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When Americans say "Would you like cream in your coffee?", do they mean powdered creamer (milk or milk-substitute)? Basically what South Africans know as Cremora or do they put heavy or double cream in their coffee? Is cream some sort of collective noun for any type of dairy that is put into coffee?

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    There's also light cream (≈UK single cream) which is more likely, and half-and-half (50% light cream, 50% whole milk), which I believe to be the answer. Being neither American nor a fan of dairy in my coffee, I'll leave it to the experts to provide something definitive. I have a suspicion that "cream" could occasionally turn out to be milk, but maybe only when cultures clash. Creamer on the other hand is a substitute for the real thing, and a poor one unless you can't have dairy. See US Dairy - types of cream
    – Chris H
    Feb 1 at 12:03
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    @ChrisH "Cream" pretty much never means milk in the US because we would just say "milk". If you're at most restaurants and you ask for "cream" you're more likely to get half and half than anything else, in my experience. I've never seen anyone get milk when asking for cream. Feb 1 at 16:00
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    @ToddWilcox fair enough - though in your example you could make some
    – Chris H
    Feb 1 at 16:11
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    @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact I think it's because it's lactose-free that they can get away with it. Big international brands just don't care. Similarly Maggi (Nestlé) coconut milk powder has the same cow's milk derivative in it (sodium caseinate - the labelling on their website is clearer than the pack I bought a while ago). It's probably the same dairy derivative in all non-non-dairy creamers.
    – Chris H
    Feb 1 at 16:16
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    American in English cafe: "Could I have a coffee without cream, please?" Waitress: "I'm sorry. We have no cream. I could give it to you without milk?"
    – Transistor
    Feb 2 at 22:26

4 Answers 4

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There's no consistent answer to this, as you can see from the comments below there's it's slightly contentious.

Usually cream when offered with coffee refers to either half and half (half milk and half light cream, about 12% fat) or a non-dairy liquid creamer like Coffee Mate. The half and half could be fresh, or in little single-serve containers in which case it's probably UHT so it doesn't require refrigeration. Non-dairy creamer is almost always in single-serve containers.

Less likely it could also mean light cream or very rarely heavy cream. If it's powder people will usually say it's creamer.

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    This is generally right, but I'd emphasize that (in the US) "cream" means "half & half" or "fluid non-dairy creamer" the vast preponderance of times by putting that first. Then allow for the possibility of other options (milk, light cream etc.).
    – Dave
    Feb 1 at 17:15
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    @Dave, I have lived in the U.S. all my life, and I have decades of coffee drinking behind me. "Cream" never means "fluid non-dairy creamer" to me. But half & half, yes, that's absolutely what I would expect in the context of coffee. I do take cream (i.e. half & half) in my coffee, and I will accept non-dairy creamer as a substitute if necessary, but I do not call any form of the latter "cream". Feb 1 at 20:39
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    @JohnBollinger if there's a little bowl of plastic creamer containers on the restaurant table, they'd be referred to as "cream" even if they're non-dairy creamer. Or at least that is my experience.
    – Dave
    Feb 1 at 20:56
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    @Dave, I don't doubt that there is variation in usage, not only regionally but among individuals. That's what the question is about, after all, and it's in fact my point. Your claim is too strong. I do not contest that some in the U.S. will understand "cream" exactly as you describe. But it's not correct to generalize that to the whole population, nor to such a large majority that it is reasonable to ignore the minority (not to stipulate, however, that the others are a minority). Feb 1 at 21:38
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    I can chime in to support the "significant variation in usage" position, as someone who will readily interpret "cream" as broadly as "anything you put in coffee that makes it light".
    – David Z
    Feb 2 at 8:10
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tl;dr: "cream," means heavy cream or half-and-half.

For context, I live in the US.

If you visit my house and ask for cream in your coffee, I will give you heavy cream. I suppose it is possible to find light cream in the US but this is so exceedingly rare in a normal supermarket that we'd normally say it doesn't exist.

Half-and-half (approximately 1:1 cream and milk) is very common and it used in many restaurants to replace cream. It is common largely because it gives much the same feeling in one's coffee as cream but is significantly better on the health. If I had this, I would give it to you and consider it equivalent to cream.

If I didn't have cream but I had milk, I would tell you that. Most likely, I would offer by milkfat percentage I have available: whole, 2%, 1% or skim.

If I didn't have milk, I would tell you what else I have that may substitute. Lactose-free milk is increasingly common and even more so non-cow milks such as almond, oat, coconut, etc. (Soy milk, on the other hand, has nearly disappeared from American supermarkets due to an irrational fear of soy products.)

I would not offer you creamer, mostly because I drink my own coffee black and I don't ordinarily have fresh creamer on hand. Much of the creamer available in this country is sweetened and artificially flavored, French vanilla and hazelnut being very common. I have met social groups where putting this sort of creamer in your coffee is de rigueur but I cannot recall anyone who has ever called this, "cream."

