We've all heard sayings like:
"Don't talk to me until I've had my coffee."
"Coffee: the most important meal of the day."
There are thousands of coffee sayings and memes, and they all serve to underscore one particular point: we need our coffee. Coffee is the nectar that drives us, the ambrosia that keeps us going.
Coffee is also abrasive, bitter, and dark. Most of the coffee you get, whether it's from McDonald's on the way to work, from a K-cup in the office, or from a bag of grinds in your own coffee maker, is over-roasted, bitter, and difficult to drink.
Now, you can solve this in two different ways. True coffee aficionados will tell you that the bitterness comes from improper preparation, that you need to buy whole beans roasted lightly and carefully, ground fresh when you want them, and prepared in whatever the favorite method of the person you're talking to happens to be. French press, cold brew, centrifugal optimization, whatever other nonsense.
Who has time for that?
It's fine if you do. Most of us, though, we're half-dead in the mornings and we just want to do as little as possible to brew up a cup. We'll take that dark and bitter beverage, and we'll adulterate it with sweeteners and creamers to lighten it up instead.
There's just one problem: some of us are health-conscious as well. We recognize that coffee itself is relatively healthy, in that it doesn't have calories, just flavoring compounds, caffeine, and other chemicals. When we add creamers, though, that's when the calories go up.
A single cup of coffee, black with no additives, has zero calories. A white chocolate mocha from Starbucks has almost 600 calories. Most Starbucks drinks, in fact, range between 200 and 600 calories depending on their size. When you're trying to stay below 2,400 calories per day, that's as much as 25% of your daily calories in one beverage.
Now, you're pretty unlikely to be adding a bunch of steamed milk, flavoring syrups, sugars, and other stuff to your coffee every morning. At that point, you're barely getting the coffee anyways. Still, though, if you don't like black coffee but you need something in the morning, creamers are the way to go.
A creamer lightens up coffee, tones down the bitterness and adds a bit of sweetness, without adding too much volume. All you need is a tablespoon or two of a given creamer, and you're off to the races.
So, if you want to balance out calories with sweetness, you have to figure out where to draw the line. What can you add to your coffee as a creamer, without adding too many calories? We have a bunch of suggestions.
What to Look For in Creamer Ingredients Lists
Before we get into specific creamers you can try, let's talk about what you should look for, or rather, what you should avoid in your creamers.
Trans Fats. Obviously, you want to avoid trans fats anywhere you can. Unfortunately, some creamers – particularly the rich, whole fat creamers – are packed full of them. You'll want to check the nutritional labels for your creamers and make sure you're avoiding these as much as possible.
Excess sugar. A little bit of sugar isn't really all that bad, but sweeteners for coffee are often packed to the gills with more sugar than you would have thought was even possible to saturate them. You can go for artificial sweeteners instead, but be aware that some of those aren't necessarily any better for you.
Carrageenan. This ingredient is a chemical extracted from seaweed, and is used primarily to bind dairy proteins together to emulsify and thicken. This makes creamers thicker and richer, almost the same way gelatin does. Unfortunately, it has also been shown to cause inflammation and can trigger or exacerbate bowel diseases. It's also largely unnecessary.
Now let's talk about the kinds of creamers you can use, or at least give a try to see if you like them. Remember, a lot of these creamers will have a certain kind of flavor attached to them, so if you don't like it, you don't have to force yourself to use it. Just look for a different one on the list to try; you're sure to find something you like.
1: Half and Half
Alright, so, we have to mention this one even though it's not a very low-calorie option. Half and Half is a mixture of 50% whole milk and 50% heavy cream, and it's absolutely excellent at being "a rich dairy you mix into your coffee." It's rich, it's fatty, and it's high in calories compared to basically every other option. So why is it on this list?
Two reasons. The first is that, honestly, it's healthier than a lot of the more artificial creamers you find on the shelves. It's not as healthy as most of the rest of the items on this list, but it's still pretty good, on the scale of things. It's also generally organic and natural, rather than artificial.
Second, you don't need much of it. Because it's so rich and fatty, a little goes a long way. You don't need to drown your coffee in it to overcome the bitterness, you only need a little bit.
That said, half and half is also useful in other recipes, so keeping some on hand to use in your coffee – even if you're just doing it as an occasional treat instead of a daily additive – can be perfectly fine.
2: Oat Milk Creamer
Oat milk is generally made of a mixture of oats and rapeseed, the same plant from which canola oil is made. You can get a creamy, neutral, or vanilla-flavored version of this creamer to add body and a dairy-like mouthfeel to your coffee without actually using dairy. Alternatively, there are a variety of oat milk creamers out there with other flavors, like cinnamon.
