Americans wouldn't dare start their day without a hot cup of coffee. While many take their coffee black, many are looking for sweeteners or creaming agents to add extra flavor.

Kimberly Decker, Contributing Editor

November 1, 1999

26 Min Read
Making a better coffee creamer.jpg

According to the New York-based National Coffee Association's 1997 "Winter Coffee Drinking Study," 49% of Americans wouldn't dare start their day without a hot cup of joe. That works out to an average of 3.3 cups per person per day! And while many of those coffee drinkers take their brews black, the fact that 63% of them add a sweetener and/or creaming agent underlies a trend toward a kinder, gentler java.

But today's coffee drinkers, increasingly unwilling to settle for plain old cream and sugar, demand more from their coffee whiteners. They want choices with upscale, specialty flavors, convenience, and smooth creamy textures, and they often want them without a high caloric cost or any dairy ingredients, to boot.

Birth of a creamer

Non-dairy creamers - complex oil-in-water emulsions, often lightly sweetened or flavored - originally arose as alternatives to perishable, and expensive, dairy products. But even non-dairy creamers have the fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and pH levels that, under proper conditions, make them fine microbial breeding grounds in their own right. So, manufacturers began producing creamers as powders and heat-treated liquids.

Powdered creamers can thank their low water activities for their longer shelf lives. Oddly enough, though, a powdered creamer begins its "life" as a liquid emulsion that processors subsequently spray-dry. According to Lee Huffman, Ph.D., technical service manager, NZMP (North America), Santa Rosa, CA, "you can't take, say, the powdered dry ingredients and add the liquids and then the lipids, and just mix them together and get a powdered coffee creamer. You literally have to make the liquid emulsion and then dry it."

Chuck Werstak, research and development manager, Kerry Ingredients, Beloit, WI, notes that since individual ingredients contain bacteria, and since the emulsion's water provides a heat-sink that holds temperatures below 212°F to 230°F during spray-drying, processors subject even those emulsions destined for drying to preliminary HTST processing.

Processors had to wait for UHT processing to become economical and consistent enough to make the production of liquid creamers with longer shelf lives feasible. A UHT-treated creamer, when packaged in a clean - but not sterile - container, will have a shelf life of about two months, according to Werstak. UHT treatment wipes out pathogens and their spores, but non-sterile packaging materials contain spoilage organisms that proliferate under the right conditions. These kinds of creamers must stay cold. But combining UHT processing and aseptic packaging gets more shelf-life mileage, and makes these creamers shelf-stable.

Making opposites attract

In addition to the ravages of spoilage bacteria, loss of essential emulsion stability turns a smooth, opaque creamer into an unappetizing mix of fats, liquids, proteins, and sugars. In creating this emulsion, manufacturers make an artificial cream that wouldn't even remotely resemble the real thing were it not for that reduced tension at the oil/water interface.

The emulsion also contributes mouthfeel. "When an oil-in-water emulsion is made, texture has also been created," says Werstak. "By virtue of making the connection between fat, water and protein, oiliness will be reduced, resulting in enhanced texture and mouthfeel."

And, according to Tom Gottemoller, manager, dairy beverage applications, protein specialties division, Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM), Decatur, IL, "the better the emulsion, the better the product is going to whiten your coffee." He stresses that the emulsion's ability to withstand combinations of heat, acid and water hardness will make or break the creamer.

Most of a creamer's ingredients, if not taking part in the emulsion itself, help keep it together. Sodium caseinates, mono- and diglycerides, lecithin, sodium stearoyl lactylate (SSL) and polysorbate 60 - the ingredient lists present a veritable who's who of emulsifiers. But why so many? "You've got a mixture of those emulsifiers because while sodium caseinate alone, for example, gives a stable emulsion, it is not as stable as when you put the other ingredients in," explains Huffman.

Each emulsifier has its own individual properties, and creamer designers can choose the right ingredients for their particular applications only after they develop a solid understanding of all the options.

Casein combinations

You won't find anything more "dairy-sounding" in a non-dairy creamer than caseinates. Even though caseinates are indeed milk derivatives (see below "A Non-dairy diary" for more details), they contribute no lactose, and thus keep creamers off the blacklist of lactose-intolerants.

