Tips for Health-Conscious Coffee Lovers

A recent Washington Post article 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 Roast–I bet you didn’t 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 commonplace among Starbucks’ U.S. customers, the baristas “leave room” for milk 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).

According to Starbucks U.S. website, a tall-size (12 fl oz/355 ml) whole milk contains 240 calories and 13g of fat. Its custom-blended soymilk contains more calories and saturated fat than skim milk (210 calories and 6g fat vs. 140 and 0g) and even slightly more calories than low-fat* milk (200). However, soymilk contains no cholesterol (vs 5g for non-fat milk) and does contain fiber, a beneficial nutrient found only in plant-based foods.

*Nutritional values may vary, as low-fat milk is 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 alternative to cow’s milk, I would still choose soymilk for the humane aspects alone.

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

  • Shaken Tazo Iced Passion Tea–0 calories
  • Shaken Tazo Iced Black Tea Lemonade–100 calories
  • Iced Coffee (with classic syrup)–60 calories
  • Brewed Coffee–5 calories
  • Brewed Tazo Tea–0 calories
  • Caffe Americano–10 calories
  • Steamed Apple Juice–170 calories
  • Soy Chai Tea Latte–170 calories

As long as you hold the whip cream, the soymilk-based mocha-, coffee- and espresso Frappuccinos come in under 200 calories, too. Some other vegan-friendly beverage offerings (in order of increasing calories) are:

  • Soy Cafe Misto (brewed coffee with steamed soy milk)–80 calories
  • “Dry Cappuccino” (reduced steamed milk, more foam)–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 of syrup, so you may ask for 1 or 2 pumps 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 or teas. Assuming you’re serious about coffee and tea, why cover the taste with milk and 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 understand first-hand that it’s easy to drink or eat something on impulse. Or, if you want to allow yourself to try a sample and it satisfies your sweet tooth (or calorie limit), you may want to just turn around and head out the door.

I was pleased to learn from Starbucks’ interactive nutrition guide the food menu included a few 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 steps toward the healthy high-road. I hope you will join me in requesting the company expand its selection of nutritious whole plant-based and organic foods and drinks, too.

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