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Starbucks’s Fall Drinks: Which to Pick & Which to Skip

There are loads of things to love about the changing seasons. In my Autumn-loving, layer-happy, snuggle-adoring opinion, there isn’t a single aspect of our lives that isn’t enriched, somehow, by longer evenings and lower temperatures. Think about it—chillier weather means you end up spending more time indoors bundled up in a soft blanket, watching movies with friends and, perhaps, studying. You get to break out your sweaters, ankle boots, long scarves, and warm jacket. Best of all, cold weather is pretty much food’s fairy godmother. With an easy “bippity-boppity-boo,” strawberries become apples, grilled turkey burgers are replaced by roasted Thanksgiving turkey, and a tall glass of sweet tea from grandma magically morphs into a tall Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks.
Starbucks’s ever-expanding menu of hot beverages is one of the franchise’s best attractions. Many of the chain’s most popular selections are offered all year, and a few of Starbucks’s seasonal drinks have already debuted, but several more options will appear from November 16 until January 3, 2011. As it is almost inevitable that you or someone you love will soon find herself heeding the siren call of Starbucks’s slightly creepy, smiling mascot, feel free to check out this guide to which cold beverages might be a sweet escape for you or a nightmare for a nutritionist.
Where to start?
If you’re a Starbucks newbie or are just looking for a new signature drink, you may feel overwhelmed by your options. Here’s a brief look at what you can expect to find in terms of calories and flavors:

  • Steamed Apple Juice: 110 calories
  • Cappuccino (Venti, whole milk): 180 calories
  • Caffe Latte (Venti, whole milk): 290 calories
  • Tazo Chai Tea Latte (Venti, whole milk): 320 calories
  • Gingerbread Latte (Venti, whole milk, whipped cream): 440 calories
  • Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate (Venti, whole milk, whipped cream): 600 calories
  • Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha (Venti, whole milk, whipped cream): 700 calories

As you can see, Starbucks offers a wide range of drinks that come in all tastes and sizes. But let’s be honest—although fruit juice is yummy and good for you, not a lot of college women order a steaming cup of apple juice when they head to Starbucks. It’s also unlikely that many of us will be chugging 700-calorie Venti White Chocolate Mochas every day. To get a better idea of how your favorite drink compares to a few others, keep reading to check out what you should pick and what you should skip.