Casein, an insoluble dairy protein, precipitates from dairy whey at pH 4.6, and provides the basis from which manufacturers produce caseinate salts. Most coffee-creamer makers start with insoluble dairy casein, and produce the caseinate salts from precipitated casein. This yields liquid caseinates - sodium, calcium, and potassium caseinate, for example. "Caseinate production is another science in itself," notes Huffman. "Industrially, companies take the raw casein and add their own knowledge of how to make the properties they want."

A Non-dairy diary

With caseinates' prevalence in non-dairy creamers, some consumers - and even some technologists - may wonder how a milk protein ends up in a non-dairy food. Well the answer lies in the complexities of food regulatory history.

"Caseins originally came into the U.S. market in approximately the 1940's and they came in under what was called a 'technical label' that allowed them to be used in paints, cements, and things of that nature," says Lee Huffman Ph.D., technical service manager, NZMP (North America), Santa Rosa, CA. That early distinction later evolved into the "non-dairy" classification that applies to foods today. Caseins and their salts remained quietly defined as such for both domestic and imported foods until the National Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990 stepped in to stir things up a bit. As a result, products containing casein or caseinate still get a non-dairy label - the proteins were "grandfathered-in" as non-dairy, notes Huffman - through their ingredient statements must now include the qualifier "(a milk derivative)" following the caseinate citation.

Since most people's beef with dairy products stems from their lactose intolerance, many labels, as an added reassurance to consumers, note that the caseinate contributes no lactose. "It's really a potential point of confusion," Huffman says, "because until recently with the new labeling law, people really didn't have an understanding of what the caseinates in the creamers were." The more detailed ingredient declaration makes it clear that consumers with lactose intolerance can still include caseinate-containing creamers in their coffee without fear of gastrointestinal repercussions.

Lest product developers and the creamer-consuming public think that caseinate's lactose-free nature safely whisks it out of the food-sensitivity woods, they must still consider the possibility of protein allergies. People do have actual allergies to certain proteins, including casein, and the NLEA put these labeling regulation into effect partly to inform allergic individuals about the potential protein allergens in foods.

But the NLEA labeling regulations fall short when it comes to identifying kosher products. Although the label says non-dairy, under the laws of kashrut - the dietary regulations that direct whether or not foods are kosher - the presence of milk-derived caseinates makes creamers dairy foods, and thus not permissible for consumption with meat. To make a creamer pareve, or "neutral" according to kosher laws and thus admissible for consumption with either meat or dairy, processors can substitute soy proteins for the dairy-derived variety.

Caseinates contribute opacity, solubility, heat stability, a mild dairy flavor and rich mouthfeel, and - most importantly - the superb water- and fat-binding characteristics that make them common creamer emulsifiers. They emulsify so well because of their structure - a random coil with a hydrophobic head and hydrophilic tail. Structural differences appear at the level of the various salts, such as between sodium caseinates and calcium caseinates, for example.

Calcium ions, with their dual positive charges, associate with casein molecules to create caseinates that exhibit more cross-linked interactions than do sodium salts. Thus, the casein-to-casein interactions occurring between calcium caseinates create larger, almost micelle-sized molecules that don't orient as well on fat globules, and thus don't emulsify as efficiently as do the smaller sodium caseinates.

Additionally, says Huffman, "depending on how the coffee creamer is made, it might end up with extra calcium caseinate, and the calcium caseinate itself does not form a true solution." Unlike readily soluble sodium caseinate, it forms a colloidal suspension that doesn't quite cut it when it comes to emulsifying a coffee whitener. Huffman recommends including sodium salts in straight coffee creamers because of their superior emulsifying ability. Furthermore, the small amount of sodium doesn't even show up on nutritional labels.

But caseinates do more than just maintain emulsion stability. In milk, small casein-coated fat globules reflect light, giving an opaque, white appearance. The caseinates in non-dairy creamers, by coating the creamers' fats, achieve this same light-reflecting effect. (Incidentally, this principle explains why titanium dioxide appears in so many low-fat creamers. The lower concentration of caseinate-coated fat globules necessitates its addition for correct opacity.) Milk-derived caseinates also give creamer flavors a noticeable dairy note that, says Huffman, "makes sense" in the finished creamer.