Oat milk is a healthy alternative to dairy as a vegan option, though it's far from the only option on this list. You'll see a lot of plant-based milk alternatives show up here because almost all of them are healthier than your usual artificial creamers.
3: Skim Milk
Skim milk is great for when you want that real dairy in your coffee in the morning, but you don't want all the calories associated with half-and-half or with whole milk. Skim milk doesn't have as much fat in it, so it's not as hearty or as thick as whole milk, but you still get some, which is a great way to help your body get more vitamin D.
One of the primary downsides to skim milk, in fact, is the lack of milk fats. Studies have shown a correlation between skim milk and higher waistlines and weight. Current theories suggest that this correlation is due to the lack of fat. Skim milk is less satisfying, so people drink more of it – or snack more on other foods – and thus end up consuming more calories. Whole milk is more satisfying and keeps you sated longer.
Of course, that doesn't happen as much if the reason you're drinking more is from the caffeine of the coffee, not the milk itself. If you know you're going to drink three cups of coffee every morning regardless of what's in it, you should go for the lower calorie option.
4: Coconut Milk
You can get coconut milk in two different ways for your coffee; as a creamer or as raw coconut milk. Coconut milk itself often comes in cans and is often very thick and potent. A little goes a long way. As a creamer, you can get coconut milk from brands like So Delicious, which uses a mixture of coconut milk and sugar, water, and some preservatives to thin it out and make it work better in coffee.
Remember that coconut milk has a very strong coconut flavor. Some people aren't a fan of that flavor, so if you don't like it, you should probably avoid any of the coconut-based milk alternatives. The flavor stands out, even in coffee, so it's difficult to get over.
5: Almond Milk
Using almond milk as an alternative to dairy milk is one of the oldest options on the market. All these others, like oat milk, are relative newcomers to the field. As such, there are hundreds of different brands and styles of almond milk and almond creamers you can use.
Personally, we like almond milk as a creamer because the subtle almond flavor doesn't stand out as much as coconut milk, but it's still a richness that adds to the coffee instead of detracting from it.
6: MCT Oil
MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides, and it's most commonly a sort of processed form of coconut oil, without the coconut flavor. MCTs are easily digested and processed, so they do a great job of fueling the body. MCT oil adds a lot of body to coffee, though it doesn't do a lot to alter the flavor, just dilute it some.
You may have seen this recommended before as a form of Keto coffee, often called bulletproof coffee. MCT oil alone can be a great coffee additive, but remember that it works best with this specific diet and may not be for everyone. You end up with a pretty heavy beverage, which might be too much for some people.
7: Hemp Milk
Hemp milk is not really new, but it's starting to rise in popularity after people like Dr. Oz picked it up to recommend it. Normally we're a little skeptical of his claims, but in this case, hemp milk is pretty tasty and works as a good alternative to dairy milk.
Hemp milk is low in saturated fat, but high in unsaturated fats that are great to give you omega-3s. The milk itself is light and nutty in flavor, almost like a pine nut taste, and it works great in coffee. It's also very sustainable since hemp is a naturally grown plant that requires very little water and can be sustainably farmed.
The only downside of hemp milk is that it has a relatively low amount of protein, less than oat or soy milk and much less than dairy milk.
8: Rice Milk
When you rinse rice and wash away the starch, you get a white, milky substance. This is not rice milk. Rice milk is actually the whole rice grain, soaked and blended, along with some additional ingredients to stabilize and flavor it. You can make rice milk yourself if you want, though it might be more work than you want to go through just for creamer for your coffee.
Rice milk is a good option because it comes loaded with carbs, which give you energy, but can throw off a low-carb diet plan. Unfortunately, it has very little protein or fat; it's basically just a liquid grain.
There are a bunch of different creamers on the market that mix up more than one of the above ingredients to make a more robust, flavorful creamer. For example, Califia Farms has a "better half" product that is a plant-based half and half replacement. It mixes together both almond milk and coconut cream.
Nothing stops you from mixing small portions of more than one kind of creamer to create a flavor profile and texture that suits your desires in your morning coffee.
Our favorites on this list are tied between almond and oat. Almond milk can be a little lower calorie than oat milk, but it can also have more sugar.
We've covered a bunch of alternative creamers here, but there are a lot more on the market.
If you make a creamer yourself out of milk alternatives or buy one of the commercially available creamers, what do you prefer? Leave us your recommendations in the comments below!