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In defense of coffee creamer

Coffee creamer isn’t the height of culinary sophistication, but it makes my mornings.
I love the stuff — what can I say?
I love the stuff — what can I say?TODAY Illustration / Getty Images stock / Delight

Every morning, I wake up parched, bleary eyed and in need of a good stretch. Rain or shine, I always begin my mornings with the same ritual: a brushing of the teeth, a scrub of the face and — of course — turning on TODAY as I get ready for the day ahead of me. (What? It’s really what I do.)

Before I sit down to watch my on-air colleagues Hoda Kotb laud the crunchy tilapia at Trader Joe’s or see Craig Melvin perfect his popsicle technique, I, TODAY’s own food reporter, commit what many may consider a cardinal culinary sin during my breakfast routine: I add a heaping glug of sweetly flavored creamer to my coffee. My poison, as some would call it: International Delight’s Caramel Macchiato.

As a human being who lives, breathes and consumes culinary excellence on a daily basis, I hesitate to call my wake-up drink a guilty pleasure, as I feel no shame in enjoying it. In fact, as I write this, an empty bottle of it sits next to me, with two more waiting in the fridge for future mornings. As a Person Who Works In Food, I enjoy the stuff unironically, even as the food elite may turn their noses up at me.

There are myriad souls on TikTok, Reddit and other social media sites that have decried adding of the not-actually-cream substance into a cup of joe. Some even go so far as to pour it down the drain for their own personal reasons.

In addition to the “coffee should be enjoyed black” purists — of which there are still 1 in 5 Americans, according to a 2022 YouGov poll — there are now a swath of folks who suggest making coffee creamer at home from scratch — but no, thanks. I have liquid gold in my fridge already.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like the taste of black coffee. Like other folks who have formed parasocial relationships with their favorite NPR hosts, I drink my fair share of the stuff, and have enjoyed roasted bean juice sans sugar in cortados, doppios and Americanos.

I have quite a daring palate, which comes with the territory of trying foods both wild and wonderful as part of my milieu — but coffee with a splash of my preferred creamer is comfort to me, like a warm, caramel-scented blanket.

International Delight is almost as old as my 40-year-old self, first founded in 1987. While I didn’t make my way to coffee until my adult years, drinking Cafe Bustelo as a (very energetic) teen, International Delight, with its seven-syllable name, holds the distinction of being the very first liquid nondairy creamer to be put on the market. Of course, the company wasn’t the first to create what we now know as creamer.

All the way back in the 1940s, at Henry Ford’s Carver Laboratory, Bob Smith and Holton W. “Rex” Diamond developed a soy cream substance that could be mixed with coffee, ostensibly creating the very first coffee creamer, and starting our country's coffee cups on a path that leads directly to the PSL.

Later, after other powdered creamer products hit the market in the early 1950s including “Pream” and “Mocha Mix Coffee Creamer,” the first commercial nondairy creamer and the first product with the words “coffee creamer” in its name, Coffee-Mate hit the scene in 1961 and became the tops. Today, Coffee-Mate is the top-selling creamer in the nation, followed by International Delight. 

In the search to understand my own love for creamer, I took a look at one of my bottles, and that got me thinking about the name. Although delightful to me, is it really “international”? I asked my dear European friend about it. She used to live stateside but now lives in her hometown of Dublin, Ireland.

“We like our coffee to taste like coffee. We just drink it black or with milk,” Corrina O’Brien tells me, adding that for most people in Europe, Starbucks is the only place to get flavored coffee syrups of any kind. She says the lack of flavored coffee is actually a bit of a sore spot for some folks in Europe, and the fact that it is a frequent discussion point on Reddit backs up this claim. “It’s not a thing over here.”

Ignored as it may be internationally, it’s still my “mug’s BFF” as it’s printed on the bottle. Still curious, I ran an informal poll among my TODAY colleagues, and of the 12 folks polled, 25% found creamer to be “gross,” while a whopping 42% found creamer to be a delicious treat. Some folks polled said it was a “special treat” or that they were “creamer obsessed.”

One of my colleagues said, “Yes, it is gross because it’s very sweet and full of chemicals (some of which are banned in other countries) but it still delicious and I use it!!! America!”

The only party I hadn’t spoken to yet was the very source of my morning joy, so I reached out to International Delight for more information.

“Coffee is a special moment in people’s days,” Kallie Goodwin, vice president of marketing, coffee creamers for International Delight’s parent company Danone North America, tells me.

“We’re delighted to deliver exciting creamers that consumers will love and can’t be found anywhere else,” Goodwin says. “With so many flavors and innovations along the way — including our ready-to-drink Iced Coffee options too! — we’re proud to be one of America’s leading coffee & creamer brands, offering your favorite flavors since 1987.”

Further, a representative for International Delight tells me the company’s most popular flavor is French Vanilla, comprising nearly 30% of the brand’s total sales, particularly amongst Gen Z and millennial customers. More than a quarter at 26.5% of this demo make French Vanilla the first flavor they try. My go-to creamer flavor, Caramel Macchiato, takes a silver medal as International Delight’s second best-selling creamer.

Looking into our recent past, many of us turned to at-home coffee making when the world shut down in 2020. According to a 2021 report from the National Coffee Association USA, 85% of coffee drinkers were having at least one cup of coffee at home per day. 

I personally picked up a new coffee maker (and a french press and a pour-over) while we were all quarantined, and while folks were perfecting their sourdough recipes and having a glass of wine in their pajamas over Zoom with friends, I decided to delve into coffee culture. To start, I tried just about every creamer on the market. 

As we all know, the flavor innovations in this food category have truly gone off the deep end in many ways. I’ve tasted — and am still tasting — it all over the years: Peeps-flavored creamer, Peanut Butter & Jelly Flavored Duo Creamer from Coffee-Mate, flavors like Fruity Pebbles, Girl Scout Cookie, gingerbread, eggnog, chocolate chip cookie, Cinnabon, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, cinnamon churro — which all tasted different, I promise — and, of course, pumpkin spice-flavored creamer, which I have tried from every brand out there.

Some (or many) of these creamer flavors may lead one to believe the powers-that-be have gone mad, but whatever they put in a bottle next, it likely won’t change the drink I’ve found makes me smile the biggest after all that experimentation.

These mornings, my preferred coffee is a medium roast (Holler Mountain hive rise up) with a dash of cinnamon added to the grounds before steeping. This, plus a bit of International Delight, makes the perfect potion for my ceramic cauldron. I cast a spell on myself, brewing up a little more optimism for my day, no matter what anyone else thinks.