Food designers must consider that caseinates have individual acidity ranges within which they remain in solution. So they must consider not only the effect of the acidity, but also of the coffee. Huffman points out that both coffee's acidity and the relative hardness of the water can throw a wrench into the solubility equation. "Part of coffee-creamer technology is knowing how to balance the buffers in such as way that the creamer stays stable under all those conditions of heat, different pH values, and different minerals," she says. As a buffering aid, most creamers contain phosphates - usually dipotassium phosphate - for stabilization.

When the acidity balance tips too far toward one extreme or the other, "feathering" results. Fortunately, pH's effect on creamers doesn't get much worse than this; incidences of actual caseinate curdling have virtually disappeared. Furthermore, the same random-coil structure that makes sodium caseinates such great emulsifiers renders them relatively heat-insensitive, so neither processing's or coffee's heat will damage the proteins' structure.

Suppliers also offer ready-made caseinates in non-agglomerated or agglomerated powders. Instantizing caseinates, however, is often a moot point, because the proteins normally go into large commercial equipment that handily produces the shear forces and heat needed to blend caseinates with the other ingredients. "Depending on each company's proprietary know-how, some of the product might even be added into the oil for easy dispersion, rather than being dispersed into the water," says Huffman.

Still, the finished creamer powders, particularly the cold-water soluble ones, may undergo some form of instantizing or agglomeration to ensure that they disperse smoothly and completely in consumers' drinks. Often, simply controlling the size of the spray-dried particles confers easy-dispersion properties to the powder.

Caseinates with a kick

For a different spin, NZMP offers high-calcium caseinates that differ from traditional salts. These still maintain the emulsion, while carrying extra calcium in carbonate form. They open the door to calcium fortification of creamers, which have heretofore defied this action.

Usually, calcium caseinate contains about 1.2% calcium. The high-calcium form contains a full 15% - more than 12 times as much. Calcium carbonate contains about 40%, so in comparison, this pumped-up milk protein packs a wallop. An average 2-gram serving of creamer made with a high-calcium caseinate has as much calcium as 8 oz. of milk.

In addition to boosting the calcium content, the proteins can also cut the creamer's fat in half, since they create opacity. As Lynne Kjelsberg, senior food scientist at NZMP, explains, "fat gives a lot of opacity. And the calcium in high-calcium proteins is providing that opacity too because it's so finely suspended - not solubilized."

The extra calcium in the high-calcium caseinates also softens coffee's bitterness, according to Kjelsberg. While this could become a liability in flavored creamers - necessitating a bit more vanilla in the formula, for instance - a panel that Kjelsberg conducted internally at NZMP preferred the flavor of coffee whitened with the half-fat/increased-calcium creamer to that whitened with standard off-the-shelf creamers.

Calcium's insolubility, and the tendency for its salts to precipitate out of liquid systems, had been the challenge. But Kjelsberg and others have devised a way to load more calcium onto a calcium caseinate that can stabilize the creamer emulsion and resist feathering. She still cautions, however, that "this product will not stay suspended indefinitely," particularly in liquid creamers. "The calcium is attached to the protein, and though the protein portion is soluble, the calcium is inherently insoluble," and the bound calcium will do some settling over time.

Betting on soy futures

For some protein-allergic or vegan consumers, any caseinate is too much. To serve that market segment, manufacturers can remove all dairy proteins from the formula and rely on the remaining emulsifiers; or, they can include soy-protein isolates.

Soy proteins and caseinates have one important commonality - they both play critical emulsification roles in non-dairy coffee whiteners. Powdered soy-protein isolates - about 90% protein on a moisture-free basis - replace dairy-protein emulsifiers in non-dairy whitener applications more often than do soy-protein concentrates, which normally contain 70% protein per dry weight, in addition to insoluble fiber.

When it comes to actually manufacturing a coffee creamer containing soy, the emulsification, spray-drying, and heat treatments employed also closely resemble those used with dairy-protein-based creamers. Gottemoller does caution creamer designers to step up the buffering capacity of soy-based creamer matrices to take into account soy creamers' slightly greater tendency to feather, however.

Like caseinates, these isolates remain relatively unaffected by processing temperatures, although the heat of a cup of coffee coupled with coffee's low pH can pose a threat to their solubility, and thus affect the emulsion stability.

