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17 February 2016

Why you shouldn’t worry (too much) about the sugar in your favourite coffee

Scare stories condemning coffee shops are missing the wider context: an Innocent smoothie has more sugar per millilitre than a Starbucks white chocolate mocha. 

By Barbara Speed

A story from campaign group Action on Sugar hit the news agenda today with a shocking statistic: UK cafes are, apparently, “serving drinks with 25 teaspoons of sugar per cup”. “Your morning coffee,” the front pages seemed to whisper, “is killing you.”

But, like all dietary scary stories, all is not quite as it seems. The Guardian, along with several other papers, ran a database of coffee shop drinks and how much sugar they contain in both grams and teaspoons. Here’s a snapshot:

It turns out that all the headline drinks containing 20+ teaspoons of sugar were drinks in very large sizes – sizes few of us would regularly choose. Starbucks’ “venti” size, for example, is 24oz (around 680ml) – double the size of their “tall” option I most often hear while queueing. 

It’s a little disingenuous, therefore, to list the sugar content of drinks without taking account of the size within the data presented to readers, just as only quoting the calories for extra-large restaurant portions would be. Serving sizes are, of course, an issue – you only need to look into the “super size” debate in the US to know that – but they’re also something customers have a large amount of choice over. No one would be surprised that a 24oz drink contains more sugar than a 12oz one. What we should really be looking at is the sugar content of drinks per ml, and when compared to other options. 

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Here’s a list of the sugar content in a few coffee shop drinks, compared with other high street drinks:

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Drink  Sugar per 100ml
Fanta 6.9
Starbucks hot chocolate classic 7.6
Sainsbury’s Basics orange juice 8.2
Starbucks white chocolate mocha 8.65
Innocent Kids berry smoothie 10.1
Tropicana smooth 10.1
Coca Cola 10.6
Costa chai latte 14.2
Starbucks mulled fruit drink  14.5

(I also looked into mulled wine in order to compare it to the Starbucks mulled fruit drink, but sugar content is rarely listed for wine online – I called a major British supermarket and customer service wasn’t able to locate the sugar information for their in-house mulled wine. Listings I did find for unbranded mulled wine on weight loss sites suggests that they contain between 10g and 12g of sugar per 100ml.) 

It’s clear that some of these drinks do outstrip a Coca Cola, for example, in sugars per 100ml, but there’s also not a huge difference between them. Additionally, it strikes me as patronising to customers to imply that the sugars in hot chocolate are somehow hidden, despite clear nutritional information listed on all retailers’ websites, and sometimes in stores. Plus the fact that it’s, well, a hot chocolate. 

A smoothie, on the other hand, is marked as a health drink and marketed to children, yet contains more sugar than Starbucks’ white chocolate mocha. (Sugars in juices and smoothies are classified as “free sugars”, analagous to added sugars, by the World Health Organisation – smoothies may contain nutrients too, but that doesn’t discount the sugar content.) 

Sugar is a huge societal problem. It contributes to obesity as a high calorie, fast-burned form of energy that is present in almost all processed foods. Since it’s not a substance our bodies actually need, Recommended Daily Allowances don’t exist for sugar – the UK government suggests 90g per day for adults as an upper limit, but we’d quite happily survive without any free sugars in our diet at all.

Potential solutions range from rolling out the nutritional “traffic light system” used in supermarkets to other food retailers (Action on Sugar is keen for coffee shops to take this on, as well as remove the larger size drinks from shops) to introducing a sugar tax, a solution backed by Jamie Oliver.  

We’re all eating too much sugar across our diets, but terrifying people about their morning coffee doesn’t seem the best way to make us realise that. Scare stories pinned to certain retailers, despite the fact their products’ sugar content are fairly average for the market, aren’t going to produce change in the food industry as a whole.