One of the most appealing aspects of Starbucks' menu is that you can customize your beverage
Here are the best options if you're focused on healthy choices within the limits of the menu
Editor’s Note: Lisa Drayer was once a public spokesperson for Starbucks, for a specific product and for a limited time in 2008-09. This was not disclosed when this story was first published.
You can’t go too far these days without running into a Starbucks. The chain is so ubiquitous, it’s almost like having an outsourced pantry staple available within a 5-mile radius (or a few city blocks) all day.
You can always count on it for coffee, tea and some tasty bites to fuel you up in the morning or to tide you over until lunch or dinner.
But if we can count on Starbucks to be “there” for us, what are the most nutritious options among so many different beverages, mini-meals and snacks?
Starbucks makes it easy for us, especially when it comes to deciding what to drink. One of the most appealing aspects of Starbucks’ menu is that you can customize your beverage to your liking. To order even a simple drink at Starbucks is to participate in some level of customization, when you take into account the size, temperature (hot or iced) and fat content of the milk. We really like this level of personalization, considering we all have different nutritional needs and preferences.
When it comes to calories in Starbucks beverages, the count varies greatly. The lowest-calorie options at Starbucks include unsweetened coffee and tea. For example, a tall (12 ounce) brewed coffee has 5 calories, and the same size brewed tea has zero calories. The same size nonfat cappuccino has only 60 calories, mostly from the milk.
In general, if you want to enjoy some sweetness in your beverage but don’t want to over-consume calories, you can ask for less syrup (i.e. fewer “pumps”: Most hot espresso beverages contain three, four and five pumps of syrup for tall, grande and Venti, respectively).
Even better, order your beverage “skinny,” which means it will be made with nonfat milk and sugar-free syrup and without whipped cream. For example, a grande (16 ounce) vanilla latte with whole milk has 290 calories and 11 grams of fat (6 grams saturated). But the skinny version, with nonfat milk and sugar-free syrup, has 120 calories and 0 grams of fat.
Other lighter cold beverages include a tall Teavana Shaken Iced Passion Tango tea or an iced coffee, which are lightly sweetened and contain only 60 calories (both have zero calories if you omit the sweetener).
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Finally, if you are not willing to part with syrups or whipped cream – or full-fat milk, for that matter – choose the smallest size. A Venti (24 ounce) mocha Frappuccino containing whole milk, whipped cream, syrup and mocha sauce contains 520 calories and 10 grams, or about half a day’s worth of saturated fat. But the mini size (10 ounce) version contains 190 calories and 4 grams of saturated fat. Still not dietetic, but significantly skinnier.
Though you can customize a beverage to your liking at Starbucks, the same does not hold true for the chain’s food. You can ask a barista to take something off of a sandwich – bacon, for example – and bagels and oatmeal are customizable with toppings and spreads. But that’s about it when it comes to personalizing meals and snacks.
Aside from breakfast foods and bakery items, Starbucks offers salad bowls; bistro boxes that contain fewer than 500 calories and are suited for different palates; and yogurt parfaits, which have fewer than 300 calories and provide 13 to 14 grams of protein.
And it is trying to help. The chain reduced sodium by 20% for all breakfast sandwiches; however, some still have a lot fewer milligrams than others. And by the end of 2017, the company claims that all beverages will be free of artificial flavors. It is also committed to reducing average added sugar in some of the more indulgent beverages by 25% by the end of 2020.
Here are the best Starbucks options if you’re focused on healthy choices within the limits of the menu. We break it down by our picks for kids, athletes, drivers, vegetarians and vegans, as well as low-calorie, low-sugar, low-salt, gluten-free and low-carb options.
Breakfast: Egg and cheddar breakfast sandwich
Lunch: PB&J on wheat bistro box
Snack: Chocolate cake pop
Beverage: Vanilla crème with nonfat milk (8 ounces) or organic low-fat plain milk box (Horizon)
We’re not surprised to see that there is no specific children’s menu at Starbucks. After all, kids generally don’t go to Starbucks to eat – or to consume coffee, for that matter. But if you find yourself needing a caffeine boost with kids in tow, there are some nutritious, kid-friendly options to consider, and they don’t include items from the bakery section.
We really like the egg and cheddar breakfast sandwich and the PB&J on wheat bistro box, which has apple slices, string cheese and veggies with Greek yogurt dip. (We don’t think kids will mind the chocolate-covered raisins, either).
