Is Starbucks fudging the numbers on its calorie counts?

Update: A commenter explained why Starbucks’ calorie counts seem so wonky.  Read all the way to the end for the explanation, and my comments.

Pun very much intended.

Two weeks ago, I was down in Southern California for a few days of catching up with old friends, hanging out at the beach in San Diego (where I grew up), and partying in my favorite goth club in Hollywood. 

A friend and I met up at a Starbucks in LA, and I thought about getting myself a pumpkin spice latte, which at the time I had never had before.  So I looked at the menu, and here’s what I saw:

 

Four thoughts came into my head, in the following order.

First, dear lord those coffees have a lot of calories.  I’m glad I never got onboard with the Starbucks craze.

Second, I have no idea what the difference between a latte and a frappuccino is.  None whatsoever.  I was sure it was called the pumpkin spice latte, but that’s not what the menu says.

Third, it’s a bit weird how the small size is called the tall.  Also weird how the mix English and Italian size names.  Tall, grande, venti- just a bit weird IMO. 

Fourth, something about the calorie counts for the pumpkin spice seems a bit…off. 

Going from twelve to sixteen ounces is a 150-calorie increase, but then going from sixteen to twenty ounces is only a 50-calorie increase?  Am I really reading this right? 

I did a little bit of mental math, and some of the other calorie counts seemed off too.  So I snapped a quick photo and then ordered a cup of Earl Grey, because I’ll be damned if I’m going to drink something that has twice as much sugar as a Coke. 

Today I finally got around to taking another look at that photo- are the calorie counts really as unreasonable as they seem?  To answer that question, I calculated the calories per ounce of each size of each drink on the menu.

Name

Cal/oz at 12 oz

Cal/oz at 16 oz

Cal/oz at 20 oz

Shaken Iced Tea Infusions

2.5

2.8

3

Iced Tea Infusions Lemonades

4.2

4.4

5

Iced Tea Lemonades

5.8

5.6

6.5

Classic Chai tea Latte

15.8

15

15.5

Strawberry Acai Refresher

6.7

5.6

6.5

Maple Pecan Frappucino

25

27.5

27

Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino

28.3

27.5

27

Pumpkin Spice Frappuccino

25

28.1

25

Dark Mocha Frappuccino

25.8

28.1

29

Caramel Frappuccino

25

26

25.5

Java Chip Frappuccino

28.3

29.4

30

Vanilla Bean Creme Frappuccino

23.3

25

24.5

The bolded menu items are the ones I consider to be suspicious.  Why?  Two reasons.  First, the caloric density doesn’t consistently increase or decrease- instead, it either goes down then up, or up then down.  Second, the discrepancy is more than ten calories, since it looks like they’re rounding to the nearest ten, at least for the high-calorie items. 

The first explanation that came to mind was that maybe the beverages have some ingredients which don’t scale with size- maybe they add the same amount of whipped cream, syrup, etc, regardless of size.  However, if that were the case, I would expect caloric density to consistently either increase or decrease with size. 

The second was that maybe they switch up the formula altogether for different sizes.  However, I can’t think of any logical way for that to fit the data.  If they were doing that, I’d expect them to make each beverage less sweet as it gets larger- since the sweeter something is, the faster you get tired of it.  Yet I don’t see consistent decreases in calorie density as size increases.  Update: It looks like this is more or less the correct explanation- read to the end for a full explanation.

The third possibility is that as total calories increase, Starbucks gets increasingly imprecise with its rounding.  Maybe they start rounding to the nearest twenty, or even fifty. Maybe they’re inconsistent in how they round.

The fourth and final possibility is that Starbucks has simply been sloppy in measuring calorie content, using inconsistent methods or even simply winging it. 

The pumpkin spice is the real standout here- it looks like the calorie counts may be off by fifty calories or more. 

Or there could, of course, be another reason for all this that simply hasn’t occurred to me.  Regardless of the explanation, the calorie counts are at the very least highly counterintuitive, and most likely have a high margin of error.  You would think that a 16 oz would have 33% more calories than a 12 oz, but you’d be wrong.

In the end, the lesson is straightforward: you can’t trust restaurant calorie counts, and Starbucks is by no means unique in that regard.  Other studies have shown that restaurant calorie counts are often off by 20% or more.  Also, don’t drink 500 calories of sugar and cream.

As a footnote to this story, I did end up trying a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte- or frappuccino, hell if I know.  It wasn’t that good- you can make a low-sugar pumpkin spice coffee at home that tastes ten times better, and save yourself a few hundred calories in the process. 

Update: According to commenter Margot, the explanation is that the formulas change for different sizes.  For example:

A tall latte has 1 shot of espresso, 3 pumps of flavoring and the rest ~ 10oz is milk
A grande latte has 2 shots of espresso, 4 pumps of flavoring and the rest ~ 12oz is milk
A venti latte has 2 shots of espresso, 5 pumps of flavoring and the rest ~15 oz is milk.

So the calorie counts aren’t made up, but the recipes vary wildly between sizes because different ingredients scale differently, and ingredient volumes are chosen more for convenience of measurement than anything else.  Who’d have guessed that a 16 oz has twice as much caffeine as a 12 oz?   Still, it seems the answer to the title question of this article is no: Starbucks isn’t fudging its calorie counts, but its formulas could benefit from a little more precision.  Starbucks is still a good place to get some work done, but I’ll stick with tea while I’m there.

2 thoughts on “Is Starbucks fudging the numbers on its calorie counts?

  1. I believe that part of the difference is in how they scale ingredients. Other than whipped cream and other excessiveness there are three main ingredients in a Starbucks beverage. Espresso, Milk, and Flavor (chocolate, flavored syrup etc).

    Espresso has an almost zero number of calories and a volume of ~1.5oz per shot.
    Milk 2% has 15 calories per ounce
    Each pump of flavor syrup is 1/4oz and each pump of flavoring sauce is 1/2oz.

    The ratios and recipes do not scale linearly:

    A tall latte has 1 shot of espresso, 3 pumps of flavoring and the rest ~ 10oz is milk
    A grande latte has 2 shots of espresso, 4 pumps of flavoring and the rest ~ 12oz is milk
    A venti latte has 2 shots of espresso, 5 pumps of flavoring and the rest ~15 oz is milk.

    1. Okay, that makes sense- multiple ingredients that scale differently. That seems like a problem, since each size is a fundamentally different beverage- but it sounds like the calorie counts are probably more accurate than it looked. Good to know.

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