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The untold truth of Starbucks

The untold truth of Starbucks
Starbucks logo
You know Starbucks. It's that chain of coffee stores which exists on what seems like every single street corner in the world. They've got that logo — you know the one. And then there's that smell; that unmistakable, inimitable Starbucks smell. Not many places can lay claim to having an iconic smell, but these guys have nailed it.
Ever since its foundation in 1971, Starbucks has grown from a modest Seattle coffee shop to the corporate behemoth whose defining characteristics are recognizable to people from every corner of the Earth. What may seem like a simple staple of our day-to-day lives, however, is actually a fascinatingly complex organization with a vivid history and a whole host of bizarre little quirks that many people are totally unaware of. From its racy early logo and the literary origins of its name, to their foray into the music biz, and a clandestine branch in Langley, this is the untold truth of Starbucks.

The founders
Starbucks fans have three people to thank for bringing the company into the world. The first is Gordon Bowker, a college dropout from Seattle who had discovered his love of coffee on a trip to Italy in 1962. The other two were Bowker's roommates, Jerry Baldwin and Zev Siegl. Spurred on by their love of good coffee, they began roasting their own coffee. Together, they started a company and named it Starbucks. This early iteration of the legendary coffee shop sold coffee beans, tea, spices, coffee machines and accessories. It wasn't until many years later, under a different owner, that they began to sell coffee drinks.

But Bowker, Baldwin, and Siegl wouldn't be with Starbucks forever. In the '80s, a young salesman named Howard Schultz bought out the company. Today, Bowker lives a modest life, having for a time owned Peet's Coffee & Tea (where he still serves on the Board of Directors) and Redhook Ale Brewery. Baldwin is the proprietor of his own wine company in California and served as President of the Association Scientifique Internationale du Café. Siegl is a business advisor and motivational speaker.

The "first" location wasn't really the first
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The site of the original Starbucks is something of a place of pilgrimage for coffee fans, even today. The famous tourist spot, however, is actually the store's second location, to which it moved in 1977. Nonetheless, it constitutes a must-visit for visitors to Seattle from all around the world.

The store isn't much different to how it was back in the '70s: it's a small building, and there's nowhere to sit or hang out inside (a remnant of the company's original operation as a place to buy coffee beans and accessories, rather than drink coffee). That's not to say they haven't modernized at all, though — you can now buy coffee drinks at the original store, which actually offers everything you'd find in any other modern Starbucks branch. In fact, to a passing observer, the only thing that would really give any indication as to this store's long and hallowed history are the strange, barely-recognizable logos emblazoned around the room.

Their original logo was raunchy
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The Starbucks logo is one of the most iconic in corporate history. Few can quite match the sheer recognizability of that white mermaid on her green background — the McDonald's arches, perhaps, or the Nike swoosh. Still, though, it's up there. But that wasn't quite always the Starbucks logo.

The original logo — which is still plastered all over that early Seattle branch — was actually brown, and depicted the mermaid as topless. The idea was that the two-tailed mermaid, who was based on an image found on a 16th century woodcut, was supposed to appear as seductive as the coffee itself. Naturally, complaints were made, but Starbucks didn't see a problem until they reached the point at which the logo needed to appear in large on the side of delivery trucks. The logo was therefore redesigned, the mermaid was given her modesty (plus a new hairstyle to boot) and the legendary modern icon was born.

The name had novel beginnings
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Nowadays, nobody puts much thought into what the name Starbucks could possibly mean. And why should they? After all, everyone already knows what it means: it's the name of a coffee shop. Once upon a time, however, the name might have seemed a little peculiar — and that's because it finds its origins in a very specific place.

The founders of Starbucks took the name from Moby Dick, the legendary novel by Herman Melville. In the book, Starbuck is the name of the first mate of the Pequod, Captain Ahab's ship, and provides a calmer contrast to the obsessive nature of Ahab himself. Starbucks, however, was actually a second-choice name for the company. Gordon Bowker had actually wanted to call the company Pequod, but Bowker's marketing partner Terry Heckler was unconvinced. Eventually, the two settled on Starbucks as a name, presumably having ruled out 'Ahab', 'Ishmael' and 'Captain Boomer'. It's for the best, really.

They work hard for that fabulous aroma
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Yep, it's that classic Starbucks aroma. In his 1997 book Pour Your Heart Into It, Howard Schultz describes it as "heady, rich, full-bodied, dark, suggestive." Whatever it is, it's one of the defining features of Starbucks' image and pervades practically every Starbucks store across the planet.

