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Coffee or Caffeinated Dessert?

I love coffee. To me, the nicest way to start the day is with a hot cup of freshly made coffee with milk. And I love the occasional coffee out. A properly made cappuccino or latte is a treat that I especially enjoy.

There are so many options when you go to a coffee shop. You could order the normal drip coffee, espresso drink, blended coffee, or a variety of tea drinks. But have you ever looked at the nutrition information in the coffee drinks? Depending on where you live, some coffee shops will list the calories in a beverage on the menu, but that doesn’t tell you the ingredients or break out the amount of added sugar in a drink. And if you have been reading my articles for a while now, you know that the ingredients in our foods matter as does the amount of added sugar we consume.

How much added sugar is in a coffee drink?

For simplicity, and due to my Pacific Northwest roots, I chose Starbucks drinks1, though the sugar content and ingredients are comparable with other chain coffee shops. I used a recent study on what were the most popular Starbucks beverages around the US to inform the selection of the coffee drinks.2 Oh, and for our readers in Canada, I threw in Tim Horton’s Double Double.

How wise is a coffee? There are three main areas to consider: (1) added sugar content, (2) caffeine content, and (3) ingredients other than coffee, milk and sugar.

Quantifying Added Sugar

Similar to when we evaluated the added sugar in flavored yogurts, we need to calculate the total added sugar in the coffee beverages. This is because added sugar does not have to be called out on the Nutrition Facts of a product (this changes next year!) and the labeled sugar in the drinks include both lactose from milk and added sugars.

Assumptions made during the calculation include that all beverages were 16-oz, made with 2% milk, and ordered without optional whipped cream. The quantity of milk used in the calculation is as follows: Latte (12-oz), Mocha (12-oz), Frappuccino® (8-oz), brewed coffee (3-oz). Please note: there are 4 grams of added sugar in a teaspoon of sugar or sugar packet.

Below is a table highlighting the natural (lactose) and added sugar in various coffee drinks. As is probably expected, black brewed coffee or coffee containing only milk has no added sugar. A plain latte also contains no added sugar, though the amount of milk is understandably higher than a brewed coffee with milk. Lattes and mochas differed only in the types of additions they contained (flavor syrups and / or chocolate syrup). Frappuccinos® are the surprising result here containing less milk than a traditional espresso drink but substantially more added sugar.

Natural and Added Sugar Content in Coffee Drinks (grams sugar per 16-oz drink), www.feedthemwisely.com

To better visualize just how much added sugar these coffee drinks contain, the below graphic contains only the added sugar, expressed in sugar packets, of a single 16-oz coffee drink. At the bottom of the graphic is the percentage one drink contributes to the AHA’s daily recommended intake of added sugar for men and women.

Number of sugar packets of added sugar for various coffee drinks, www.feedthemwisely.com
Percentage below coffee name indicates % of AHA’s daily recommended added sugar intake. Numbers in red indicate that the coffee drink meets or exceeds the daily recommended added sugar intake.

What is really startling is how much added sugar the frappuccino drinks contain: the equivalent of 9.5 to 13.75 packets (teaspoons) of sugar and almost two to three times the American Heart Association’s daily recommended intake of added sugar for an adult woman.4 Just to be clear, this is not a coffee. It is a caffeinated milkshake. And if you add whipped cream to it the Cafe Vanilla Frappuccino®, it has essentially the same nutritional profile as a McDonalds McCafe® Vanilla Milkshake.5

Caffeine Content

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that “moderate coffee consumption (three to five 8-oz cups/day or providing up to 400 mg/day of caffeine) can be incorporated into healthy eating patterns.”6 There is consistent scientific evidence showing that coffee consumption by healthy adults is not associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases.6 However, higher levels of caffeine consumption can lead to insulin resistance and have other negative health effects.7 So, as with most things, moderation is the key. Enjoy your coffee, but don’t make it and other caffeinated beverages your only drinks throughout the day, and have an idea of how much caffeine you are routinely consuming. Below is a table of the approximate levels of caffeine in some popular coffee drinks.1,3

Caffeine content in various coffee drinks, www.feedthemwisely.com
Reported caffeine content of coffee drinks.1,3 Percentage after bar indicates coffee beverage’s contribution to daily recommended maximum caffeine intake.Percentages in red indicate increasing drink size or consuming more than one could result in excess caffeine intake.

Other Ingredients

Coffee drinks contain coffee, milk and maybe sugar, right? Well, it depends on what you drink. Any coffee drink with an added flavored syrup or sauce will contain a whole string of ingredients. Below are some examples:1

  • Vanilla Syrup: Sugar, Water, Natural Flavors, Potassium Sorbate, Citric Acid
  • Caramel Sauce: Sugar, Corn Syrup, Butter, Water, Heavy Cream, Nonfat Dry Milk, Natural Flavors, Salt, Mono & Diglycerides, Soy Lecithin, Sulfites
  • Coffee Frappuccino® Syrup: Sugar, Water, Salt, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Xanthan Gum, Potassium Sorbate, Citric Acid

These syrups and sauces are the source of most added sugars in flavored coffee drinks. They also all contain preservatives (potassium sorbate, sulfites) and artificial flavors, both of which can cause allergic reactions in a small subset of the population.8


Instead of ordering a pre-sweetened coffee, consider ordering a plain coffee and adding your own sugar. One or even two packets of sugar can be added to coffee while still maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Finally, Frappuccinos® are not coffee. They are caffeine containing milkshakes that contain two to three times the AHA’s recommended daily intake of added sugar for an adult woman. Avoid them or consider them as the truly occasional treat that they are. We are routinely eating and drinking too much added sugar, and it is negatively affecting our health.


  1. Starbucks Nutrition Information, Starbucks Website (link)
  2. What people order at Starbucks around the US, Quartz Media Website, (link)
  3. Tim Hortons Nutrition Information, Tim Hortons Website (link)
  4. Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health. Rachel K. JohnsonLawrence J. AppelMichael BrandsBarbara V. Howard,Michael LefevreRobert H. LustigFrank SacksLyn M. Steffen and Judith Wylie-Rosett. 
  5. Nutrition summary for McDonald’s McCafe® Vanilla Shake, McDonalds Website (link)
  6. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, Eighth Ed. (link)
  7. Always Hungry? Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells & Lose Weight Permanently, David Ludwig, MD, PhD, 2016 (link)
  8. Center for Science in the Public Interest. Chemical Cuisine. (link)

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  1. Update: For anyone wondering, the Unicorn Frappuccino contains the same amount of added sugar as a Vanilla Bean Creame Frappuccino: approximately 43 grams for a 16-oz serving (this assumes 12 grams of the “sugar” listed on the nutrition facts is from 8-oz of 2% milk).

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