Why do people even drink this stuff?

Besides a decades-long marketing campaign from one of the world’s largest grocery conglomerates (Nestlé), COFFEE-MATE’s stout sweet flavor covers up the taste of badly or over-brewed coffee – of which there is plenty in this country.

Non-dairy creamer is good for the lactose-intolerant who can’t live without whitening their coffee. And as many American’s palates seem to be stuck in childhood, a preference for sweet drinks like soda grips many adults long after they should have their fingers out of the sugar bowl.

COFFEE-MATE can last two years with no refrigeration, and stays fresh for two weeks once opened – working well in offices where items rarely get put back into the refrigerator. However these minor conveniences don’t make up for the fact that you are putting vegetable oil into your coffee. Ready for another cup?

COFFEE-MATE actually has more calories than half-and-half, with the original powdered version clocking in at 30 calories per tablespoon vs. real half-and-half at 20 calories per tablespoon!

If you have been a COFFEE-MATE consumer but want to change your ways, there are far better options for your coffee:

1. Learn to love it black. Give up the cream and sugar entirely – you’ll save heaps of calories per year, and after a few weeks I guarantee that you will not miss the added sweet. Save those calories for chocolate cake!

2. Try cream – REAL cream or half & half. Just a dab will brighten your coffee and cut the sharp flavor.

3. Use a creamer made from real dairy, such as La Crème, which uses naturally flavored, rBST- and lactose-free ingredients.

4. Keep it vegan and use natural non-dairy alternatives like organic almond or hemp milk.

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image: Terry Johnston