But keeping that smell strong is hard work for the company. Coffee beans tend to absorb odors, meaning it's easy for them to be ruined by contaminant smells. To prevent this from happening, Starbucks banned smoking in their stores long before it became the law. They also prevent their employees from using perfumes and colognes, and refuse to sell chemically-flavored coffee beans. Strong-smelling goods such as soup, pastrami and other foods are also off the menu (though the store does serve a small selection of simple foods such as sandwiches and pastries that are baked off-premises). What results is one pure, simple smell: coffee. Frankly, we wouldn't have it any other way.

Those apron colors aren't just for show
The classic green staff apron is practically as recognizable to Starbucks customers as the logo itself, but it's not the only one that exists. In fact, there's a whole range of other aprons which all have their own individual meanings and purposes.

The green apron is standard, of course. Military vets have the option of wearing one embroidered with an American flag, while staff members who have graduated from the Starbucks College Achievement Plan have one embroidered with a mortarboard. Orange aprons are worn in the Netherlands to celebrate King's Day, while the purple apron is saved exclusively for each year's 26 barista champions.

The black apron, meanwhile, is worn by Coffee Masters, who have a certified knowledge in the field. Occasionally, promotional events will involve the company giving out a few special aprons to each store, such as the pale blue apron for the launch of Frappuccino Happy Hour or the red aprons you might see during the holidays.

Baristas definitely have a dress code
The apron isn't the only item on the Starbucks dress code worth a look, though. In fact, the company is actually pretty strict on how it allows employees to present themselves. Here's a run-through of the rules.
Hair must be kept looking "natural", meaning no bright colors such as purple, pink, blue or green (though this seems to vary by store). Rings are allowed, but only if they have no stones, and watches, bracelets and wristbands are forbidden for food safety reasons. The apron must be kept clean, unwrinkled and unstained, while your shirt must be solid black or white and they prefer if you tuck it in. Piercings should be small, fingernails clean,and tattoos are allowed — but they must be tasteful and can't be on your face or throat. Finally, any hats worn must have the Starbucks logo, and pants, shorts or skirts should be khaki or black.

On the no-go list: blue jeans, hoodies, t-shirts, yoga pants, cowboy boots, canvas shoes and, of course, colognes and perfumes.  

Starbucks table
According to Karen Blumenthal, author of Grande Expectations: A Year in the Life of Starbucks' Stock (via Reader's Digest), the store's round tables are made that way to make you feel less lonely and more at home. "Round tables are more welcoming than those with square edges," she writes. "And people look less alone while seated at a round table." It just goes to show that even the most innocuous characteristics of stores like Starbucks have been thought through over and over again. And sure, maybe a cynic would suggest that Starbucks make their tables this way in the hopes of keeping people from wanting to leave their stores, thus making for money from each customer — but who are we to say?

There are some cup sizes you might not know about
You're probably well aware of Starbucks' cup sizes. You've got the Tall (12 ounces), the Grande (16 ounces) and the Venti (20 ounces). But there are some other cup sizes which, despite not appearing on the menu, are available to Starbucks customers.

The first is the Short, which was one of the two original cup sizes sold by the company. It's only 8 ounces, and constitutes the smallest drink size that Starbucks offers, despite being a fairly regular size for homemade coffee. It's only available for hot drinks, and doesn't always show up on the menu boards. Another is the Trenta, a new-ish drink size that measures in at a whopping 31 ounces. It's only available for iced drinks such as iced coffee, iced tea, lemonade and other cold drinks, and usually costs 50 cents more than the Venti size. But honestly, you probably don't need it — the human stomach can only hold around 32 ounces of liquid, and a Trenta Frappuccino (which Starbucks reportedly once sold) would contain over 1,000 calories and 100 grams of sugar.

They really are everywhere... almost
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If there's one thing everyone knows about Starbucks, it's that they're everywhere. Seriously — there's a good chance you can probably see one right now, and if you can't there's probably one right around the corner. The sheer scale of Starbucks' worldwide domination was put into context by Quartz in 2014. Their mapping of the chain across the world found that Starbucks existed in 63 countries, with notable absences in Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. They also found that the distribution of Starbucks in cities mirrors the shape of the cities themselves, demonstrating the sheer expanse of the stores across each.

