September 22, 2009 – They may taste like coffee, but when it comes to calories, the blended beverages sold at coffee chains are in a class by themselves. The Health Department recently surveyed the drinks purchased at coffee chains in New York City. The results – published this week in the online journal Preventing Chronic Disease – shed new light on a topic that has attracted little attention in nutritional research until now.
In a survey of approximately 3,000 purchases from 115 restaurant chains, brewed coffee or tea – served black, with milk, with sugar, or with milk and sugar – averaged 63 calories. The same chains' blended beverages – prepared at the counter and often pre-sweetened, milk-based, ice-blended or pre-mixed – averaged 239 calories. That's 89 calories more than a typical can of soda.
“The popularity of blended coffee beverages has grown in recent years,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City Health Commissioner. “Unfortunately, many of these drinks are loaded with calories. Your afternoon pick-me-up may be weighing you down.”
Market research shows that 17% of U.S. adults purchase at least one blended beverage from a coffee chain each day. At 239 calories, the average blended coffee beverage accounts for approximately 12% of a 2,000-calorie diet. This is partly a function of portion size. More than 8% of customers interviewed at one coffee chain reported ordering the largest size of this type of drink – a 20- to 24-ounce serving. At this chain, a blended drink of this size can pack 860 calories.
Customers were surveyed between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. – a time when many would already have eaten a lunchtime meal. Other research has shown that calories consumed as liquids generally result in greater overall caloric intake, as people do not typically compensate for the extra calories consumed from beverages by eating less at mealtimes.
While some coffee-chain drinks are high in calories, better options do exist: beverages ranged from fewer than 10 calories (e.g., a cup of black brewed coffee or tea) to as high as 750 calories (e.g., a large ice-blended beverage). Simple changes by coffee chains such as using 1% low fat or skim milk or making portions smaller can go a long way, and would reduce calorie content without eliminating flavor. The Health Department also suggests that if you drink coffee or tea, order it plain and flavor it yourself, and if you order a sugar-sweetened beverage, ask for a “small.” Like soda, coffee-chain beverages can contribute to weight gain.
About the data
These data reflect calories purchased, not calories consumed. Nonetheless, research suggests that people's consumption is dependent upon the amount presented to them. It is reasonable to expect that customers drank most if not all of the entire beverage purchased, regardless of size. Customers who agreed to participate may have differed from those who refused. Because reliable measurement estimates from customers could not be collected, caloric values for added milk and sugar were standardized to one ounce of milk and 2 packets of sugar. The results are thus conservative calorie estimates, as the mean calories reported likely underestimate actual calories purchased.
About the journal
Preventing Chronic Disease is an online journal that provides a forum for public health researchers and practitioners to share study results and practical experience. The journal is published by the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.