Pick it or Skip It

Toffee Mocha vs. Caramel Macchiato
Toffee Mocha: espresso (75-150mg), toffee sauce, cocoa powder, steamed milk foam
Caramel Macchiato: espresso (75-150mg), caramel sauce, vanilla syrup, steamed milk
Pick: The Caramel Macchiato
Starbucks’s Caramel Macchiato is one of the most popular drinks offered, but it also turns out that it’s not too bad for you, either. A Macchiato with 2% has a range of 120 to 300 calories (short to venti) while a tall Toffee Mocha, also with 2%, ranges from 180 to 450 calories (short to venti) and has twice the amount of sodium. Although it’s important to keep sodium in mind, Kris Rumps, a registered dietitian from Duke Medical Center, notes that Americans are advised to consume 2000mg or less of sodium a day—so the 200mg or so of sodium that pops up in most of Starbucks’s lattes is actually pretty good. “I would focus less on sodium,” Kris says, “and perhaps more on calories in this case.” In this case, the Caramel Macchiato reigns supreme.
White Chocolate Mocha vs. Peppermint Mocha
White Chocolate Mocha: espresso (75-150mg), white chocolate-flavored sauce, steamed milk, sweetened whipped cream
Peppermint Mocha: espresso (75-150mg), chocolate-flavored syrup, peppermint-flavored syrup, steamed milk, sweetened whipped cream
Pick: The Peppermint Mocha
A White Chocolate Mocha with 2% and whipped cream ranges from 250 to 580 calories (short to venti), while the Peppermint Mocha ranges from 220 to 480 calories (short to venti) and has nearly twice the amount of sodium. The second drink is one of the cold weather’s hottest commodities and its calorie content makes it our pick, too. Even so, Kris advises Peppermint Mocha fans to watch out for the abundance of sugar that comes in a drink with extra syrups. “When you use multiple syrups, there’s a lot more sugar included. A high-sugar drink like this one that also comes with caffeine gives you a lot of energy at one time, but a couple hours later you crash.” Kris recommends that anyone who buys this drink just stick to a reasonable size.
Caramel Apple Spice vs. Tazo Vanilla Rooibos Tea Latte
Caramel Apple Spice: Steamed and pressed apple juice, cinnamon syrup, sweetened whipped cream, caramel drizzle
Vanilla Rooibos: Rooibos, steamed milk, vanilla syrup, cinnamon
Pick: Vanilla Rooibos
Both of these drinks use natural fruits and herbs and are caffeine-free, but the Rooibos comes out on top. The cider ranges from 210 to 460 calories (short to venti), while the antioxidant-rich Rooibos only ranges from 100 to 250 calories (short to venti). Rooibos almost seems to be a magical ingredient: in addition to being a key substance in this tasty drink, it is also used in some parts of South Africa to treat conditions such as eczema, asthma, and allergies. Although it seems like tea is always hyped-up, Kris Rumps believes that much of the hype is substantiated. “I think it’s great,” she says of the Rooibos. “I wouldn’t downplay the apple cider because I think apples are good, but the tea has a lot of nutritious components as well as antioxidants.”
Pumpkin Spice Latte vs. Hot Chocolate
Pumpkin Spice Latte: espresso (75-150mg), pumpkin, spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove), steamed milk, sweetened whipped cream
Hot Chocolate: steamed milk, vanilla-flavored syrup, mocha-flavored syrup, sweetened whipped cream, chocolate-flavored drizzle, *hidden caffeine content (15-30mg)
Pick: Hot Chocolate (but only by a tiny margin!)
Starbucks’s smooth, but not-too-sweet Hot Chocolate contains 210 to 460 calories (short to venti); while their notoriously delicious Pumpkin Spice Latte contains 210 to 470 calories (short to venti). This small difference would have been enough to declare a draw, however, the latte contains almost twice the amount sodium in each serving size. Kris also considers this match-up a pretty narrow one. “If you doctor the hot chocolate with whipped cream, it may be closer to the latte,” she says, “but you can always make modifications on both using skim milk. What’s interesting about these two drinks is that some research shows that chocolate and cinnamon are good for you. Though this is not an absolute fact, there seems to be evidence that cinnamon can be helpful for people with diabetes, and that there is some antioxidant value to chocolate.” Still, Kris is quick to remind anyone who plans to stock up on Pumpkin Spice Lattes and Starbucks Hot Chocolate that it’s unlikely that pure dark chocolate and pumpkin are being used in these drinks.

Pumpkin Spice Latte vs. Gingerbread Latte
Pumpkin Spice Latte: espresso (75-150mg), pumpkin, spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove), steamed milk, sweetened whipped cream
Gingerbread Latte: Espresso with steamed milk, gingerbread-flavored syrup, sweetened whipped cream, nutmeg
Pick: Gingerbread Latte
Since the Pumpkin Spice Latte is one of the juggernauts on the Starbucks fall/winter menu, it makes sense to match it up against the Gingerbread Latte, another popular drink with a similar taste. The Pumpkin Spice Latte contains 210 to 470 calories (short to venti), while the Gingerbread Latte includes 180 to 390 calories (short to venti). Yet as Kris notes, there isn’t much difference among the ingredients in both beverages. “This one depends on which flavor you like better, or calorie content,” she says. So although the Pumpkin Spice Latte is my personal favorite, it looks like I might want to add the Gingerbread Latte into the rotation.
Tazo Chai Tea Latte vs. Caffe Latte
Tazo Chai Tea Latte: espresso (50-100mg), Spiced black tea, steamed milk
Caffe Latte: espresso (75-150mg), steamed milk, foam
Pick: Tie
Starbucks’s Caffe Latte ranges from 100 to 240 calories (short to venti), while the Chai Latte ranges from 120 to 300 calories (short to venti). However, each serving of the Chai Latte has ¾ less sodium than the Caffe Latte. “Once again, there’s the benefit of the tea,” Kris says. “But I wouldn’t be too heavy on one or the other. Go with your flavor preference on this one—tea lovers or coffee lovers can easily lean toward one or the other.” In this case, if you’re looking for a classic drink without a lot of fuss, the Caffe Latte is for you. But if you prefer something a little sweeter, spicier, and with less caffeine, the Tazo Chai Latte is your best bet.
So, where does that leave you…?
All of this information may seem to take the fun out of indulging in Starbucks, but you don’t always have to make an either/or kind of sacrifice every time you buy a drink. If picking and skipping doesn’t work for you, try substituting instead. It’s not uncommon to hear a Starbucks patron spouting off an order that would rival a Fall Out Boy song title, but selecting a healthier alternative doesn’t always have to be complicated
These are simple, but effective ways to make sure that you know what’s going into your cold weather brew:

  • Have a latte with sugar-free syrup instead of standard syrup
  • Try soymilk or skim milk instead of whole milk
  • Combine the two substitutions above for a “skinny” latte (a latte with nonfat milk and sugar-free syrup)
  • Ask your barista to hold the whipped cream


Need inspiration or ideas about what to order the next time you drop by Starbucks? My drink of choice is a Soy Grande Caramel Macchiato (closely followed by a Grande Pumpkin Spice Latte), but here’s the full list of favorite cold-weather drinks from other members of the HC team if you need some inspiration for your next order:

  • Pumpkin Spice Latte and/or Gingerbread Latte: Stephanie Kaplan; HC Co-founder, CEO & Editor-in-Chief; Harvard University, 2010
  • Peppermint Hot Chocolate: Sarah Smith; HC Contributing Writer; University of Michigan, 2012
  • Chai Latte: Meagan Templeton-Lynch; HC Contributing Writer; Colorado State University, 2013
  • Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte and/or Cappuccino with one pump Pumpkin Spice: Jill Heindel; HC Branch Manager; James Madison University 2011
  • Nonfat Peppermint Mocha: Gabriela Szewcow; HC Contributing Writer; Elon University, 2013
  • Hazelnut Latte, London Fog (Earl Grey tea with sugar-free vanilla syrup and steamed skim milk), Triple-Grande Soy Sugar-free Vanilla Latte: Wintha Kelati; HC Branch Manager; Harvard, 2011
  • Peppermint Mocha: Rachel Dozier; HC Contributing Writer; James Madison University, 2012
  • Skinny Vanilla Latte: Katie Sanders; HC Contributing Writer; University of Pennsylvania, 2012
  • Chai Tea Latte: Alexandra Patterson; HC Design & Media Team; Kenyon College, 2012
  • Pumpkin Spice Latte: Amanda Pretulac; HC Campus Correspondent; University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, 2012
  • Gingerbread Latte: Sarah Robertson; HC Campus Correspondent; James Madison University, 2011
  • Peppermint Mocha, Eggnog Latte, Hot Chocolate, and/or Mocha and Cinnamon Spice Latte with skim: Krystin Nichols; HC Branch Manager; Western Michigan University, 2011
  • “Dirty Chai” (Chai Latte with a shot of espresso) and/or Caramel Macchiato: Brittany Brown; HC Design Associate; Maryland Institute College of Art, 2011
  • Cinnamon Dolce Latte: Leigh Maneri; HC Campus Correspondent; Quinnipiac University, 2011
  • Skinny Vanilla Latte: Anne Askew; HC Contributing Writer; College of William and Mary, 2011
  • White Chocolate Mocha: Amanda Grewer; HC Campus Correspondent; University of Connecticut, 2013
  • Pumpkin Spice Latte with skim, no whip: Colette Maddock; HC Campus Correspondent; University of Montana, 2011
  • Nonfat Chai Latte and/or Nonfat Caramel Latte: Hannah Orenstein; HC Editorial Intern; Needham High School, 2011
  • Caramel Chai Latte: Rachel Peterson; HC Campus Correspondent; James Madison University, 2011
  • Peppermint Mocha: Lorena Mora; HC Digital Media Associate & Branch Mananger; Emerson College, 2010
  • Pumpkin Spice Latte: Jen Kach; HC Campus Correspondent; Penn State, 2011
  • Marble Latte: Katie Chen; HC Campus Correspondent; Wellesley, 2013
  • Thanksgiving Blend with one pump chocolate: Carlene Helble; HC Contributing Writer; James Madison University, 2011

Happy ordering!
Starbucks Nutrition

Kris Rumps
Registered Dietitian, Duke Medical Center

Judith is a senior at Washington University in St. Louis with a double major in English and Spanish and a minor in Creative Writing. She is Co-Editor-in-Chief of Spires, a literary magazine on the WashU campus, and a former features intern for Seventeen and Marie Claire. A proud nerd whose greatest joys include LexisNexis and thesaurus.com, Judith can usually be found looking for new music or espousing the wonders of Twitter, Harry Potter, and late 16th century English Literature to anyone willing to listen. Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Judith plans to explore as much of St. Louis as she can in her final year of college--even without a car (or a learner's permit...).
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