Quartz also found that Seoul had the most Starbucks at the time, closely followed by New York, Shanghai, London and Chicago. They also found that, if you travel from Boston to NYC to Philadelphia, you'll never be more than 10 miles of a Starbucks (and you could continue down to Baltimore, Washington, Richmond and Virginia and only be more than 10 miles away twice). So, yeah. Lots of Starbucks.

There's a "Stealthy Starbucks"
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Of all the Starbucks locations around the world, however, perhaps most curious of all is that which exists deep inside the CIA's headquarters at Langley in Virginia. Known affectionately at "Stealthy Starbucks," the baristas who work at that branch are put through a wide array of background checks and interviews before they're allowed to work there, and even after getting through all that, they're escorted by agents in and out of their work area.

Despite its clandestine nature, however, the Langley branch is one of the busiest in the USA, and serves thousands of analysts, agents, economists, engineers, geographers, and cartographers each day. Despite appearing like any other Starbucks, its purpose is to provide a humanizing environment for agency workers, many of whom work in high-pressure scenarios and don't have their smartphones to help them tune-out (they have to leave those in their cars). It also provides a setting for job interviews for current agents looking to get reassigned. And no, before you ask — nobody gives their name at the counter.

They tried to get into the music biz
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In 2007, Starbucks co-founded Hear Music with Concord Music Group. Starbucks had previously found its way into the music business by selling the music of artists such as Ray Charles and Bob Dylan in stores across America. That same year, however, it made its first proper signing: Paul McCartney.

The label itself didn't go far, though. After signing a smattering of artists (including Carly Simon, whose album on the label sold poorly, resulting in a failed lawsuit against them), Starbucks turned over management of the label to the Concord Music Group."

The whole sorry saga just seemed to prove that, no matter how many headliner acts you sign, attempting to make money by selling CDs in coffee shops during the advent of the age of digital music isn't a good idea after all. Who knew?

There are secret Starbucks locations
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The CIA branch might be known as "Stealthy Starbucks," but that doesn't mean it's the only secretive branch around the world. The others, however, are stealthy in a different sense. The first of these branches opened in Seattle in 2009. It was named 15th Ave Coffee & Tea, but a little disclaimer on the front door read "inspired by Starbucks." In 2011, it was converted back into a Starbucks (which it been originally, as well), and it was permanently closed in 2017. 

Still, the formula must have been somewhat successful — two more camouflaged Starbucks have opened in the city. In 2012, the company opened one in New York.

The Starbucks Reserve brand is a similar scheme, attempting to provide a more upmarket experience for coffee lovers which eschews the company's logo. Both this venture into the high-end sphere and the stealthy Starbucks branches represent — depending on who you ask — either an attempt to experiment with new ideas in a relatively low-risk space, or a patronizing and cynical attempt to siphon off business from local chains and entice customers who balk at the Starbucks brand. Either way, be careful if you think you've escaped the clutches of the world's most pervasive coffee brand — they may have you already.

There isn't really a secret menu
Hate to break it to you, menu hackers, but the so-called "secret menu" at Starbucks isn't actually a thing. Sure, there are entire websites dedicated to keeping track of the latest and greatest Starbucks secret menu items, but just because you see something on the internet doesn't mean it's true — a good reminder in general, really. 
Thrillist spoke to baristas about the growing trend of customers waltzing up to the counter and ordering some bizarrely-named drink, and why it can be a problem. Brandon, a barista from Michigan, explained that these websites "give the drink a special name and fail to mention that there is no actual 'secret menu.'" In other words, you can definitely order a Cotton Candy Unicorn Dust Golden Frappuccino, but your barista will likely have no idea what goes into it. Christine, a barista from Colorado, advises, "Just make sure you bring in the recipe. Because if it's off the secret menu, then we probably don't know how to make it." You know, because the secret menu doesn't really exist. 

One more piece of advice? Don't be that customer who orders a super-complicated "secret" drink during the busiest times of the day. Beverages with 27 modifications are best saved for times when there's no line.

Secrets Starbucks doesn't want you to know
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Since they opened, Starbucks has become a way of life in America. Whether you like them or not, you can still walk past them a staggering number of times on your way to pretty much anywhere. They're one of the most polarizing brands out there today, especially in the restaurant and coffee shop trade, and in spite of the vocal naysayers, they're not showing any signs of going anywhere. Those naysayers do have some excellent points, though, so let's take a look at some of the things the socially- and environmentally-conscious company would rather you didn't find out about.

