You probably wouldn’t eat a chocolate bar on your way to work, but depending on your morning beverage of choice, you could be getting a similar amount of sugar in your favourite drinks from Starbucks, Tim Hortons and McCafe.
You probably wouldn’t eat a chocolate bar on your way to work, but depending on your morning beverage of choice, you could be getting a similar amount of sugar in your favourite coffee shop drink.
To learn more about how much of the sweet stuff Canadians are sipping on, Marketplace reviewed online nutrition information for some popular drinks available at coffee shop chains across the country and found some contain a surprising amount of sugar.
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“I think people are addicted to sweet, and it’s leading to a health-care crisis,” said hepatologist and gastroenterologist Dr. Supriya Joshi, who believes most people have no idea how much sugar is really in their daily dose of caffeine.
While many Canadians may know sugar is associated with weight gain and obesity, Joshi points out sugar is also related to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is the storage of extra fat in the liver. Excess sugar in our diet is gradually turned into fat cells, which are stored in the liver, among other places. Over time, fat cells can replace liver cells, leading to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
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Double-double doesn’t add up
Consider the Canadian classic, a Tim Hortons double-double.
While its name implies two teaspoons of sugar and two teaspoons of cream, Joshi says a medium double-double coffee from Tim Hortons is actually more like a quadruple-quadruple.
WATCH | How much sugar is in your double-double?
Shocking amount of sugar found in some McCafé, Starbucks, Tim Hortons beverages
Do you rely on big coffee chains for your morning fix? Marketplace reviewed online nutrition information for popular drinks available at Starbucks, McCafé and Tim Hortons across the country and found that some beverages contain a surprising amount of sugar. 2:06
It actually has four teaspoons of sugar in it and another teaspoon of sugar from the cream.
Dietitian Stefania Palmeri says for calories and sugar, that’s similar to a 50 g Caramilk bar.
A Cadbury’s Caramilk bar has 240 calories and 26 grams of sugar, while a medium double-double has 200 calories and 21 grams of sugar.
“When you put it in perspective, in that sense of you’re having a chocolate bar on your drive in to work every morning, then that might shift perspective,” she said.
Light options not always lighter on sugar
But recognizing how much sugar is in a beverage isn’t always an easy task.
Consider Tim Hortons’ Iced Capp Light for example.
The chain has called the drink a “balanced menu item” to help you make “sensible, wholesome choices.” But a closer look reveals that while the Iced Capp Light, made with milk instead of cream, has 40 per cent fewer calories than the regular version, the sugar remains the same. Both the Iced Capp and the Iced Capp Light have 39 grams of sugar in their medium sizes — almost 10 teaspoons.
“People associate light with fewer calories, hopefully less sugar, not actually knowing that that’s relatively unchanged,” said Palmeri.
With respect to how its Iced Capp Light is marketed, Tim Hortons told us that yes, “an Iced Capp and an Iced Capp Light contain the same amount of sugar, however, an Iced Capp is made with cream while an Iced Capp Light is made with milk.”
Tim Hortons has removed the page listing “balanced menu options” from its website since Marketplace reached out to the company.
Marketplace also asked Tim Hortons about the sugar content of its double-double options.
The company says it uses dairy and sugar dispensers to ensure guests get a consistent cup every time at any Tim Hortons restaurant they visit, with the goal being that their double-double will “taste the same in a small, medium, large or extra large cup.”
McCafe’s Vanilla Chai Iced Frappe: seriously sweet
Another summertime favourite available in the warmer months is McCafe’s Vanilla Chai Iced Frappe.
At 19 teaspoons — or 79 grams — of sugar, McCafe’s Vanilla Chai Iced Frappe was the sweetest offering Marketplace purchased.
What’s tricky about this beverage, according to Palmeri, is that some of the flavours and ingredients such as vanilla and chai sound better for you than they are, in this case.
“People that I’ve spoken to consider those natural ingredients or natural flavours. And usually anything with a natural connotation is seen as positive, but not necessarily so,” said Palmeri.
Nutritionally speaking, she suggests it’s more like a milkshake — it has about the same amount of sugar as two cups of caramel praline ice cream.
