Starbucks' holiday-themed drinks are back, with seasonal favorites like peppermint mocha and caramel brulee latte creating major buzz. (Holiday merchandise, such as festive new reusable cups, is also trending big.)
This year’s drinks include the usual mix of sugary flavored syrups, red cups overflowing with whipped cream, and toppings like sugar sparkles and dark chocolate curls. They're decadent and delicious, but how do they stack up in terms of nutrition? Here's my take as a nutritionist.
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A tall made with the default 2% milk and all of the usual add-ins—espresso, peppermint syrup, mocha sauce, whipped cream, and chocolate curls—clocks in at 350 calories, 13 grams of fat, 48 grams of carb (with 42 as sugar as 3 from fiber), and 10 grams of protein. That’s four candy canes' worth of sugar, or 10 teaspoons, which is four more than the American Heart Association’s recommended cap of six per day for women.
There are also some questionable additives in the ingredients list, including carrageenan and sodium benzoate, which have both been linked to inflammation. For those who can’t or don’t do dairy, it looks like this drink can be made dairy-free if ordered with almond or coconut milk and no whip. Unfortunately Starbucks nutrition information only calculates changes based on updating the size of a standard order, not edits within each category, like the type of milk, or number of syrup pumps.
Toasted White Chocolate Mocha
A standard tall—made with 2% milk, an espresso shot, toasted white chocolate mocha sauce, whipped cream, and sugar sparkles—comes in at 330 calories, 12 grams of fat, 44 grams of carb (with 43 grams from sugar and no fiber), and 11 grams of protein. The mocha sauce contains sugar and corn syrup, in addition to condensed milk, so it cannot be made dairy-free.
As a comparison, a square of Starbucks' classic coffee cake provides the exact same number of calories, and a near identical number of carb grams. In other words, this drink is a liquid dessert, not a way to start the day—if sustained energy and wellness are on your priority list that is.
Caramel Brulee Latte
Another selection that can’t be made dairy-free, a tall standard Caramel Brulee Latte is made with 2% milk, a shot of espresso, caramel brulee sauce, whipped cream, and caramel brulee topping. It contains 350 calories, 11 grams of fat, 54 grams of carbs (with 36 as sugar and no fiber), along with 10 grams of protein. That’s almost double the calories and more than twice the carbs found in one Starbucks snowman cake pop.
While the chain does offer sugar free versions of syrups, I don’t recommend them, as they’re made with artificial sweeteners and preservatives (not a nutrition upgrade).
Chestnut Praline Latte
Based on the ingredients, this drink can be made dairy-free if ordered with almond or coconut milk and no whipped cream. (Regrettably, the website doesn’t allow you to calculate the nutrition facts of a drink with those changes.) A standard tall contains 2% milk, espresso, chestnut praline syrup, whipped cream, and chestnut praline topping. The drink consists of 270 calories, 11 grams of fat, 33 grams of carb (with 31 as sugar and no fiber), and 9 grams of protein.
Yup, all of these drinks are liquid sugar bombs, with this one packing almost twice much sugar as a two inch square of vanilla fudge.
Dairy-based eggnog is the main ingredient in this steamed beverage, mixed simply with brewed espresso and nutmeg. (whipped cream and syrups aren’t included.) A tall contains 360 calories, 14 grams of fat, 45 grams of carb (with 42 as sugar and 1 gram of fiber), and 13 grams of protein—although the website states that the eggnog used varies by region. If eggnog isn’t on your can’t-live-without list, you’re better off foregoing it for holiday goodies you’ll enjoy more. For the same number of calories, you could toast with four glasses of champagne over the course of the season.
So which drink is healthiest?
If I had to choose, I think the healthiest version of the bunch would be a tall chestnut praline latte ordered with almond milk, a single pump of syrup, and no toppings. But it still won’t win any nutritional gold stars. The other option is to go all out and order the most decadent version of any you like, and limit yourself to just a few throughout the season as treats. Opt for one as a dessert after a healthy lunch, not as a breakfast beverage paired with another sugary bakery item.
Bottom line: I’d love to see Starbucks ditch all artificial additives, offer more plant milk options, and configure a nutrition calculator that allows customers to determine how their personalized order stacks up. If you’re all-in on the holiday decadence, go for it—but it would be nice to have a few options for the health-focused clean eating crowd too.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
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