9 facts about the ‘secret’ ingredient in dairy-free whipping creams

How well a cream can be whipped depends heavily on fat – both the cream’s fat content and its fat globule structure. Dairy whipping creams typically contain about 35 percent fat, which is the optimal amount of fat for achieving  smooth and creamy  yet structured whipped cream. So, how is it possible to produce a dairy-free alternative without compromising on ease of whipping and foam stability? The answer lies in getting the mix of emulsifiers and stabilizers just right.

Healthy living at lower cost

Dairy-free whipping creams are becoming commercially popular because of their improved functionality and the significant cost advantages they offer. They allow food manufacturers to reduce the fat content of recipes, catering to an increasingly health-conscious market. And from a cost perspective, dairy-free whipping creams offer better cost-in-use calculations compared to their dairy counterparts because vegetable fat is a lot more affordable than dairy fat.

As a result, there has been an increase in the availability of vegetable fat-based creams, often referred to as non-dairy, dairy-free, imitation, or topping creams and used frequently in desserts and for cake decorating.

Chemistry of components

Dairy-free whipping cream is a liquid oil-in-water emulsion, which can be whipped into a stable foam. The foam consists of air bubbles dispersed in a serum phase. It typically contains vegetable fat, milk proteins, sweeteners, water, emulsifiers and stabilizers.

Emulsifiers are important in making dairy-free whipping creams, but it can be a challenge to grasp their role. Here are nine facts to help you understand how they work to make great non-dairy whipping creams: 

  1. Emulsifiers are surface active ingredients due to their hydrophilic (water-loving) and lipophilic (fat-loving) properties.
  2. ‘Surface active’ refers to the emulsifier’s ability to locate and then function at the interface between the oil droplets and the serum phase – or, in the case of whipped cream, between the air and serum interface. Put simply, emulsifiers lower the interfacial tension between two different phases.
  3. The main role for emulsifiers in non-dairy whipping cream is to destabilise the fat globule membranes that are formed during homogenisation. This is crucial for building the structure and distributing air cells when the cream is whipped.
  4. It’s a challenge to create a product that is both storeable in a stable, uniform liquid cream form, and also easily whipped with good foam stability. Emulsifiers improve the foam stability by destabilizing the stability of the liquid cream by destabilizing fat globule membranes in the liquid cream phase. They then stabilise the air cells that are created when the liquid cream is whipped.
  5. Several types of emulsifiers are used in dairy-free whipping creams, because they each contribute different individual properties that come together to form the ideal mixture. Typical emulsifiers that are used include Lactic acid esters of mono- and diglycerides (Lactem), lecithin, Diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides (Datem) and sodium stearolyl lactylate (SSL).
  6. Protein plays an important role in emulsion formation and structure building for whipping creams. When the liquid cream is in storage, emulsifiers displace proteins covering the fat globules
  7. In commercial scenarios that require protein-free ingredients, the right emulsifiers and stabilizers can fill in the role that protein plays in whipping cream. Dessert applications, for example, often have a technical reason for going protein-free. Mixing fruit or fruit flavour ingredients into the cream can lead to protein denaturation), causing undesirable appearance texture and mouthfeel.
  8. Emulsifiers can be used to generate the desired firmness in a whipping cream.
  9. Protein-free emulsifiers can be used to produce whipping creams that avoid milk protein or dairy allergens and to make them suitable for vegans.
The secret ingredient

It’s a challenge to produce a dairy-free whipping cream with all the properties food manufacturers and consumers want. Yet it is do-able with the right mix of emulsifiers. 

It is unlikely that many people understand the technical detail behind how emulsifiers work or have a sense of their use in hundreds of applications. Emulsifiers are the hidden ‘miracle workers’ in our everyday lives. These nine facts reveal the secret behind how emulsifiers work in dairy-free whipping creams – and this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what they can do.