Nutrition at Starbucks

Nutrition at StarbucksTake a minute to imagine your ideal cup of coffee. If you’re like most Americans, what springs to mind may not be black coffee, but a rich mocha, steaming caramel macchiato, or whipped frappuccino. For many of us, a visit to Starbucks – or similar coffee joints – is a regular event, and we drink our customized lattes with pleasure.

But what are you really consuming? A cup of coffee? Or something more like a milkshake? I admit I love my trips to Starbuck’s, but most of their drinks contain one or more of these three worrisome ingredients: sugar, dairy products, and caffeine.


I knew a girl who worked as a Starbucks barista, and she told me that a white chocolate mocha was one of their most popular drinks. Fortunately for us today, the internet (and handy in-store brochures) take the guesswork out of nutrition and let us see, with brutal clarity, what we are really consuming. Compare a medium white chocolate mocha from Starbucks, and a hot fudge sundae from McDonald’s. Which would you say would be a healthier choice? If you’re like me, you probably guessed the coffee – how bad could it be? However, that medium Starbucks mocha has 59 grams of sugar (and 470 calories), while the hot fudge sundae comes in at “only” 48 grams of sugar and 330 calories!

The problem is that you think you just ordered a cup of coffee with a little sugar added. Nope, that mocha was your dessert! And it isn’t just the mochas – a medium Frappuchino, depending on the particular flavor, can have up to 65 grams of sugar; a medium green tea latte (sounds healthy, right?) has 55 grams, and their medium, plain hot chocolate has 40 grams. Even in their theoretically healthier options, danger lurks: a medium strawberry banana vivanno smoothie has 41 grams of sugar, and a “light” Frappuchino has 32 grams. Just for comparison, a 12 oz can of Coke has 39 grams of sugar, and a Hershey’s sundae pie from Burger King has 22 grams.

So what’s wrong with sugar? It raises your insulin, and high blood sugar and insulin cause diabetes. It’s also a major cause of cardiovascular disease and is implicated in vastly increasing your risk of cancer. It also hurts your brain functions – high blood sugar wears on the hippocampus (Wu et al. 2008) and eating large amounts of sugar is linked to relative cognitive impairment in older adults (Messier and Gagnon 2000). And all of that is not to mention – sugar makes you fat!


An allergy to dairy products is the single most prevalent allergy in my own nutrition practice. While I do tend to test people who are more likely to have allergies, at least 75% of the patients I test come up allergic to dairy. The reactions can cause digestive problems, sinus congestion, ear infections, and skin rashes. I have seen all of these symptoms completely disappear with the removal of dairy products from a patient’s diet.

Additionally, dairy itself has a negative effect on the body and immune system. Casein, the major protein in dairy products, promotes the growth of cancer tumors in rats (studies reported in The China Study, T. Coin Campbell, 2006, BenBella Books). Another study showed that even without a known sensitivity, increased consumption of dairy correlates with an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease (Park et al. 2005). Most (although not all) drinks at Starbucks contain some amount of milk, which contributes to overall consumption of milk products.


While this may surprise you, I’m not very concerned about the actual caffeine in the drinks. I accept it with few reservations in mindful amounts. Coffee, in and of itself (the caffeine, not the milk and sugar!) has rarely been linked to health problems. Increased coffee consumption is actually associated with a decreased risk for diabetes and Parkinson’s disease (Pereira et al., 2006; Ross, et al., 2000).

On the other hand, coffee is a high acid drink, and can irritate the stomach. Also, caffeine is a stimulant, and, while it may be helpful to increase your energy, it can make you nervous and jittery, plus disturb your sleep. But, in thoughtful quantities, caffeine is really not a health problem, per se.

So What Should I Drink?

Personally, I love Starbucks (and here you thought I never went in!) Because their drinks are so customizable, it is actually entirely possible to create a healthy drink. My own favorite drink is a decaf espresso macchiato – that’s a couple shots of decaf espresso with lots of foam on it, which I top with cocoa powder. I have my foam made from heavy whipping cream, which dramatically decreases the amount of casein, the milk protein (if you have a strong dairy allergy, that amount of cream could upset you, but it doesn’t bother me). I love it! With no added sugar, I find it delicious.

What are some other options?

Obviously, black coffee or espresso is great if you enjoy it. They have a variety of teas, both hot or iced, which are delicious (but be careful to specify “unsweetened,” otherwise you could be in for up to 35 grams of sugar!).

Since healthy choices begin with moderation, try just putting less sugar in whatever drink you order. Request your drink with half the pumps of syrup they usually put in. Better yet, order your drink completely unsweetened and add the sugar yourself – a teaspoon of sugar has 4 grams of sugar in it, and adding a few spoonfulls is still a lot less than what’s normally in a mocha. In terms of dairy products, try your drink with soy milk, or experiment with heavy cream.

Bottom line, Starbucks is full of dietary dangers. But if you’re careful and you know what you’re eating (check out, there’s no reason a Starbucks trip can’t be an enjoyable part of your day.


Campbell, T.C. 2006. The China Study. BenBella Books.

Messier, C., and M. Gagnon. 2000. Glucose regulation and brain aging: Nutrition and cognitive decline. The Journal of Nutrition, Health, and Aging 4:208–213.

Park, M., G. W. Ross, H. Petrovitch, L. R. White, K. H. Masaki, J. S. Nelson, C. M. Tanner, J. D. Curb, P. L. Blanchette, and R. D. Abbott. 2005. Consumption of milk and calcium in midlife and the future risk of Parkinson disease. Neurology 64:1047–1051.

Pereira, M. A., E. D. Parker, and A. R. Folsom. 2006. Coffee consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus: An 11-year prospective study of 28,812 postmenopausal women. Archives of Internal Medicine 166:1311-1316.

Ross, G.W., G. W. Ross, R.D. Abbott, H. Petrovitch, D. M. Morens, A. Grandinetti, K-H. Tung, C. M. Tanner, K. H. Masaki, P. L. Blanchette, J. D. Curb, J. S. Popper, L. R. White. 2000. Association of coffee and caffeine intake with the risk of parkinson disease. Journal of the American Medical Association 283:2674-2679.

Wu, W., A. M. Brickman, J. Luchsinger, P. Ferrazzano, P. Pichiule, M. Yoshita, T. Brown, C. DeCarli, C. A. Barnes, R. Mayeux, S. Vannucci, and S. A. Small. 2008. The brain in the age of old: The hippocampal formation is targeted differentially by diseases of late life. Annals of Neurology 64:698–706.

Category : Articles &Dairy &Diet Posted on January 2, 2012

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