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

2 thoughts on “Do You Like Coffee in Your Milk, or Milk in Your Coffee?

  1. Jim Dunlop

    As someone who owns an Ibrik and brews coffee almost daily with a V60, there is much truth behind the statement (at least for me) that I don’t take the Starbucks chain very seriously.

    I personally see Starbucks as a purveyor of “coffee-based-beverages” rather than coffee. And even though I know I can order a French-press brew when I visit, I rather doubt they follow proper French-press brewing technique, nor are their beans (which are neither roasted on-premise nor roasted to the appropriate level depending on the brewing method to be used) to my particular liking.

    All that said however, I happily go to Starbucks, but not to drink a good coffee. I go with friends for social reasons. I go to enjoy the company of others and to get out of the daily grind of the house-work-house pattern.

    I do not go often, and when I do, I at least try to minimize the calorie-bombing by always ordering my drink to be made with soy milk, and I never order anything larger than a “tall.” Caramel shots and other toppings will still add to the unhealthiness of the drink and should be considered carefully.

    It should also be noted that barristas are generally NOT knowledgeable when it comes to veganism or nutrition and health. The other day I was at a Tim Horton’s in Canada … So I ordered a cafe mocha, (which they define as half hot-chocolate and half-coffee). I said to the lady taking my order, “I cannot have dairy products. Is there any milk in your cafe mocha?” She said that there wasn’t. So just to be extra-sure, I said: “So there is NO milk of any kind in your cafe mocha?” “No.” “Is your hot chocolate made with milk or water?” “Water.” So then imagine my surprise when I received a drink that was covered with an inch of whipped cream!!!

    And honestly, Starbucks does the same thing. Once, after having a very similar conversation with a barrista in Japan about soy instead of dairy milk, then proceeds to ask me whether I’d liked whipped cream on top. ?!

    At the end of the day, it would indeed be nice if Starbucks offered more healthy (and vegan-friendly) choices, but their offerings are also a direct reflection of what their consumers are demanding… While requesting that the company move further in this direction is an excellent suggestion, so is educating the public about whole-food, plant-based nutrition… In other words, expand the customer base of people demanding healthy choices.

  2. william Post author

    In Starbucks’ defense (since I”m sitting here using their wiFI and easy-chair), they do have the best barista training and quality control around, which is why they’re pricier than the other chains. Like McDonalds, I don’t think we can blame them for giving people what they want (i.e. products loaded with highly addictive fat, sugar and caffeine), when satisfying customer needs is what businesses must do to succeed. I would be happy if our discussion can open up anyone’s eyes, or begin to move someone to change their behavior toward improved health and becoming aware of all the benefits a plant-based diet offers.

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