Do You Like Coffee in Your Milk, or Milk in Your Coffee?

A recent article in the Washington Post discussing the effects of various foods on heart health identified the greatest health risk of coffee to be weight gain from blended coffee beverages packed with empty calories from sugar and dairy fat.

Lately, it seems the creator and biggest purveyor of the beverages has been trying to rise above criticism they’re as guilty as McDonalds and other fast food chains for contributing to high rates of obesity and diet-related diseases.

Along with introducing oatmeal to its menu, Starbucks published guides to 20 Drinks Under 200 Calories” as well as “Favorite Foods under 350 calories” on its website.  Unfortunately, Starbucks plays down the healthiest beverages (full-leaf teas, brewed coffee, espresso, caffe Americano, etc.) which all have under 10 calories. For example–if you’ve grown tired of Pike Place–did you know you can order any beans Starbucks carries be prepared with a French-press?

Adding milk or cream and sugar to brewed coffee is so common among Starbucks’ U.S. customers, the baristas “leave room” in the cup by default. No wonder hard-core coffee drinkers (those who know the difference between an ibrik and a v60) don’t take the chain seriously, especially after it introduced the lightly-roasted Blonde coffee (now its most popular), further blurring the line with pedestrian coffee.

Of course, only Starbucks’ pure coffees/teas and those made with soymilk–instead of dairy milk–are of any interest to those on a whole foods plant-based diet (those who haven’t given up caffeine, at least).

For the record, Starbucks custom-blended soymilk contains more calories and saturated fat than its skim milk. However, soymilk contains no cholesterol (vs 5g for non-fat milk) and does contain fiber, a beneficial nutrient found only in plant-based foods.

The below data from the company’s U.S. website refers to tall-size (12 fl oz / 355 ml) drinks:

Calories, Fat (g), Carb. (g), Fiber (g), Protein

NonFat Milk 140, 0, 20, 0, 14

*2% Milk   200, 8, 19, 0, 13

SoyMilk   210, 6, 26, 2, 11

Whole Milk  240, 13, 19, 0, 13

*May vary–created by the barista in each store mixing whole milk and non-fat milk

Ironically, many omnivores substitute soymilk for dairy milk because they believe it’s healthier, or for the taste and variation, while still topping their beverage with dairy whip cream. Even if you question whether soymilk is a healthier or safer choice than cow’s milk, I would still choose soymilk for the humane aspects alone.

Starbucks “Delicious Drink” list contains 3 cold drinks and 5 hot drinks that are vegan-friendly.

Cold Drinks

Calories, Fat (g)

  • Shaken Tazo® Iced Passion® Tea (unsweetened) 0, 0
  • Shaken Tazo® Iced Black Tea Lemonade 100, 0
  • Iced Coffee (with classic syrup) 60, 0

Hot Drinks

  • Brewed Coffee 5, 0
  • Brewed Tazo® Tea 0, 0
  • Caffè Americano 10, 0
  • Steamed Apple Juice 170, 0
  • Soy Chai Tea Latte 170, 2

If you hold the whip cream, the soymilk-based mocha, coffee and espresso Frappuccino have 190, 170 and 150 calories respectively.

Below are some more vegan-friendly beverage offerings, in order of increasing calories:

  • Soy Cafe Misto (brewed coffee with steamed soy milk)–80 calories
  • “Dry” (reduced steamed milk) Cappucino–below 90 calories
  • Full-Leaf Soy Tea Lattes–140 calories
  • Soy Latte–150 calories
  • Soy Caramel Macchiato–180 calories
  • Soy Caffe Mocha–200 calories (no whip)
  • Soy hot chocolate–200 calories (no whip)

To reduce calories further, ask the barista to reduce or eliminate syrups (20-25 calories per pump). For example, a tall drink generally contains 3 pumps, so you may ask for 1 or 2 instead. And if you omit any drizzled sauces on top, you’ll save about 15 calories, too.

In fact–except for that rare special occasion (your birthday, a lunar eclipse, etc.)—your best option is sticking to straight coffees and teas. Assuming you’re serious about coffee and tea, why water it down and cover up the taste with sugar?

By the way, if you’re watching calories, always be prepared to refuse samples of new food and drink items offered. If not, you may consume a lot more calories than you intended. I know from firsthand experience, it’s easy to drink or eat something on impulse. Or, if you allow yourself to try a sample and have already satiated your sweet tooth (or calorie limit), you may want to just turn around and head out the door.

I’ll be discussing Starbucks’ Favorite Food Menu in a separate post. I was pleased to learn from its interactive nutrition guide the menu included any vegan-friendly items, including the aforementioned oatmeal (140-340 calories, minus sugar) and fruit salad (80 calories). I’d recommend you stick with one of these, or a piece of fresh fruit (banana or apple), where available. I do have to question the company’s claim that it has a lot of “smart choices” and it’s possible to “eat sensibly” just because some foods contain under 350 calories.

On the bright side, Starbucks’ recent acquisition of  Evolution Fresh (cold-pressed juice company) is an encouraging sign the chain is taking the healthy high road. Won’t you join me by requesting the company serve more nutritious whole plant-based and organic foods and drinks, too?

This post is also available in: Japanese