Unless you live on an internet-free compound, you were no doubt accosted by pictures of the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino during its limited five-day run in April.
This was a drink that was clearly made for Instagram fame, though it is not the caffeine empire’s first concoction to create similar fanfare.
Nor is it likely to be the last — this month the Mermaid Frappuccino seems to be all the rage.
Reviews of the Unicorn were mixed, with Starbucks’ loyalists rushing to get a taste while much of the internet stood back in judgment.
Memes were created accusing Starbucks of pushing diabetes, sanctimommies tut-tutted their parenting peers for allowing their children to indulge, and lines were drawn in the sand between those who think an occasional treat is no big deal and those a bit more intent on demonizing the Unicorn.
What’s in these drinks?
With 410 calories and 59 grams of sugar in a 16-ounce grande, it’s not shocking the Unicorn raised a few eyebrows.
By comparison, a 16-ounce Coca-Cola contains 190 calories and 52 grams of sugar.
The Unicorn far exceeds what most nutritionists consider an acceptable level of sugar and calories in a beverage.
But it’s worth noting that it is not the only drink on the Starbucks specialty list to boast such stats. In fact, it’s not even the worst.
The S’mores Frappuccino, for instance, contains 490 calories and 67 grams of sugar in a 16-ounce serving.
What’s wrong with all that sugar?
Consuming that much sugar on a regular basis can have health consequences.
According to a 2016 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, if a person’s daily caloric intake is made up of 25 percent or more sugar, their risk of dying of heart disease more than doubles compared with those whose diets consist of less than 10 percent sugar.
The same study found a cause and effect relationship where the level of risk increases alongside the level of sugar intake, regardless of age, sex, amount of physical activity, and body-mass index.
As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day.
Meanwhile, research has found that the average American consumes closer to 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day.
What do consumers think?
Consumers are split on whether it’s OK to indulge in those coffee-related drinks.
Janet Presley told Healthline, “Honestly, I don’t concern myself with calories and fat when I go to Starbucks. I know it’s unhealthy, which to me is why it tastes good. The iced white chocolate mocha is more delicious than I can put into words! I don’t go often, so I figure it’s a treat from time to time.”
Diane Tober, on the other hand, explained, “I avoid sugary drinks like the plague — including sodas. After working at Burger King when I was 16 I suffered a huge attack of pain in my side and fell to the floor. Turns out my gall bladder was inflamed. I stopped drinking sugary drinks then and never went back. And I don’t miss them at all.”
Registered dietitian-nutritionist and certified diabetes educator Susan Weiner had plenty to say on the subject.
“This is simply not a healthy food. When I ask a client about what they eat, they very rarely remember what they drink,” she said. “Drinking high calorie beverages adds calories so quickly and without the benefit of mindful chewing. When you drink high calorie beverages, the calories are processed and absorbed very quickly and cause your blood glucose to rise up, or spike. This can increase problems such as insulin resistance, which is associated with type 2 diabetes. Imagine your blood glucose shooting up after drinking all of this sugar and then plummeting, which may cause you to eat more and possibly gain weight.”
So what does she suggest instead?
“Try some fresh brewed specialty tea. Add ice for a cool, refreshing drink,” Weiner said.
Healthline reached out to Starbucks for their take on the debate. A Starbucks spokesperson said this:
“Starbucks offers a variety of beverages ranging from wholesome to indulgent, and we believe in giving customers the power to eat healthy, indulge, and achieve balance on their own terms. We’ve also heard from our customers that reducing added sugar is something they are looking for when making nutritional choices, and Starbucks has committed to reducing average added sugar in indulgent beverages by 25 percent by the end of 2020. You can see this milestone and others on our Health and Wellness timeline.”
Ultimately, consumers bear the responsibility of making their own nutritional choices.
Education is key, and it’s important to know what the health effects of too much added sugar are.
But the vast majority of consumers Healthline spoke to seemed to share a similar mindset: Everything in moderation.