A stroll down the refrigerated aisle of your local grocery store will quickly reveal shelves upon shelves of different types of creams and creamers.
Whether you want to whip up some homemade ice cream or add a hint of sweetness to your morning coffee, there’s a world of possibilities.
Heavy cream, half-and-half and coffee creamer are three of the most popular options. However, each has a distinct nutrient profile and list of culinary uses.
This article takes a close look at the similarities and differences between heavy cream, half-and-half and coffee creamer, including the unique uses for each.
They Are Different but Have Similar Uses
Heavy cream, half-and-half and coffee creamer are distinctly different products, but they do share some similar contents and uses.
Also called heavy whipping cream, heavy cream is the thick, high-fat cream that rises to the top of fresh milk. It’s skimmed off during the manufacturing process.
Many food manufacturers help speed up this process by using tools called separators, which accelerate the separation of milk and cream.
Cream is graded according to its fat content, and most countries have specific standards for what defines heavy cream.
Although cream is typically the only ingredient found in heavy cream, it’s also sometimes combined with thickeners like gellan gum to improve its consistency.
Much like heavy cream, half-and-half is a dairy product.
It’s made by combining equal parts cream and whole milk, resulting in a product that is thinner and lower in fat than heavy cream.
It also has a much lighter taste and mouthfeel, which can be useful in many types of recipes.
In addition to milk and cream, half-and-half sometimes contains additives, such as carrageenan, which help enhance the texture of the final product.
Fat-free varieties of half-and-half are also widely available and typically made by combining skim milk with corn syrup instead of cream, resulting in a fat-free product that is higher in added sugar.
Unlike heavy cream and half-and-half, coffee creamer is dairy-free.
Although the ingredients can vary by brand, most coffee creamers are made from a combination of water, sugar and vegetable oil.
Coffee creamer is usually heavily processed and loaded with added sugar.
Some popular types of coffee creamer can contain up to 5 grams of added sugar in a single serving. That’s more than 1 teaspoon of sugar.
Other common additives are used to boost the taste and texture of coffee creamers, including carrageenan, cellulose gum and artificial flavorings.
However, there are many varieties of coffee creamer that may contain different ingredients. They may be sugar-free, fat-free, powdered or flavored.
Summary Heavy cream and half-and-half are dairy products produced through different processes. Coffee creamer is usually made from a combination of water, sugar and vegetable oil.
Differences in Fat and Calorie Content
One main difference between these three ingredients is their fat content.
Because heavy cream is made from the high-fat cream found in fresh milk, it is the highest in fat. It typically contains 36–40% fat, or about 5.6 grams per tablespoon (15 ml) (2).
On the other hand, half-and-half is made from a combination of cream and milk, so it contains substantially less fat.
Most types of half-and-half contain less than half the fat of heavy cream, consisting of 10–18% fat, or about 1.7 grams per tablespoon (15 ml) (3).
While the fat content of coffee creamer can vary based on brand, it’s typically slightly less than that of half-and-half. One tablespoon (15 ml) of coffee creamer contains approximately 1.5 grams of fat (4).
Given their varying fat contents, each ingredient contains varying amounts of calories.
Heavy cream contains the most fat and calories of the three, with one tablespoon (15 ml) containing about 52 calories (2).
Meanwhile, 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of coffee creamer contains about 30 calories (4).
Half-and-half is the lowest in calories, with about 20 calories per tablespoon (15 ml) (3).
What’s more, the types of fat in each ingredient may have different effects on the body.
Milk fat, such as that found in heavy cream and half-and-half, has been shown to have minimal effects on heart health (5).
Summary Heavy cream is the highest in fat and calories. Half-and-half and coffee creamer contain similar amounts of fat, but coffee creamer often contains more calories. The types of fat they contain also have different health effects.
They Taste Different
In addition to their nutritional differences, these ingredients taste different.
Heavy cream is thick and has a rich flavor, but it’s not very sweet, as it doesn’t contain any added sugar.
Half-and-half tastes similar to milk, but it’s creamier and a bit more flavorful.
Coffee creamer is high in added sugar and much sweeter than both half-and-half and heavy cream.
You can find numerous flavored varieties of coffee creamer, such as French vanilla, butter pecan and pumpkin spice.
Summary Heavy cream is very thick with a rich flavor. Half-and-half is similar to milk but more creamy. Meanwhile, coffee creamer is much sweeter than either dairy option and comes in many different flavors.
They Each Have Unique Uses
While they share similarities in nutritional content, heavy cream, half-and-half and coffee creamer have distinct uses in the kitchen.
They can be added to recipes to boost the flavor and texture of many dishes.
You can use this rich, incredibly versatile ingredient to make homemade sour cream, butter or ice cream, or to thicken cream-based sauces and soups.
Thanks to its high fat content, it’s also ideal for making whipped cream and stable enough to hold its shape well.
Certain types of cheeses like paneer and ricotta can also be made using heavy cream, along with a few other ingredients.
You can also try using heavy cream in your next batch of buttermilk biscuits, pudding or quiche for a rich and flavorful final product.
People often use this lighter option to enhance the flavor of cereal or sweeten hot beverages like coffee and tea.
You can also use it to add creaminess to scrambled eggs, pasta sauces and even desserts.
If you have a recipe that calls for milk and cream, you can use an equal amount of half-and-half as a substitute.
Keep in mind that half-and-half is much lower in fat than heavy cream, meaning that it’s not a suitable substitute in recipes that require whipping.
However, you can try combining 1 cup (237 ml) of half-and-half with 1 tablespoon (14 grams) of melted butter to increase the fat content to make whipped cream.
This dairy-free creamer is available in many varieties and flavors.
People often add a splash or two to their coffee to add sweetness and enhance taste.
Coffee creamer can also be mixed into hot cereal, hot chocolate or tea.
If you’re feeling creative, you can try drizzling it over fresh fruit or use it in place of water in your favorite pancake recipe to boost the flavor.
You can also use unflavored coffee creamer as a dairy-free milk substitute in soup or mashed-potato recipes.
Summary Heavy cream can be made into whipped cream and used to add thickness to many recipes. Half-and-half and coffee creamer are often added to hot beverages or used to add flavor to other recipes.
Which One Is Best?
So which one should you stock up on during your next trip to the grocery store?
If you’re looking for a product that can be used in cooking, heavy cream is the most versatile. It can be used to make many different dishes, including soups, sauces and desserts.
However, for an ingredient that can sweeten your favorite drinks, half-and-half may be the healthier option.
Not only is it lower in calories than coffee creamer, but it’s also less processed, contains healthier fats and is less likely to contain additives and extra sugar.
Be sure to opt for regular half-and-half, rather than fat-free or flavored varieties, and check the ingredients label carefully to minimize your intake of added ingredients.