A striking difference between soy-protein isolates and caseinates lies in their flavor, with the soy-based products taking on a significantly more pronounced, less-dairy-like flavor than the caseinate-containing creamers. Plant breeding practices and better processing techniques have given manufacturers much milder tasting soy-protein isolates. But creamer designers can also turn to a number of flavors that mask soy.

While soy proteins can stabilize emulsions in regular, low-fat, and nonfat coffee creamers, Gottemoller says, "I have not seen a low- or nonfat coffee whitener made from soy at this point because, from what I've seen on the low- and nonfat labels, there's not a whole lot of protein in them." The reduced-fat versions more often employ titanium dioxide to create opacity.

The supporting cast

Gottemoller remembers a time when manufacturers formulated liquid creamers with 1.5% to 2.0% caseinates. When casein prices shot up during the mid-1980s, they used as little as 0.25% caseinates by moving to "beefier" emulsifier systems. Enter higher levels of mono- and diglycerides, polysorbate 60, SSL and lecithin. Carefully crafted combinations of these ingredients, specifically targeted to liquid, powdered, shelf-stable or refrigerated creamers, give the emulsion the staying power it needs. But to choose the best combination, product designers have to know the conditions the creamer encounters.

For example, "to create the simple oil-in-water emulsion found in dried products, usually mono- and diglycerides and lecithin will suffice," says Werstak. Mono- and diglycerides, in addition to caseinates, play the main emulsifying role in powdered applications. Whether using distilled monoglycerides (classified as at least 90% monoglyceride) or a mono- and diglyceride combination (normally 40% to 50% monoglyceride), formulators need to find the correct balance that gives necessary emulsion stability and mouthfeel.

Polysorbate 60 and SSL usually only make an appearance in liquid creamers. "At times, these liquids may be frozen, so the sodium stearoyl lactylate will provide a greater freeze/thaw stability than normally provided by certain monoglycerides alone," Werstak notes. Gums, such as carrageenan, and corn syrup can also confer stability upon liquids.

Additionally, products that don't undergo spray-drying's rigors "can be made much less expensively because they never leave the liquid state," says Tom Diehl, vice president of research and development, Diehl Inc., Defiance, OH. This allows manufacturers to use different ingredients, such as soy proteins and polysorbate 60, to achieve very different emulsions from those in spray-dried products. "We wouldn't get a very good emulsion with soy proteins if we spray-dried the product, but they give an excellent emulsion when the product remains liquid," notes Diehl.

Lecithin contributes its own specific benefits to a creamer. A functional mixture of phospholipids, lecithin is a byproduct of soybean-oil processing. "When you get crude oil from soybeans, you must do further refining of the oil. And during that refining process, you have to remove the phospholipid fraction - or lecithin - from the oil to make the oil clear," explains Fan Zhang, research manager of oils and lecithin, Riceland Foods, Inc., Stuttgart, AR. While solvents extract the oil from the soybean, manufacturers use water to hydrate the lecithin and separate it from the resultant oil. "Once you get the crude lecithin, you add more oil to make it fluid, pourable, and easier for people to handle." Lecithin processors also manufacture deoiled lecithin in a powdered or granular form, which delivers the phospholipid in a more concentrated form than does the fluid.

In powdered creamers, lecithin acts as an instantizer, making them soluble even in lukewarm coffee. Agglomerating the powder creates coarse particles with increased surface area for hydration. But if the powder's interfacial components are either strongly lipophilic or hydrophilic, they will either resist wetting and dispersion, or will hydrate so quickly at the surface that a barrier forms, blocking water from hydrating the center. This is lecithin's cue. "Lecithin more or less adjusts the penetration of the coffee into the creamer," notes Zhang. The emulsifying properties of its hydrophilic polar head and hydrophobic fatty-acid tails improve wetting of the creamer powder, helping it dissolve readily and maintaining flowability.

Lecithination of agglomerated creamers occurs after spray-drying of the finished powdered creamer, and can proceed via three methods. When using a fluid-bed dryer, manufacturers dissolve the lecithin in the oil phase and then spray it onto the agglomerated powder, where it creates a thin lecithin coat. They can also incorporate the lecithin by adding it to a spray solution, often along with liquid corn syrup, and spray-drying that onto the powdered creamer. Finally, lecithination can take place in a blender in which processors dry-blend the lecithin with the powdered creamer and agitate at 60°C until the lecithin evenly coats the particles' surfaces.

