Eating well · In the news

How about a Xmas Latte anyone?

It is that time of the year again.  Creeping into middle of November, its getting cold and dark, warming mugs of hot milky drinks are just the ticket.  To start getting all festive, lots of our favourite coffee shop chains are bringing out their flavoured hot drinks.  Gingerbread latte, eggnogg latte, fudge hot chocolate and toffee or caramel lattes.  They do sound lovely, I am particularly fond of the gingerbread variety – although I have to say, I always find them a bit too sweet by about halfway down the mug.

I have been asked to write a nutrition article about coffee shops so I was doing a little research on the nutrition of coffee shop offerings.   I was quite surprised to see just how much sugar is in these festive drinks.  In a typical tall (my usual size) latte with a festive syrup flavouring, the added sugar amounted to 17.1g – I have purposely chosen the added sugar figure which is sometimes not so easy to find, usually you can only find the total sugar.  So I am not including here the natural lactose present in the milk.  When converting grams to teaspoons it is generally accepted in the UK that 4g of sugar is 1 teaspoon.  In this tall gingery latte, I am having 4.275 teaspoons of sugar (assuming a perfect teaspoon).  If I had felt really cold and in need of a bigger latte then the grande would clock up 22.2g or 5.55 of your perfect 4g teaspoons.

Just to put that into perspective, the World Health Organisation recommends that we aim to have no more than 6 teaspoons of added or free sugars a day.  Mmm – one grande festive coffee and you only have half a teaspoon left in your quota for the rest of the day, better not have that mince pie with the coffee then?  That’s a lot of sugar in a mug of coffee.

And if you are someone who opts for or has to choose a soya or a nut ‘milk’ the added sugar can be higher as the milk alternative used has sugar added already.  You could be looking at 32.8g of added sugar in a grande flavoured latte made with a milk alternative.  That’s 8.2 of your perfect 4g teaspoons.

After looking at the official figures on the coffee shops’ web pages I noticed that these flavoured drinks have been in the news.  The charity ‘Action Against Sugar’ had done some analysis of these drinks.  The figures they quote are total sugar.  The total sugar figures were higher than those in the official listings (just looking at the Starbucks figures that I had printed from the internet, quite a lot higher in some cases.)  I suppose there is no surprise as the drinks are made by hand and so the amount of syrup, caramel toppings and whipped cream will vary.  The figures in the tables are going to be based on exact measures decided on and meet with the instructions given to the staff.

I saw someone on twitter bemoaning a scaremongering article about the sugar in these coffees, about demonising a treat drink and making it something we should feel guilty about if we should drink one.   I totally get her point.  There is too much of this good food/bad food thing going on and it can make us feel guilty about having a little something that we enjoy that is a little on the indulgent side.  If you like the really sweet gingerbread latte and you know it has 4 teaspoons of sugar (but may have more) then have it, sit down and enjoy it.  Just maybe not every time you nip out for coffee.

But……isn’t there always a but…..does that drink really need to have that much sugar in it?  How many people would choose to buy a latte and put more than 4 teaspoonfuls of sugar in it?  Not that many.  There are some people who like their coffee sweet.  If I went and asked a few people how many sugars they thought was in the flavoured latte would they say 4?  In reality in the shop it could be more like 6?

This is a perfect example of how we could do so much more to improve our food environment.  I have no problem someone choosing to have a really sweet drink with lots of yummy flavoured syrup.  But the amount of sugar should be a choice and controlled by the person doing the drinking.  The easy choice, the standard choice should be a realistic choice to keep within healthy guidelines for a day.

The coffee shops would say that the information is out there for people to make that choice.  That they only make them that way because that is what the consumer wants to buy.  Some coffee shops have made it clear that they are looking to reformulate their drinks in line with the Public Health England’s work on sugar reduction and give consumers tips on how they can easily make better choices in their stores (well done Costa – that was very clear on your website).

So yes, the information is available if you want to seek it out.  But in a busy coffee shop do people look for the information?  It might be up there on the board with the price, it may be in a leaflet that is on a counter and if you look on the website you will have a pdf quite a few pages long to sift through, in the case of Costa the pdf was 53 pages listing every variable of their drinks possible as well as all their food items!

But running into a coffee shop to grab a coffee quickly or meandering in there with friends at lunch time with a busy queue, are people going to look or are they going to just order their coffee?  They know the flavoured ones have syrup and therefore are sweeter and more calorie dense but it can’t be much worse than adding a sugar to an ordinary latte, can it?  Actually, approximately 12g more assuming the sugar sachets are 5g. Assuming the Barista is following the instructions to the letter to get the composition somewhere close to what is listed on the web.

You could also argue that there is the the sugar free syrup.  Personally, I don’t like the taste of the sugar free syrup – I am not a huge fan of artificial sweetners, they always leave a strange after taste in my mouth.  And it is still too sweet because it is made to taste like the real thing – really sweet!!

So come on coffee shops – do the right thing.  Make the automatic option for every drink to be much lower in sugar.  Let the consumer be in control of the sweetness of their coffee.  Make those syrups less sweet – not by using sweetners, the sugar free option can stay – leave the decision of how much sugar to add to the drink squarely in the hands of the consumer.  I can have my gingery flavoured steamed milk or latte and enjoy it right to the bottom!!  I would be able to add the amount of sugar that was right for me.  The technology is there, the flavourings are there.

Can we have a range of drinks with lots of different flavour options where one large drink isn’t giving you more than the WHO max intake of sugar per day (approx 24g) in one hit.  We must change our food environment if we are to shift the growing obesity levels in the UK.  Much easier to add more than to take sugar out.  Make less sweet the standard, make it easier to make the better choice.

If we gradually make the food and drinks on offer, those things that are eaten frequently, offered to us everywhere all a little bit better, whether that be adjusting portion sizes, reformulation, better nutrition profiles, more fibre etc and put the more indulgent choices such that we to actively choose to buy them, that is going to make things better.   There is no one solution to tackle the steady rise in obesity.  This is one way that manufacturers and retailers can do their bit.

So, if you are heading to the coffee shop choose wisely, be indulgent if you want to be.  Maybe think of the size coffee you buy, maybe skip the cream, maybe ask for a little less syrup. Or maybe occasionally go the whole hog and get the works but make sure you sit down and enjoy that very festive coffee, enjoy every sip.  Perhaps not every day.  But if you are just quickly grabbing a coffee just go for the plain old, no frills variety!  Or maybe opt for a lovely cup of tea instead!

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