Fun fact: When Starbucks opened its first coffee bar in 1982, it offered one simple and obvious choice: brewed coffee. Forty years later, with a menu that boasts sous vide eggs and Iced Brown Sugar Oat Milk Shaken Espresso, it’s fair to say the offerings have expanded a bit. Some of their specialty drinks, however tasty, have garnered a reputation for having more calories than a fast-food burger. To help navigate these options, we enlisted Dr. Wesley McWhorter, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to help find the healthiest Starbucks options for a no-guilt treat.
On their own, black coffee and tea are full of antioxidants that give you a jolt of energy. However, the added milk, sugars or sweeteners, and toppings bring your drinks closer to the dessert category than a drink.
Rather than advising everyone to ditch their favorite drink in favor of green tea, McWhorter recommends “looking at your current drink that you already love and making it healthier.” If your drink has seven pumps of liquid sugar in it, go one or two fewer pumps at a time “and go down from there so your palette gets used to the drink’s sweetness.” He, for example, likes the aforementioned Brown Sugar Espresso drink, which comes with six pumps of sweetener, “So I always do half of the pumps because that’s a lot of [unnecessary] added sugars.”
If your current drink comes with whipped cream and chocolate sauce on top, dropping those calorie bombs would immediately improve the nutrition profile of that drink. The main thing to be aware of is the sugar content. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams or six teaspoons per day for women and children and 36 grams or nine teaspoons per day for men. A tall Caffe Misto (coffee with two percent milk) is 80 calories and eight grams of sugar — a sensible choice. On the other end of the spectrum is a tall White Chocolate Mocha with 340 calories and a whopping 40 grams of sugar (that’s 10 teaspoons of sugar!). If you’re a tea drinker, green tea is zero calories and zero sugar; but a healthy-sounding tall Matcha Tea Latte is 190 calories and 24 grams of sugar — suddenly, your green tea is nutritionally closer to a cookie!
Especially with summer around the corner, McWhorter recommends awareness of how many pumps of syrup are going into your cold drink. Say yes to Iced Coffee without syrup, and for tea, an Iced Passion Tango Tea with zero sugar or calories is a fantastic choice. Alarm bells sound with a Frappuccino, where a tall size in most flavors chalks up over 340 calories and 40 grams of sugar.
Consider adjusting your drink’s size to make it healthier, says McWhorter. “A tall is 12 ounces, and that’s a good size — a large cup of coffee.” A grande and venti both come with two shots of espresso, so if you’re ordering a venti, all you get is extra milk and sugar, i.e., excess calories and fat. And if that’s how you want to consume a large part of your daily calories? “Don’t beat yourself up, but realize what you’re having,” he says. “Adjust what you consume the rest of the day.” For example, if you have a grande mocha at breakfast, skip the sugary soda later in the day. “And mentally treat your drink as a dessert rather than a coffee — Frappuccinos and other sweetened beverages are more in the dessert category than a daily coffee because of the sugar in those drinks. This is a special treat or dessert.”
Spend a little time looking at Starbucks’ menu to familiarize yourself with your drink order and its nutrition content before your next visit.
Healthy Starbucks Drink Cheat Sheet: Our favorite under 220 calorie tall-size drinks that still taste delightful.
- Iced Skinny Latte
- Nonfat Mocha
- Chai Tea Latte
- Light Caramel Frappuccino
- Non-fat Cappuccino
- Iced Black Tea Lemonade
- Iced Latte with Almond Milk
- Nitro Cold Brew
- Shaken Iced Green Tea
Regarding breakfast and lunch options, McWhorter says to look at the fiber content as a good starting point for nutritional value. “Women should be getting 25 grams per day and men, 35 grams, roughly.” He points to the egg white sandwich, which sounds like a healthy option, but it only has three grams of fiber and 900 mg of sodium, “Which isn’t tremendous for restaurant breakfast food, but is still more than we’d like to see people eat.” (The recommended allowance of sodium is 2,300 mg per day or about one teaspoon.) He points to the wholegrain oatmeal with blueberries as a good option with its seven grams of fiber and 130 mg of sodium. What about the breakfast sandwiches? “They have a lot of processed ingredients, which isn’t the greatest option for overall health, certainly not for daily consumption.”
For lunch, the Protein Boxes can be a good option. “But the boxes should be considered a meal; they deceiving look like snack sizes, but they are meal amounts,” he says. Some have ingredients like whole wheat crackers, vegetables, hummus, fruit, chickpeas, and avocado. “They’re a better option with six grams of fiber or more.” Also, the Avocado Spread is a nutrient-rich condiment to add on the side. Another deceptively healthy menu item is plant-based meat, which is highly processed and high in sodium.
Most of us have heard the news on muffins: “They’re misleadingly healthy; it’s just a cupcake in disguise,” says McWhorter, pointing to blueberry and bran as sneaky ones that seem healthy. Same with pumpkin loaf and coffee cake. “You’re looking at very little fiber, if any, and 20 grams of added sugar.” Right, so skip the baked goods? “You don’t necessarily need to avoid anything, but know that it’s a dessert,” he adds.
Healthier snack options include popcorn or chickpea chips, “which are a little lower in calories and have more fiber than potato chips.” He also points to some of the packaged bars made from fruit, nuts, and seeds, so their fiber content is higher, and you’ll feel fuller for longer. And it may seem obvious, but there’s always a fruit section with bananas and apples to fulfill that sweet craving.
The bottom line on Starbucks’ drinks, meals, or snacks is the same as any quick-service food option. “Most options are not great for you, so don’t go every day. And what you have, adjust to make it healthier if you can,” advises McWhorter. And don’t forget mindfulness. “If you’re enjoying these treats, be present and enjoy it.”