If your child is craving a sweet treat, the chocolate cake pop will be sure to please, and it won’t top the calorie charts. When it comes to kid-friendly beverages, on a cold day, consider a vanilla crème with nonfat milk in lieu of hot chocolate. An 8-ounce cup has fewer calories (100) and more calcium (25%) than the same size nonfat hot chocolate without whipped cream, which has 140 calories and 20% calcium. We also like the organic low-fat milk boxes from the ready to drink cooler section of the store.
Breakfast: Strawberry Greek yogurt parfait, or egg and cheddar breakfast sandwich
Lunch: Roasted tomato and mozzarella panini
Beverage: Café latte with soy milk (12 ounces) or unsweetened iced coffee with nonfat milk (16 ounces)
Vegetarians can choose from a variety of protein-rich options at Starbucks. The Evolution Fresh Greek yogurt parfaits and the egg and cheddar breakfast sandwich each have 14 grams of protein and provide 15% of your daily calcium needs. For lunch, we like the tasty roasted tomato and mozzarella panini with spinach and pesto.
We would recommend the cheese and fruit bistro box too, since it’s so portable, but it does contain about half a day’s worth of saturated fat, from the cheese (10 grams).
Pair any of the above with a tall (12 ounce) caffé latte with soy milk, which delivers 7 grams of protein and a third of your daily calcium needs. In warmer weather, an unsweetened iced coffee with nonfat milk will keep you cool. Note that you need to specify “unsweetened” iced coffee: A standard tall iced coffee contains three pumps of simple syrup; most syrups contain about 20 to 25 calories per pump. If you want some sweetness without extra sugar calories, you can ask for just one pump or sugar-free syrup instead.
Breakfast: Hearty blueberry oatmeal or multigrain bagel
Lunch: Hearty veggie and brown rice salad bowl
Snack: Hippeas far out fajita
Beverage: Caffé Misto with soy milk (12 ounces) or unsweetened iced coffee with coconut milk (12 ounces)
When it comes to options for vegans, the hearty blueberry oatmeal tops our list. It provides 5 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber, which helps slow the post-meal rise in blood sugar, contributing to sustained energy throughout the morning.
We are also impressed with the multigrain bagel, with 17 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber from ingredients including oats, flax and sunflower seeds. For comparison, Starbucks’ plain bagel has 9 grams of protein and 2 grams of fiber. However, you will have to enjoy your bagel sans spreads, as there are no dairy-free spreads available to pair it with. The chain is testing an avocado spread in two markets, but it’s not available nationwide just yet.
For lunch, we highly recommend the hearty veggie and brown rice salad bowl, a fiber and antioxidant-rich medley with butternut squash, beets, kale, broccoli and roasted tomatoes. If you avoid honey, skip the lemon-tahini dressing. If you are in the mood for a snack, try “hippeas”: protein-rich chickpea puffs that are certified vegan.
To sip, a Caffé Misto with steamed soy milk will keep you warm in the winter. In summertime, an iced coffee with coconut milk is low in saturated fat and contributes 80 calories; however, save 60 calories by ordering it unsweetened. Note that while foods may be free of ingredients of animal origin, the chain is cautious about calling foods “vegan” unless they are packaged and “certified vegan,” as foods are subject to cross contamination.
For calorie counters
Breakfast: Classic whole-grain oatmeal or reduced-fat turkey bacon and cage-free egg white breakfast sandwich
Lunch: Zesty chicken and black bean salad bowl
Beverage: Nonfat cappuccino (12 ounces) or unsweetened iced coffee with nonfat milk (12 ounces)
If you are looking to shed pounds and are keeping a close eye on calories, you can’t go wrong with choosing the classic whole-grain oatmeal. Without any toppings, it has 160 calories, 5 grams of protein and 4 grams of filling fiber. We recommend adding a bit of dried fruit to boost sweetness.
The reduced-fat turkey bacon and cage-free egg white breakfast sandwich with reduced-fat white cheddar cheese is also a filling, calorie-controlled option, with 16 grams of protein and only 230 calories.
For lunch, the zesty chicken and black bean salad bowl is under 400 calories and offers a satisfying combination of protein and carbs, but we particularly like the fact that it has 8 grams of fiber, which fills you up without providing additional calories, as well as some appetite-suppressing spice from its chili vinaigrette.