Whether creamer processors choose to work with liquid or powdered lecithin depends mainly on the type of processing equipment they have, says Zhang. Those using fluid-bed dryers usually go with the fluid - containing more than 35% oil - to blend with oil and spray onto the powdered agglomerate. Powdered or granular lecithin, on the other hand, only has about 2% oil, which gives it the ease of handling and resistance to oxidative rancidity that both Zhang and Don McCaskill, director of research and development at Riceland, say make it more and more popular than the liquid version. "Even though our liquid lecithins are fluid, they're still very viscous and sticky, and can create a big headache to measure and clean up in a plant environment," McCaskill says.

McCaskill points out some added benefits lecithin brings into the reduced-fat equation: "Lecithin has been used in other products as a fat-sparing component, where it helps maintain the creamy mouthfeel and other properties associated with fats. So it can potentially function in that role even at low usage levels."

Rounding out the mix

All these emulsifiers wouldn't have much of a job were it not for a non-dairy creamer's fats - ingredients that substitute for dairy fat and contribute texture, flavor and opacity. Low- and nonfat formulas aside, most non-dairy creamers contain a generous amount of fat - normally between 35% and 50%. However, a creamer's relatively small serving size makes getting large doses of fat from amounts normally used pretty unlikely.

"You can make creamers with just about any oil, and the choice in many cases is consumer-driven," Werstak says. Thus, non-dairy creamers contain any number of oils in a variety of degrees of hydrogenation, including coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils, as well as soybean, cottonseed, safflower and canola.

Canola oil, with its image as a heart-healthy fat, appears to be a great consumer-oriented choice, and its stability has given it a good reputation with food professionals. Dick Shen, research and development technologist at Diehl Inc., notes that canola oil comes as close to simulating coconut oil as a non-tropical oil can.

Further hydrogenation would render canola and other oils even more stable for creamers, but might damage their label appeal. Functionally, "what hydrogenation does is two- or threefold. Mainly, it hardens the oil by increasing its melting point. And in the case of a very unsaturated oil, as is soybean oil in its original state, it adds stability, helping reduce rancidity," explains Werstak.

But new seed hybrids have given us high-oleic sunflower, safflower, and canola oils that exhibit reduced levels of polyunsaturation - making them less prone to rancidity - as well as reduced levels of saturation. "So you get much higher levels of oleic fatty acids," says Werstak, "providing 65% to 85% unsaturated oils, some of which require no hydrogenation." However, these modified oils often lack the firmness, texture and plasticity of hydrogenated oils.

Diehl Inc. recently developed a more healthful, "natural" creamer containing sunflower and high-oleic canola oils instead of hydrogenated fats, in addition to wheat proteins and lecithin, which makes the product very non-dairy indeed. Although it provides an excellent, trans-fatty acid-free option for creamer consumers, it just doesn't have quite the same richness as would a creamer containing more highly saturated fats.

When incorporating fats into creamers, processors need not worry much about pH - the relatively neutral creamer environment poses no real threat to fat stability. However, if the creamer pH shunts too high, fat saponification may result; too low, and coconut oils hydrolyze to yield soapy characteristics. Another caveat for processors working with coconut or palm kernel fats is that active lipase enzyme from any flour or spices in the formula will cleave lauric, palmitic, or myristic acid chains, forming soaps. Similarly, stearic or oleic fatty acids from soybean oils hydrolyze to yield a rancid flavor and aroma.

When choosing fats, processors must balance consumers' organoleptic desires with their fervor for healthful ingredients, while at the same time juggling processing tolerances and ever-present economic concerns.

Sweet surprises

Not surprisingly, when most coffee drinkers groggily grab the creamer for their early-morning coffee fix, issues of fat and emulsion stability or protein functionality don't weigh heavily on their minds. Instead, the deepest thought consumers give their creamers more likely concerns its taste.

The caffeine that makes coffee such an early-morning lifesaver often sets the standard for bitterness. And most coffee drinkers like it that way, to a degree. True, some seem more apt to have a little bit of coffee with their morning sweetener, but most prefer just a mild sweetness to take the edge off coffee's sharpness.

