When a secret off-the-menu Starbucks item makes the transition to the regular menu, you know it must be popular. That’s precisely what happened with the supposedly cold and flu-fighting “medicine ball,” which Starbucks refers to as Honey Citrus Mint Tea. The chain’s enthusiasts swear by it as a remedy to ease cold and flu symptoms, or even fend them off entirely. Question is, does it really live up to the hype? Here’s my take as a nutritionist.
I personally hadn’t heard about the medicine ball, but based on its nickname, I thought the ingredients would be similar to the so called immunity shots popular at juiceries, Whole Foods, and other health food stores. These mini bottles, typically two ounces in size, are loaded with ingredients known to support immunity and reduce inflammation, like ginger, turmeric, pepper, or even garlic.
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The Starbucks version is actually a 16 ounce hot tea—Jade Citrus Mint and Peach Tranquility herbal teas to be exact—mixed with steamed lemonade (which is the first ingredient, according to the company’s website) and two packets of honey. The tea is made from a combination of organic green tea, organic spearmint, organic lemon verbena and lemongrass, as well as an infusion of ingredients like apple and peach pieces, candied pineapple, chamomile, and rose hips.
It sounds delicious. But in my opinion, relying on it as a cold and flu elixir has pros and cons. Studies have shown that natural compounds found in green tea reduce inflammation, support immunity, and offer antiviral and antibacterial properties. Drinking a hot liquid can also soothe a sore throat. And the steam can help open up stuffed nasal passages and support drainage, which may offer some sinus relief.
Chamomile tea has also been tied to an increase in antibacterial activity in the body, and it supports sleep, which also protects immunity. Honey can boast some cold and flu-busting benefits, too. It is anti-inflammatory, has been shown to ease a sore throat and reduce coughing (when consumed as is, in place of cough syrup), and it may help fight bacteria and viruses. All in all, some good stuff in this drink may ease unpleasant symptoms and bolster immunity.
Now for the not so good news. The medicine ball is loaded with sugar. The lemonade contains it, as does the honey, which add up to a whopping 30 grams total, or 7.5 teaspoons. That’s one and a half teaspoons over the recommended maximum of six teaspoons of added sugar daily for women—and that's just in this one drink.
I also don’t like that it contains artificial flavoring, and the honey isn’t the raw, organic variety. The exact type of honey or processing method, which does impact the quality and healthfulness, isn’t specified. The honey packets also contain potassium sorbate, an artificial preservative. To scope these thing out, always read through the ingredient list. I’m hoping that in the near future, Starbucks will make a commitment to nixing all artificial additives.
In the meantime, here’s the bottom line: Drinking one Honey Citrus Mint Tea a day probably won’t prevent you from catching germs going around the office or while traveling. And it packs a serious dose of sugar. But if you’re feeling miserable and still trying to power through work or errands, popping into a Starbucks to grab this drink may help. (Tip: Opt for one honey packet instead of two).
Can't get to Starbucks? DIY it and make your own medicine ball drink at home. Steep organic green, chamomile, mint, and turmeric teas, add some fresh grated ginger, a teaspoon of either raw organic honey or pure maple syrup, and a pinch of black pepper (the latter is needed in order to absorb the beneficial curcumin found in turmeric).
Above all, eat your veggies, prioritize rest and sleep, and practice proper handwashing (the number one most effective way to prevent catching a cold or flu).
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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