When it comes to beverages, the lowest-calorie options at Starbucks include unsweetened coffee (5 calories for a tall, or 12 ounces) and tea (zero calories, even for unsweetened Iced Passion Tango tea). Additionally, a tall café Americano has only 10 calories.
It also depends how strictly you are watching calories. If you are on a 1,400- or 1,600-calorie diet, we understand you might prefer to eat your calories instead of drink them. However, if you have a little more wiggle room, a tall nonfat cappuccino has only 60 calories and delivers 20% of your daily calcium needs. Additionally, a tall iced coffee with nonfat milk that is lightly sweetened (with 3 pumps of syrup) has 80 calories, but if you order it with one pump of syrup, the count goes down to 35 calories. The unsweetened version is the lowest, at only 20 calories. And if you enjoy a flavored latte, order it “skinny,” which means it will be made with nonfat milk and sugar-free syrup (the “skinny” definition also implies no whipped cream, where appropriate).
For the sugar-sensitive
Breakfast: Reduced-fat turkey bacon and cage-free egg white breakfast sandwich or classic whole-grain oatmeal
Lunch: Roasted tomato and mozzarella panini
Beverage: Café Americano (12 ounces) or unsweetened Teavana Shaken Iced Passion Tango tea (16 ounces)
The first step in slashing sugar calories at Starbucks is to skip over the bakery items, Venti (20-ounce) flavored lattes and Frappuccinos. The next step is to check out the hot breakfast menu, which offers some of the lowest-sugar options at the chain, such as the egg and cheddar breakfast sandwich, with 2 grams of sugar, and the reduced-fat turkey bacon sandwich, with 3 grams of sugar.
The classic whole-grain oatmeal has zero grams of sugar without any toppings, but you might want to add some dried fruit or nuts, which are optional.
There are many low-sugar options for lunch at Starbucks, but the sodium levels are too high for our comfort level. We recommend the tomato and mozzarella panini, which has only 3 grams of sugar. Pair it with unsweetened coffee, espresso or tea to keep sugar grams at a minimum.
And when it comes to sweet drinks without extra sugar calories, choose “skinny” or light versions of your favorites.
For the salt-sensitive
Breakfast or lunch (mini-meal): Fresh blueberries and honey Greek yogurt parfait
Snack: Seasonal harvest fruit blend
Beverage: Café latte with nonfat milk (16 ounces) or iced skinny flavored latte (16 ounces)
If you are looking for a mini-meal and watching salt intake, Starbucks’ Greek yogurt parfaits come in tasty blueberry, strawberry and dark sweet cherry combinations and are by far the lowest-sodium menu items at the chain, ranging from 65 to 75 milligrams per parfait. We especially like the blueberry and honey parfait, as the blue fruit is loaded with anthocyanins, which protect against aging. The yogurt is also rich in potassium, which can help to blunt the blood pressure-raising effects of sodium.
The classic whole-grain and hearty blueberry oatmeals are also low-sodium breakfast options, with 125 milligrams each.
When it comes to lunch, there is nothing on the Starbucks sandwich, panini and salad menu that is under 600 milligrams of sodium, and bistro boxes range from 460 to 830 milligrams of sodium, so the yogurt parfait is still the best option if you are closely watching sodium intake.
For a snack, the seasonal harvest fruit blend is sodium-free and is a healthful add-on to any meal, as it contributes antioxidants and fiber, for only 90 calories.
To sip, we like the grande (16-ounce) nonfat latte, as it offers almost half of our daily calcium needs and adds even more potassium to the meal. An iced skinny latte is a sweet, calcium-rich option during warmer months.
For the gluten-sensitive
Breakfast: Hearty blueberry oatmeal or strawberry Greek yogurt parfait
Lunch: Hearty veggie brown rice and salad bowl
Snack: Kale chips, zesty nacho
Beverage: Nonfat latte macchiato (12 ounces) or iced café latte with nonfat milk (16 ounces)
You won’t find much success if you are specifically looking for “gluten-free” items at Starbucks. The only gluten-free-labeled product we could find is a gluten-free marshmallow dream bar.
There is no dedicated section for allergen information on the company’s website, so you have to navigate carefully if you are allergic to gluten, or wheat or milk, for that matter. Starbucks cautiously maintains that its food is handled in an open environment and is subject to cross-contamination.
However, some meals such as the hearty blueberry or classic whole-grain oatmeal, Greek strawberry yogurt parfait, or hearty veggie brown rice and salad bowl are nutritious options that do not have gluten-containing ingredients.
