Is Starbucks fudging the numbers on its calorie counts?

Originally published on johnfawkes.com.

Pun very much intended.

Two weeks ago, I was down in Southern California for a few days of catching up with old friends, hanging out at the beach in San Diego (where I grew up), and partying in my favorite goth club in Hollywood.

A friend and I met up at a Starbucks in LA, and I thought about getting myself a pumpkin spice latte, which at the time I had never had before. So I looked at the menu, and here’s what I saw:

Four thoughts came into my head, in the following order.

First, dear lord those coffees have a lot of calories. I’m glad I never got onboard with the Starbucks craze.

Second, I have no idea what the difference between a latte and a frappuccino is. None whatsoever. I was sure it was called the pumpkin spice latte, but that’s not what the menu says.

Third, it’s a bit weird how the small size is called the tall. Also weird how the mix English and Italian size names. Tall, grande, venti- just a bit weird IMO.

Fourth, something about the calorie counts for the pumpkin spice seems a bit…off.

Going from twelve to sixteen ounces is a 150-calorie increase, but then going from sixteen to twenty ounces is only a 50-calorie increase? Am I really reading this right?

I did a little bit of mental math, and some of the other calorie counts seemed off too. So I snapped a quick photo and then ordered a cup of Earl Grey, because I’ll be damned if I’m going to drink something that has twice as much sugar as a Coke.

Today I finally got around to taking another look at that photo- are the calorie counts really as unreasonable as they seem? To answer that question, I calculated the calories per ounce of each size of each drink on the menu.

The bolded menu items are the ones I consider to be suspicious. Why? Two reasons. First, the caloric density doesn’t consistently increase or decrease- instead, it either goes down then up, or up then down. Second, the discrepancy is more than ten calories, since it looks like they’re rounding to the nearest ten, at least for the high-calorie items.

The first explanation that came to mind was that maybe the beverages have some ingredients which don’t scale with size- maybe they add the same amount of whipped cream, syrup, etc, regardless of size. However, if that were the case, I would expect caloric density to consistently either increase or decrease with size.

The second was that maybe they switch up the formula altogether for different sizes. However, I can’t think of any logical way for that to fit the data. If they were doing that, I’d expect them to make each beverage less sweet as it gets larger- since the sweeter something is, the faster you get tired of it. Yet I don’t see consistent decreases in calorie density as size increases.

The third possibility is that as total calories increase, Starbucks gets increasingly imprecise with its rounding. Maybe they start rounding to the nearest twenty, or even fifty. Maybe they’re inconsistent in how they round.

The fourth and final possibility is that Starbucks has simply been sloppy in measuring calorie content, using inconsistent methods or even simply winging it.

The pumpkin spice is the real standout here- it looks like the calorie counts may be off by fifty calories or more.

Or there could, of course, be another reason for all this that simply hasn’t occurred to me. Regardless of the explanation, the calorie counts are at the very least highly counterintuitive, and most likely have a high margin of error. You would think that a 16 oz would have 33% more calories than a 12 oz, but you’d be wrong.

In the end, the lesson is straightforward: you can’t trust restaurant calorie counts, and Starbucks is by no means unique in that regard. Other studies have shown that restaurant calorie counts are often off by 20% or more. Also, don’t drink 500 calories of sugar and cream.

As a footnote to this story, I did end up trying a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte- or frappuccino, hell if I know. It wasn’t that good- you can make a low-sugar pumpkin spice coffee at home that tastes ten times better, and save yourself a few hundred calories in the process.

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