Festive hot drinks loaded with sugar and calories

Research of the UK’s biggest coffee shops has found that some seasonal lattes and hot chocolates contain up to three times the recommended daily allowances for sugar, and more calories than a Dominos pizza.

Many high street coffee chains are failing to make progress towards the UK government’s voluntary sugar reduction targets (overseen by Public Health England) with their festive milk and milk alternative hot beverages – most of which would be eligible for the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – according to a new nationwide survey by Action on Sugar, based at Queen Mary University of London.

The survey, which analysed both the sugar and calorie content of the largest available sizes of hot chocolates and seasonal lattes made with milk and milk alternatives (i.e. oat, almond, coconut, soya, rice-coconut) by popular high street chains, revealed certain seasonal beverages contain almost as much sugar as three cans of Coca Cola.

All of the largest available size products surveyed would receive a red traffic light for total sugars (>13.5g/portion) – the exception being Costa’s Gingerbread Latte (Medio) (made either with milk, soya or almond milk).

When it comes to seasonal lattes, Starbucks ranks the highest with its Gingerbread Latte with Oat Milk with over 14 teaspoons of sugar (56.6g) and 523 calories per portion – the equivalent of eating 17 custard cream biscuits. If the same hot beverage was served with almond milk instead of oat milk, this would reduce the sugar content by 4.5 teaspoons of sugar (18g).

Sugar content of seasonal lattes (largest available from each outlet):

Outlet Product Name Size Milk Used Calories per portion (kcal) Sugar per portion (g)
Starbucks Gingerbread Latte Venti Oat 523 56.6
Costa Hazelnut Praline & Cream Latte (take away) Medio Semi-skimmed 388 32.5
Pret Rice-coconut Crème Brulee Latte 330g Rice-coconut 216 31.5
McDonald’s Millionaire Latte Large Semi-skimmed 248 29
Caffe Nero Salted Caramel Latte Grande Skimmed 160 28.6
EAT Gingerbread latte Regular Semi-skimmed 206 23

According to the survey findings, the overall worst seasonal drinks offender is Starbucks’ Signature Caramel Hot Chocolate with whipped cream, using Oat Milk (Venti). This extra-sweet beverage has 23 teaspoons (93.7g) of sugar in one drink, and 758 calories – the same as eating four white chocolate and strawberry muffins.

In comparison, Leon Hot Chocolate (regular) has just over four teaspoons of sugar (17g) and 257 calories, demonstrating that lower sugar drinks can be made and enjoyed.

While there are sugars naturally occurring in cow’s milk, the type of milk used has a large impact on the sugar and calorie content of beverages. Unsweetened milk alternatives are naturally similar or lower in sugars than cow’s milk, however many are sweetened to mask off-tastes. For example, Starbuck’s Oat Milk Venti Latte has over seven teaspoons of sugar (29.5g) and 350 calories per serve compared to Starbucks Almond Venti Latte which has under three teaspoons of sugar (11g) and 121 calories per serve.

Action on Sugar is now urging the government to ensure that the mandatory soft drinks industry levy will be extended to both sugary milk and milk-alternative based drinks in order to inform consumers and protect their health.

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