That’s not the only sweet surprise Marketplace found at McDonald’s McCafe either.
Marketplace discovered that one medium Mango Pineapple Real Fruit Smoothie has about 14 teaspoons, or 57 g, of sugar. And while many people may associate a real fruit smoothie with blended chunks of whole fruits, that’s not what’s happening with this drink.
A closer examination of the nutritional information on McCafe’s website found the Mango Pineapple Real Fruit Smoothie without yogurt is not made with “real fruit,” but with fruit juice concentrates and purees. The World Health Organization (WHO) says the sugars from fruit juice concentrates are not the same as sugars from whole fruit, and warn they should be consumed sparingly.
While the fresh fruit from a mango or pineapple would still contain sugars, it would also be high in fibre, says Palmeri.
Fruit concentrate is essentially fruit that has the pulp and fibre removed, and is also slightly dehydrated, she says.
“The goal of eating fruit is because of the benefits of the fibre and the nutrients that are usually in the skins and the pulp,” she said. “So to have a product with fruit juice concentrate that’s devoid of those nutrients really doesn’t serve us anymore.”
The better option, Palmeri says, is to make fruit smoothies at home using whole fruits.
McDonald’s did not provide answers to our questions about the sugar content of its McCafe drinks.
What to make of matcha
Marketplace also looked at the sugar content of some Starbucks offerings, including its grande matcha tea latte, an option Palmeri believes a lot of consumers associate with a healthier choice.
However, because it has about six teaspoons — 27 grams — of sugar, Palmeri suggests people who are looking to have matcha or green tea for its health properties have plain green tea.
Another sweet Starbucks offering is the grande caramel frappuccino.
With 13 teaspoons — or 54 grams — of sugar, Palmeri calls it dessert in a glass.
Interestingly, when Marketplace compared Starbucks frappuccinos offered in Canada to those in the U.K., all the U.K. options had less sugar. In some cases, as much as 14 grams less.
When it comes to sugar in beverages, Kawther Hashem of the U.K.’s Action on Sugar group believes “there is a lot of scope for companies to do better.”
Hashem and her team have ranked the sugar content of some of the U.K.’s most-popular drinks, and agrees with Joshi’s assessment that most people are unaware of how much sugar they are consuming in the average beverage.
“The reason they don’t know is because that kind of labelling is not available in the outlets.”
Across the pond, Starbucks committed to reducing the sugar content in its drinks by 20 per cent, something Hashem attributes to a voluntary program started by the U.K. government to reduce sugar content in drinks.
To see similar change in Canada, Hashem believes consumers need to speak up.
“Write to the company. Tweet to the company and say, ‘I’m surprised at the amount of sugar there is in this product. I think you could do better,'” she said.
“If they [are] really serious about that, then they should be doing the right thing and improving their product.”
When Marketplace asked Starbucks about the sugar content in its Canadian offerings, the company said it offers many ways for customers to customize their beverages, including its matcha tea latte, by ordering it “unsweetened, or sweetened to their preference.”
The company went on to say it “is making even more progress through beverage innovation and new menu introductions that deliver on taste, are lower in sugar and provide customization,” and also pointed out that it met its goal of reducing sugar in what it calls its indulgent beverages by 25 per cent by the year 2020.
As for plans to reduce sugar content in drinks here at home, Health Canada told Marketplace it believes the combination of new labelling measures for sugars and the recent changes to Canada’s food guide “will be helpful by providing Canadians with the information needed to support a reduction in sugars intake.”
Some sweet suggestions to cut back on sugar
For people concerned about their sugar intake when it comes to these caffeinated drinks, Palmeri suggests you consider these super-sweet drinks like a dessert, and enjoy them occasionally rather than 2-3 times a day.
“If you’re usually having dessert on a Friday and a Saturday night, then perhaps instead of a slice of cake or a brownie, you’re actually substituting it in for this drink,” said Palmeri.
Reducing your sugar intake by simply modifying what you drink can make a big difference when it comes to health, according to Joshi, who says she’s seen it happen with her patients who are suffering from gastrointestinal issues or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
“The illness they may have come to me seeking assistance with has actually improved simply by modifying their drinks, and they didn’t even need a pill to make them feel better.”
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