Frappuccino Quantified: Starbucks to Add Calorie Counts

There are 670 calories in a venti Double Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino Blended Crème. The multibillion-dollar coffeehouse chain just announced that it will add calorie counts to menus, staying a step ahead of the FDA.
(Michael Conroy / AP)

This morning, Starbucks announced that starting next Tuesday it will post the calorie content of all its coffee drinks and food items in all its company-owned stores in the U.S.

This is big news, and overdue. For many people who don't want to think about calories, or think they have a good idea of the calories in what they're eating, Starbucks is the first place they experience sticker shock -- the 460-calorie blueberry scone that's a quarter of the 2000 calories many women aim to eat every day, the seemingly healthful slice of banana-walnut bread that's 490 calories. But then you can look for and find lower-calorie items on the menu that's labeled (at Starbucks, for instance, bagels under 300 calories), and start to acquire a sense of the calorie count of what you're regularly ordering out  and eating at home -- the real utility of calorie labeling.

meritbadgeman.jpgBlueberry scone (Starbucks)

The FDA was supposed to release national rules for the national labeling required of all restaurants with at least 20 locations -- one of the best, if least-noticed, parts of the Affordable Care Act. Years later, food-industry skirmishes and rumored cold feet by the White House Office of Management and Budget are still holding up those rules, as Marion Nestle recently documented. My home state of Massachusetts passed a statewide calorie-labeling law in 2009; it never got implemented, so restaurants would not need to retool menus once the ACA rules went into national effect. That's four years of lost opportunity to modify eating behavior. And even after the rules come out, which the FDA says now will be by the end of this year, there'll be at least another year to wait for them to be implemented.

In the meantime, initial studies of the effects of menu labeling on behavior and weight reduction produced mixed results, to the delight of the food industry. But, as I wrote here, there will always be plenty of people who decide they don't want the food police telling them what to do, they want to splurge, they'll order more calories for better bang for the buck. That's all fine.

The point of public health is not to dictate personal behavior, however many times the soda industry dresses Mayor Bloomberg as a nanny. The point is to make the default food environment more healthful, and mandatory calorie labeling has an important curbing effect on businesses that don't want to look like they're only offering high-calorie, unhealthy offerings. Starbucks itself made its own default milk choice 2 percent rather than whole, to get ahead of the sticker shock it knew would come once calorie labeling became the rule in New York City.

One of the less discouraging early studies on consumer behavior, conducted by Stanford researchers at Starbucks stores in New York City, which had calorie labeling, and Boston and Philadelphia, which didn't yet, showed that people did consciously order lower-calorie items after the information was in their faces every time they made a purchase. Starbucks didn't take the news as encouragement, though; when I wrote about that and other more-encouraging studies, a spokeswoman implied that the company would wait until national standards were in place before implementing labeling anyplace it didn't have to.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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