For that reason, the average powdered coffee creamer has only moderate sweetness, resulting from the presence of corn-syrup solids with dextrose equivalencies (DE) in the relatively low range of 20 to 24, says Stephanie Wang, dairy applications specialist, Cerestar U.S.A.'s Food Application Center, Hammond, IN. In fact, she notes that for powdered applications, corn-syrup solids serve not so much as sweeteners, but rather as bulking agents. For this reason, some traditional coffee creamers don't contain corn-syrup solids at all, but rather maltodextrin. In comparison to corn-syrup solids, maltodextrins have more body, provide more texture, contribute less sweetness, and offer reduced risk of browning, if any, notes Mike Augustine, director of food ingredient applications, A. E. Staley Manufacturing Company, Decatur, IL. "They are intermediate viscosity products. They are not as thin as a sweetener, and not as thick as a starch. So it gives you the ability to control and modify solids and mouthfeel without having to affect the sweetness or the browning," Augustine adds.

"Companies making liquid coffee creamers can use liquid corn syrup, but some still choose to use the dried powder because it's cheaper to ship; you're not shipping a lot of water. And you can always reconstitute the corn-syrup solids in the right proportion of water later," Wang says. Forgoing corn-syrup solids entirely in favor of maltodextrin saves manufacturers even more, while effecting only a slight reduction in DE - from the 20-to-24 range down to maybe 17, give or take a couple points, Wang says.

Economics aside, reduced hygroscopicity also makes low-DE corn-syrup solids an attractive choice. Sweeteners with a higher DE absorb ample atmospheric moisture, causing clumping and caking in a powdered creamer. Normally, low-DE solids reduce the creamers' moisture-grabbing nature enough to keep caking at bay. But processors may still add anti-caking agents such as silicates or tricalcium phosphates to creamers destined for particularly humid markets.

Not all coffee creamer developers want to stick with a mildly sweet profile, however. A greater sweetness has proven popular with consumers, especially since sweetness and the flavors typically used in creamers tend to enhance one another. For greater sweetness, Wang notes that food designers must rely on more than just low-DE corn-syrup solids. Thus, they normally turn to sugar to pick up the slack.

Economics, along with subtle differences in sweetener profiles, guides product developers in choosing the sugar. For example, dextrose has a slight cooling effect that, if perceptible in a creamer, could add a whole new dimension. Maple syrup and brown sugar, both costly alternatives, provide sweetness while adding a very distinct flavor.

Formulators should focus on using non-reducing sugars in creamers that undergo UHT processing, since Maillard browning of reducing sugars could darken the product. For example, sucrose hydrolyzes to fructose and glucose in solution, liberating reducing groups prone to Maillard browning. Fortunately, many flavored creamers already have a brown tint added to "match" the named flavor and any caramelized sugars would likely blend in. Augustine cautions that too much browning from the reaction with reducing sugars can cause off-notes that might be offensive to palates not accustomed to cooked-milk type flavors. He adds that a reducing sugar such as high-fructose corn syrup can be used at a low level in a creamer system in conjunction with maltodextrin, which results in a balanced system of sweetness and body without the detrimental affects of browning.

High-intensity sweeteners provide an option for developers of reduced-calorie creamers, although Wang cautions that "especially when using the high-intensity sweeteners, you have to use maltodextrins because when you take away the sugar, you remove even more bulk." Sometimes, the amount of maltodextrin necessary adds enough calories to defeat use of the high-intensity sweetener. Furthermore, heat from UHT processing could break some of them down.

Lower-calorie polyols, on the other hand, not only remain stable at high temperatures, but also replace sugars in a one-to-one ratio, cutting calories as well as caramelization and caries, since polyols contribute to neither browning nor tooth decay.

Flavor savor

A recent Colombian coffee commercial poked fun at the hubris of those who like their decaf double mochas with a "twist of Madagascar cinnamon," but America's favorite Colombian coffee grower and his donkey sidekick can snicker all they want, because the trend for "gourmet" flavored coffees is here to stay.