In some (American) circles, "creamer," is of the dry-powder variety, which can vary from the dry version of fresh creamer to simply powdered milk of some variety. It is sometimes sweetened and often not made of any ingredient that began its life as cow milk. In any case, if all I had was powdered creamer, I may offer it to you but only with significant disclaimers.

I do not frequent Starbucks or any other coffee shop. Perhaps someone who does, or someone who works at one, can shed some light as to their corporate standards for this. There are may Americans who consider what Starbucks does to be both the original and definitive way of serving coffee.

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    "I suppose it is possible to find light cream in the US but this is so exceedingly rare in a normal supermarket that we'd normally say it doesn't exist." - I don't know who "we" are, but in my region of the US light cream is very easy to find beside the regular cream in normal supermarket, and in about equal quantities. Feb 1 at 18:42
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    I've seen it in grocery stores in the East Coast (MD), Midwest (MI) and Mountain West (CO). So maybe it's just not easily available on the West Coast? Feb 1 at 21:46
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    In any Starbucks I have ever been to, if you say "cream" you will get half and half. They do usually have many other things available (different fat levels of milk, plus many non-dairy milk alternatives), but if you wanted one of those you would have to specify that. Feb 1 at 21:49
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    @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas I was raised in NYC, never saw it in a store there except for specialty stores. I lived in Denver, don't remember ever seeing it at King Sooper. I live in Texas now, I've never seen it at HEB, although you can get pretty much anything at Whole Foods or Central Market (both also locally based). Not saying it's impossible to find, just that it's not a normal thing. Feb 1 at 23:23
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    @StephanSamuel My local King Soopers in Denver carries it regularly. Maybe it's not as commonplace as, say, half&half or whipping cream, but it's definitely not impossible to find. Feb 2 at 18:39
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Based on my experiences as a coffee drinker who has lived in 5 US states and drunk coffee in at least 14 others, here's the things they could be offering you in order of probability/common use:

  1. Half-and-half
  2. Full-fat milk
  3. Liquid non-dairy creamer
  4. Dairy heavy cream
  5. Some form of non-dairy milk (such as oat milk or soy milk)

While liquid non-dairy creamer is the most commonly used of the above, most of the time Americans distinguish between it and "real cream"; they would be more likely to say "creamer" or a brand name than calling it "cream". However, some people and some regions make less of a distinction. Also, creamer is more likely to be called "cream" if no other options are available, such as in many workplaces.

At the same time, non-dairy milks might be offered, but outside of certain venues (e.g. vegan restaurants) the host is most likely to distinguish them from "regular cream".

There's a couple of cultural reasons why Americans are usually careful to distinguish between dairy and non-dairy options. One is that we have a strong national dairy industry and there's some dairy pride. The second is that a lot of Americans have lactose intolerance, so hosts want to make sure they know that non-dairy options are available.

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    Notably the probability/order shifts depending on where you are. A fancy coffee shop probably offers a lot of nondairy milks, so they're likely to be more precise/literal. A big chain probably has a single default. A diner is more likely to use non-dairy creamer (and to provide it individually packaged).
    – Cascabel
    Feb 1 at 22:59
  • @Cascabel yeah, and the diner would have the creamer (or sometimes shelf-stable cream servings) available on the counter without asking.
    – FuzzyChef
    Feb 2 at 0:38
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Cream for coffee means "table cream" or "light cream" like this:

https://www.safeway.com/shop/product-details.960422635.html?productId=960422635

But it is common to say "cream" for half-and-half or artificial creamer, unfortunately.

By US law, "cream" is defined as:

Cream means the liquid milk product high in fat separated from milk, which may have been adjusted by adding thereto: Milk, concentrated milk, dry whole milk, skim milk, concentrated skim milk, or nonfat dry milk. Cream contains not less than 18 percent milkfat.

while "half and half" is defined as:

Half-and-half is the food consisting of a mixture of milk and cream which contains not less than 10.5 percent but less than 18 percent milkfat. It is pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized, and may be homogenized.

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  • Can you post a synopsis of the link?
    – Neil Meyer
    Feb 2 at 6:31
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    I've never heard of that product before. I would accept it as "cream", but that's certainly not what I'm thinking of when I say the word. Feb 2 at 10:40
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    @JohnBollinger Canada is more clear about it. Cream that is 18% milk fat is the standard cream for coffee. obviouslygoodmilk.ca/en/products/creams/lucerne-18-coffee-cream If I was at an upscale restaurant that's what I would expect them to give me if I asked for cream for my coffee.
    – DavePhD
    Feb 2 at 13:09
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    Well me, too, more or less, though that 18% MF cream would more typically be called "half & half" everywhere that I have lived in the U.S.. Feb 2 at 14:25
  • @JohnBollinger I use half-and-half at home, but it is usually lower fat, 10% milk fat is specified in Canada: sealtest.ca/en/products/creams/half-and-half-cream-10
    – DavePhD
    Feb 2 at 14:28

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