Protein seekers might be more than a little excited about Starbucks adding plant-based-protein-blended cold brews to their menu.
But are they really as healthy as the name implies?
Here’s what nutritionists think of the new beverage
Available in two flavors — cacao and almond — the ingredients include brewed coffee, coconut sugar, banana puree, apple juice concentrate, date juice concentrate, pea protein, banana powder, and brown rice protein.
The almond variety contains almond milk (with almonds and sugar) and almond butter (with blanched almonds and sunflower oil). The cacao flavor uses coconut milk (coconut cream, cane sugar and coconut water concentrate) and a cacao blend (with chocolate liquor, high fat cocoa powder, and coconut sugar).
“So, the sugar is really the concerning thing here,” said Jessica Bennett, RD, clinical dietitian at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, adding that there are many sources of sugar in these drinks, including coconut. “Coconut sugar, people think that’s healthier because it’s from the coconut, but it’s still a source of sugar.”
The nutritional profile for 16 fl. ounces of the almond drink is 270 calories, 12 grams of fat, 12 grams of protein and 22 grams of sugar. For the cacao drink, it’s 250 calories, 9 grams of fat, 10 grams of protein and 26 grams of sugar.
Bennett said that two Krispy Kreme donuts are about 20 grams of sugar, and a Snickers bar is 27 grams of sugar — not far off from one of these 16-oz. drinks.
Plus, the calories are significant, so you might want to think of this drink as more of a meal.
“Calorie-wise, if you’re using it as a meal replacement, it might be a little bit better,” she said.
On the upside, she added that it does have fiber (5 grams of dietary fiber in the cacao brew and 4 grams in the almond brew), which is always a good thing. And it does give customers more vegan options.
“It is a great thing to have more options and moving in a plant-based direction,” she said. “To make it healthier, you could just get a cold brew and have them put almond milk in it and add the plant-based protein.”
Registered dietitian Amy Shapiro, founder of Real Nutrition in New York, also has mixed feelings about the new drinks.
“I don’t love that Starbucks has added these to their menu,” she said. “Yes, they are ‘on trend,’ but with the sugar and fat and protein, this is more like a ‘meal’ than a ‘snack.’ This is turning coffee into dessert and includes calories most people don’t count.”
Shapiro did point out that the protein will be helpful in combatting the dreaded energy slump after having a sugary drink.
“These drinks are better than some of the other coffee drink options, so there is that angle, too. The protein will balance out the sugar to prevent an energy slump in the near future, and the fat and protein added can help ease the adrenaline rush many people get from just straight up coffee.”
She said ingredients consumers should look out for in “healthy” products include fruit purees, coconut sugar, and fruit juices. They all sound healthy but are essentially sugar.
Go for the protein beverage over a Frappuccino
Katrina Trisko, a New York City-based registered dietitian, said the drinks “are a surprisingly solid choice if you’re looking for a convenient caffeine boost with added plant-based protein.”
She said the two flavors contain about 25 grams of sugar each, and 10 grams of protein — only 2 more grams of protein than a Grande Iced Caffè Latte.
“If you’re a loyal Frappuccino drinker, the new blended protein drinks are a much healthier option, as most grande regular Frappuccino drinks contain 50 grams — or more — of sugar. But if you drink milk, going with a Grande Iced Latte is a cleaner option that will get you almost as much protein,” she said.
Carol Aguirre, a registered dietitian at Nutrition Connections in Florida, said the drinks aren’t a bad option for those looking for a vegan protein drink. She likes that the pea and brown rice combination provides a complete protein, plus fiber. But, then there’s the sugar.
“It’s comparable to an 8-oz. can of regular soda,” she said. “You could eat a cup of full-fat Greek flavored yogurt and get about 20 grams of protein and less amounts of sugar.”
Beyond the new protein cold brews, there’s another health-conscious group of consumers that may be finding the Starbucks secret menu intriguing. Keto-diet followers are discovering the off-menu Peach Citrus White Tea, containing iced, unsweetened peach citrus white tea, two to four pumps of sugar-free vanilla syrup, and a splash of heavy cream.
“For those following a keto diet, the quality of the fat source is strongly suggested,” said Aguirre. “This drink has heavy cream, conventionally produced, not grass-fed dairy. Also, this drink has an artificial sweeter. I would not suggest [drinking it] on a daily basis, in moderation only.”