Brown flavors with undertones of caramel and butter have the right balance of richness, sweet notes, and body to tame coffee's bite. Consumers can choose from nutty options such as butter pecan and vanilla hazelnut, or from increasingly popular liqueur flavors including the old stand-by's Irish cream and Amaretto.

  Another up-and-coming trend for creamers that Bob Barrera, manager of flavor applications and development, Bell Flavors and Fragrances, Inc., Northbrook, IL, has noticed involves a growing demand to use those flavors traditionally used on the beans. This means more creamers with chocolate, raspberry or cinnamon in the starring role, for example.

The popularity of combination flavors - apricot cream with a touch of almond, for instance - can complicate this dizzying flavor scenario even more. Barrera recommends that creamer developers approach flavor houses with a particular profile in mind. The flavorists can then custom-blend component notes for product developers to mix to their own liking. This works best, because flavor pros know when certain notes that don't immediately seem well-suited to coffee, such as quince or peanut butter, can really create a balanced overall effect. "When I give my flavor to customers, they might not know that there's a pineapple note in there, or that an Irish cream sometimes has a chocolatey note to it. That's what makes each flavor different," Barrera says. These hidden flavors often make important contributions to the finished profile that folks less familiar with flavor chemistry might overlook.

The nitty-gritty of actually incorporating flavors into non-dairy creamers also requires significant flavor savvy. Barrera describes two common methods of flavoring powdered creamers: "Most of the customers I know just work with powdered flavors as another ingredient in their creamers. But a second way to do powders is to plate a liquid flavor onto a powdered creamer base and then add some kind of drying or flowing agent so it's not too wet."

In this plating process, manufacturers place a previously dried powdered creamer in an industrial blender, introduce a liquid flavor during mixing, and continue agitating until the liquid flavor distributes completely with the powdered creamer. Appropriate desiccants then restore flow to the powder.

On the other hand, when flavoring liquid creamers, manufacturers simply add the flavor - almost always as a liquid - to the rest of the ingredients while creating the creamer emulsion.

When looking beyond immediate flavor dispersal toward processing and long-term stability, creamer designers can choose a number of encapsulation technologies to increase a flavor's shelf life. But Barrera points out that "one nice thing about the spray-drying process is that it's not a complete encapsulation. So you actually have some exposed surface oils to help give you an aroma - you know how when you open the canister and you get that irresistible aroma?" Complete encapsulation in this case would inhibit the burst of fragrance.

Besides, Barrera stresses that flavor chemists design flavors with the ultimate process and product in mind, compensating for any highly volatile notes to ensure an ultimate balance. For this reason, product designers should not evaluate a flavor straight out of the bottle - what seems too peanutty on its own may give a completed creamer that unmistakable chocolate character.

Flavorists also consider coffee's acidity when formulating flavors for creamers, sometimes including dipotassium phosphate, acid toners, or particularly sweet flavors into the system to moderate acidity. These masking agents have their work cut out for them when put to use in soy-based, non-dairy creamers. "Soy flavor is always a challenge," notes Barrera, "because you have a beaniness and an astringency build-up" that become more pronounced nearer the last few sips of a drink. In Barrera's experience, sweet flavors, creamy notes, and vanilla in particular make the creamer's profile complex enough to push any beaniness into the background.

Flavors can also work with or enhance creamers' appealing constituents, as in the intensified overall sweetness that results when brown flavors and sweeteners synergize. And in low-fat or nonfat whiteners, cream and butterfat flavors, as well as mouthfeel-mimicking flavors, help make up for the lack of fat. But as the rage for entirely fat-free foods ebbs, so does the need to completely substitute for fat's flavor and textural profile. Consumers have increasingly found that a proper balance holds the key to healthy eating. Apparently it holds the key to perfectly flavored coffee creamers too.

The wealth of rich, candied creamer flavors, coupled with the technical know-how to smoothly incorporate those flavors into creamers, gives even the sleepiest creamer consumer something worth waking up to.

Kimberly Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a bachelor's degree in consumer food science with a minor in English from the University of California-Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and enjoys cooking and eating food in addition to writing about it.

About the Author(s)

Kimberly Decker

Contributing Editor

Kimberly J. Decker is a Bay Area food writer who has worked in product development for the frozen sector and written about food, nutrition and the culinary arts. Reach her at [email protected]

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