Additionally, if you are avoiding gluten, you won’t be surprised to learn that the chain’s scones, cakes and muffins are off-limits. But you can enjoy a bag of zesty nacho kale chips, which have 6 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber to keep you satisfied.
Since gluten is generally not an issue when it comes to beverages (that is, except for the java chip Frappuccino, which contains cookie crumbs), we decided to list some of our favorites, such as the nonfat latte macchiato and the nonfat iced café latte, for their bone-building calcium.
For the athlete
Breakfast: Spinach, feta and cage-free egg white breakfast wrap or hearty blueberry oatmeal
Lunch: Egg salad sandwich
Beverage: Organic low-fat chocolate milk box (Horizon) or strawberry smoothie with non-fat milk (16 ounces)
Starbucks’ spinach, feta and cage-free egg white breakfast wrap offers 19 grams of protein, which is a welcome dose for weight lifters, and has plenty of carbs to fuel a light cardio workout. Athletes can also fuel up with the hearty blueberry oatmeal.
For lunch, we like the protein and iron-rich egg salad sandwich. The sandwich delivers 42 grams of carbs, which is especially beneficial post-workout.
When it comes to a post-workout beverage, the choice depends on the intensity and duration of the workout. For a low-intensity workout, like a brisk walk, Pilates or yoga, water is fine. For a morning jog, low-fat chocolate milk offers adequate carbs and protein, along with electrolytes lost in sweat, like sodium and potassium. If you are training for a marathon, feel free to grab Starbucks’ strawberry smoothie, which provides a generous amount of carbohydrates to replenish muscle glycogen stores, as well as 16 grams of protein, which provides amino acids for muscle building and repair.
For the road warrior
Breakfast: Ham and cheese savory foldover
Lunch: Protein bistro box
Snack: Kind bar, blueberry vanilla and cashew
Beverage: Café latte with nonfat milk (12 ounces) or cool lime Starbucks Refreshers beverage (12 ounces)
If you are on the road, our guess is that you might want to grab a quick bite from Starbucks’ bakery counter. If that’s the case, consider the ham and cheese savory foldover. Unlike many of the chain’s bakery items, this croissant has fewer than 300 calories and offers 13 grams of protein, which will satisfy you for a morning road trip. We are also pleased to see it has less than 500 milligrams of sodium).
For lunch, we like the protein bistro box that is packed with easy-to-nibble foods including a hard-boiled egg, apple slices, cheddar cheese, muesli bread and peanut butter. For long drives, grab a Kind bar, which will come in handy when hunger pangs begin to distract.
For a road trip on a hot summer day, a tall lime Starbucks Refresher is a welcome treat: It has a third of the calories of a typical lemonade and is lightly caffeinated with green coffee extract to keep you alert on the road.
For the carb-conscious
Breakfast: Protein bistro box (minus the muesli bread and grapes)
Lunch: Protein bistro box (minus the muesli bread and grapes)
Snack: Squirrel Black truffle almonds
Beverage: Caffé Misto with nonfat milk (12 ounces) or iced café Americano (16 ounces)
If you’re on a low-carb diet, Starbucks is not going to be at the top of the list for a bite to eat. The lowest-carb foods we could find on its food nutrition menu is the Frappuccino cookie straw, at 14 grams, and the petite vanilla bean scone, with 18 grams of carbs.
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So your best bet is to get the protein bistro box with a hard-boiled egg, cheddar cheese and peanut butter. Feel free to enjoy some apple slices too, but the muesli bread won’t make the low-carb cut. If you subtract both the bread and grapes from the meal, the carb count goes down from 37 grams to 11 grams.
For a low-carb snack, heart-healthy almonds are available, though if you are watching calories too, stick to a half portion, as a full serving contains 270 calories.
When it comes to drinks, keep in mind that any beverage containing milk will include carbs from naturally occurring lactose, and we encourage you to include milk in your morning beverage to get an that calcium boost. A tall (12-ounce) Caffé Misto with steamed nonfat milk has only 8 grams of carbs and delivers 20% of your daily calcium needs. If you are looking for a low-carb beverage without milk, a café Americano (hot or iced) will satisfy. You can add a pump of sugar-free syrup and whipped cream without making a dent in the carb content, though in that case, we recommend a tall size, as doing so boosts calories and saturated fat.
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, author and health journalist.