Published on February 29, 2016

Starbucks tops list of highest-sugar hot drinksStarbucks tops list of highest-sugar hot drinks

Very few people would eat five muffins in one sitting or knowingly pour 25 teaspoons of sugar into a cup of coffee. But that is exactly how much sugar Starbucks puts in its 20-ounce, hot mulled fruit drink, grape with chai, orange and cinnamon, according to new research by Action on Sugar.

The mulled fruit drinks are the worst offenders, but other beverages contain more than the American Heart Association’s maximum adult

recommended daily intake of six teaspoons of free sugars for women and nine for men. Even those marketed as “healthier,” such as Starbucks’ chai tea latte venti, contain a whopping 13 teaspoons of sugar.

“The problem is the drinks are so big,” said Amy Rose Sager, dietitian for the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod. “The bigger the drink gets, the more sugar it contains. They go down so smooth and fast that people don’t realize just how much sugar they are ingesting.”

Sager, who also owns Leap into Wellness, a health and nutrition business, said Starbucks offers a “short,” 8-ounce size of their hot beverages, but that most people are so used to giant drinks that the cup seems very small to them.

“We’re conditioned to think bigger is better, but that’s just not true,” she said.

One of the biggest problems with these drinks is the fructose in the syrups Starbucks adds to them. Fructose and sugar can cause an elevation in your triglycerides. Your body converts any calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides, which are lipids that are stored in fat cells.

If your body stores a higher level of triglycerides than it uses, over time it increases your risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and fatty liver disease.

“Sugar isn’t the only culprit,” Sager said. “But sometimes an easy fix for this problem is to look at what you are drinking. I think the first step for better health is to be conscientious about what you are taking into your body every day.”

In its 2016 survey of hot drinks, Action on Sugar lists 37 beverages with more than 38 grams of sugar, or about 10 teaspoons. Of those, 17 of the drinks come from Starbucks. The London-based group of academics and nutritionists is working to raise awareness of the harmful effects of a high-sugar diet.

Starbucks also has seven of the top 10 high-sugar drinks, but the coffee maker isn’t the only culprit. Costa Coffee, a United Kingdom-based coffee, had eight beverages with at least 10 teaspoons of sugar, followed by KFC, with four.

Local Starbucks managers on Cape Cod referred questions about the sugar content to their corporate office.

“We’ve heard from customers that reducing added sugar is something they are looking for when making nutritional choices,” a Starbucks spokeswoman wrote in an email.

The company plans to reduce the average added sugar content in its so-called “indulgent” beverages, such as mulled fruit and Frappuccinos, by 5 percent a year for the next five years.

“By taking a five-year approach, we can thoughtfully and methodically meet our customers’ expectations for consistent flavor and quality,” the spokesman wrote.

On its website, Starbucks discloses nutritional and ingredient disclosure of every single drink they offer. But sometimes that information can be baffling for the average consumer. Consumers reading labels can be easily confused by sugar content, since many products measure sugar in grams.

Sager said that nutritionists use a simple formula to convert the sugar composition of most foods: four grams of white sugar is equal to one teaspoon.

So if you look at the label of a typical 12-ounce can of cola, it contains approximately 44 grams of sugar. Forty-four divided by four tells you that a can of soda has about 11 teaspoons of sugar.

“I love doing the example where I pour out 11 teaspoons and then show the visual next to the drink,” Sager said. “It has a big influence when you physically show people how much sugar is in something. People aren’t always aware that it adds up so quickly.”

On its website, Starbucks offers tips from “baristas” on how to lighten up their beverages:

  • Request non-fat milk, coconut milk or soy milk instead of the standard 2 percent milk.
  • Select one of their sugar-free syrups to add flavor without extra calories.
  • Ask for less syrup in your drink.
  • Skip the whipped cream and you can save between 80 and 110 calories depending on the size of your drink.
  • Choose a smaller size cup.

Sager advised that coffee or tea drinkers cut out the cream and sugar. But if just can’t bear to drink hot beverages plain, do it yourself, she said.

“If you’re putting your own sweetener in it’s probably going to add up to a lot less than if they’re doing it for you,” she said. “You are in charge of your own health. Nobody else is.”