How Healthy Are Starbucks Holiday Drinks? Here’s the Good, the Bad, and the Sugary

How Healthy Are Starbucks Holiday Drinks? Here’s the Good, the Bad, and the Sugary

By Michelle Pugle on November 10, 2020 — Fact checked by Maria Gifford

Experts say Starbucks holiday drinks can contain high levels of sugar, so they should be an occasional treat. SOPA Images/Getty Images

  • Experts say this year’s lineup of Starbucks holiday drinks contain healthy levels of protein and milk, but can also have large amounts of sugar.
  • They recommend that consumers ask for less sugar-laden ingredients and also make the drinks an occasional treat and not a daily habit.
  • They also note that the rest of your daily diet remain healthy and balanced to compensate for the Starbucks treat.

Starbucks wants consumers to “carry the merry” this winter season by sipping on this year’s classic holiday lineup.

The highlighted drinks this year include:

But how healthy are these coffee-based beverages?

“Multiple studies show that coffee can have multiple benefits to health and longevity,” said Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a licensed registered dietitian and author of “Skinny Liver.”

“However, when you add in excess sugar and calories, these benefits may be offset,” she told Healthline.

“We can’t say these drinks have no nutritional value,” added Andy De Santis, a registered dietitian with a master’s in public health community nutrition. 

“Each of these beverages in the 16-ounce size offers 10-plus grams of protein, and the first ingredient (meaning the one present in the largest supply) is milk (or milk alternative, depending on your preference),” he told Healthline.

Milk is also high in certain important nutrients like calcium and potassium, De Santis noted.

Starbucks offers 2 percent and skim cow’s milk, as well as coconut, almond, soy, and oat milk alternatives, with cow’s milk and soy having the highest protein.

But what about the other ingredients such as peppermint syrup or toffee sugar or caramel sauce?

Here’s what registered dietitians are saying about the healthiness of these seasonal drinks.

The good news 

No one is saying you have to stop sipping Starbucks seasonal drinks.

“Seasonal holiday coffee drinks are typically energy-dense, but they can also provide some beneficial nutrients,” said Caroline West Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN, CLT, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“One cup (8 ounces) of 2 percent milk has roughly 30 percent of an adult’s daily calcium needs, and most of these drinks contain at least a cup of milk,” Passerrello told Healthline.

At a glance, this is how the 2020 seasonal lineup stacks up:

Peppermint Mocha

  • 440 calories
  • 63 grams of carbohydrates
  • 15 grams of total fat (10 grams saturated)
  • 13 grams of protein
  • 4 grams of dietary fiber
  • 54 grams of sugar

Toasted White Chocolate Mocha

  • 420 calories 
  • 57 grams of carbohydrates
  • 15 grams of total fat (9 grams saturated)
  • 15 grams of protein
  • 0 grams of dietary fiber
  • 56 grams of sugar

Caramel Brulée Latte

  • 410 calories 
  • 62 grams of carbohydrates
  • 13 grams of total fat (8 grams saturated)
  • 12 grams of protein
  • 0 grams of dietary fiber
  • 49 grams of sugar

Chestnut Praline Latte

  • 330 calories
  • 42 grams of carbohydrates
  • 13 grams of total fat (8 grams saturated)
  • 12 grams of protein
  • 0 grams of dietary fiber
  • 39 grams of sugar

Eggnog Latte

  • 450 calories 
  • 57 grams of carbohydrates
  • 18 grams of total fat (11 grams saturated)
  • 17 grams of protein
  • 1 gram of dietary fiber
  • 52 grams of sugar

The nutrition above was taken from the standard recipe, which typically includes 2 percent milk and whipped topping, so nutrition will vary based your milk choice and the inclusion of toppings.

Passarrello suggests that rather than avoiding these drinks you should sip slowly, enjoying, and savoring their flavor. 

Additionally, she suggests choosing the food or drink that most interests you and skipping the ones that don’t.

“Both nutrition and health are personalized and there is no ‘right diet’ that will work for every individual,” she said. “Most foods and beverages can fit into a well-balanced and healthy diet in the right amounts.”

De Santis seems to agree.

“It would be very unlikely for me to tell a client to outright avoid any specific product, especially if it was one they truly enjoyed,” he said. 

“With that being said, we could equally have an honest discussion about the caloric density of these products and how to navigate that relative to the client’s goals and health concerns,” De Santis added.

“For those wanting to indulge in one of these beverages, they should be mindful of portion sizes as well as frequency of consumption,” Passerrello said.

“Looking at the nutrition information for both drinks and snacks provided on the website can help in deciding which item makes the most sense for your individual diet and lifestyle,” she added. 

Let’s talk sugar content

Each of the seasonal drinks in a standard 16-ounce serving (Grande) exceeds the American Heart Association’s recommendationTrusted Source that women consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar in a day and men consume no more than 36 grams.

The Peppermint Mocha has the highest sugar content with 54 grams per 16-ounce serving. The Eggnog Latte comes in close second with 52 grams, while the Toasted White Chocolate Mocha and Caramel Brulée Latte both have 49 grams. The Chestnut Praline Latte contains the least amount of sugar with 39 grams.

Passerrello points out that The Scientific Advisory Committee for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is now recommendingTrusted Source even less added sugar than before — no more than 6 percent of daily calories.

For example, she says, “If you need 1,600 calories to fuel your body each day, 6 percent is 96 calories, which is equal to 24 grams of sugar.”

“To put that into perspective, a 16-ounce seasonal latte can provide at least 24 grams of sugar and sometimes double that, depending on the flavor,” she noted. 

“Having a sweetened coffee drink every once in a while won’t hurt, but it’s best not to make it daily,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick also said the challenge many people face with their food choices is being able to enjoy certain indulgences without making them a frequent occurrence.

“This really boils down to personality and existing addiction to sugar,” she said. “For some of my patients, they can have an indulgence every once in a while, enjoy it, and then go back to better habits.”

“For others, even small amounts can trigger more frequent binges,” she added.

Making healthy holiday choices

Experts say making healthy choices requires looking at the larger picture of what you’re consuming, rather than any one drink.

“With the holiday season, there are plenty of opportunities to overindulge in our favorite foods and beverages,” Passerrello said. “It’s important at this time to continue consuming a variety of foods and beverages to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle.”

De Santis said he wouldn’t want people wasting much energy worrying about a drink they have once in a while, but rather he encourages them to consider the larger role that these types of items play in one’s life.

However, for more frequent consumers, he adds that, “Starbucks obviously makes it quite easy to make ingredient swaps and modifications for those who are so inclined.” 

“Most, if not all, of the drinks can be adjusted to contain less of a flavored syrup,” said Passerrello.

Kirkpatrick advises that people ask for sugar-free options, which are often available in mocha or hazelnut. You can also reduce the sweetness by asking for half the normal amount of added sugar.

“To get a better idea of what the standard drink has, check out the nutrition information on the [company] website,” said Passerrello.

The nutrition information will indicate, among other things, total fat content and how much of that fat is from saturated sources. 

“There is emerging research looking at the type of saturated fat being important, so stay tuned,” Passerrello said.

The American Heart Association suggestsTrusted Sourceaiming for a dietary pattern that achieves 5–6 percent of calories from saturated fat.

For the average 2,000-calorie daily diet, this means no more than 13 grams of saturated fat in a day.

“For now, we know that a typical 16-ounce seasonal coffee drink usually has around 10 grams of saturated fat, so add a serving of flank steak for dinner and you have exceeded your daily saturated fat limit,” Passerrello said.

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