\They butted heads with Oxfam over their Fair Trade coffee
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Starbucks might be most familiar as the coffee chain that's more than happy to tell you all about how ethical and environmentally conscious they are, but that doesn't mean their history has been squeaky-clean when it comes to things like ethics.

It started with their Fair Trade coffee, and fair trade is a good thing. It basically means the product was produced in environmentally- and employee-friendly conditions, and that there's a set limit on the lowest price a buyer can possibly pay for the product. In 2006, the international charity Oxfam took aim at Starbucks and claimed that their opposition to Ethiopia's attempts to trademark three of their coffee varieties meant they were standing in the way of major developments for the country and coffee farmers. Starbucks retaliated by saying they were opposed to the plan because of the potential damage that could be done by new legal regulations that might be put in place to govern the sale of the trademarked coffee, and added that they were only looking out for the little guy. They were undoubtedly front-and-center in the whole thing, with the chief executive of Starbucks even meeting with Ethiopia's prime minister to discuss the plans.While there were a whole lot of other legal issues behind the conflict and it was by no means a cut-and-dry issue, it's never good publicity when organizations like Oxfam take you to task over the very thing you're trying to build your business on. It also put an even bigger spotlight on that fact that there's plenty of coffee Starbucks serves that's not fair trade at all.

Their coconut milk isn't exactly coconut milk
For customers who are lactose intolerant or just looking for a healthier, non-dairy option, Starbucks offers coconut milk. You might be expecting that you'd be drinking something that's largely made of coconut and water, as most coconut milks are. But take a look at the ingredients from Starbucks, and you'll find something very different.Their coconut milk includes things like xanthan gum, tricalcium phosphate, and carraageenan. The third ingredient on the list is cane sugar, and if you're thinking you can get around having sugar in your coffee you should know that's not happening if you opt for coconut milk. The bottom line is, it's not a horrible option...but it's not a great one, either, and it's certainly not sugar-free. We all know Starbucks isn't usually healthy, but this one seems just a little bit on the sneaky side.

Some of their practices are unsustainable
This one also flies in the face of most things that Starbucks seems to stand for, and it wasn't until 2013 that the coffee giant was publicly called out for using palm oil, a component in its baked goods that had a particularly heartbreaking side effect. Harvesting the palm oil has meant the deforestation of huge parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. Voices for Biodiversity estimates that around half of the two countries' natural forests have been destroyed and replaced with palm oil plantations. In the process, that's meant the deaths of at least 50,000 orangutans, along with the countless other species that once called those forests home.

National Geographic and primatologists worldwide want you to think about that next time you pick up a scone or muffin from Starbucks. They remained one of the last holdouts against plans to help fix this massive problem. Years went by, with no real commitment or action taken by the coffee chain. Activist group SumOfUs challenged Starbucks, and as of January 2016 say their threat of legal action against the chain finally pushed them into action to head back and negotiate ways of actually making a difference, instead of just updating their website with vague promises.

Cups aren't recycled or recyclable
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When it comes to making a positive difference in the environment, recycling should be a no-brainer. In spite of the fact that they do encourage using reusable travel mugs, Starbucks dropped the ball on something big: the recyclability of their cups. Someone first took Starbucks to task in 2008. The numbers were pretty staggering, and Stand reported they were using around 4 billion cups every year. That was the equivalent of 1.6 million trees destroyed just to make single-use cups that were then tossed in the garbage. Those cups aren't widely recyclable because of the process that's used to seal them. In order to keep the coffee inside where it belongs, the cups are infused with a polyethylene that can't easily be removed from the paper. To add insult to injury, they aren't made from recycled materials, either.
But didn't you see a recycling symbol on your cup? That's a technicality. The cups are made with a thin liner that's sealed against the heat of the beverage inside. Technically, they can be recycled, but the process requires equipment so specialized that only two facilities in the UK are even capable of doing it — and one never has. For a country that goes through 2.5 billion cups a year (from several different chains), that's not cool.

It wasn't until July 2016 they finally started a trial run of cups that are fully recyclable, invented by an engineer and created with a resistant inner liner that's easy to separate from the rest of the cup.

They lose a huge number of blind taste tests
So you really like a particular blend or brew from Starbucks. Do you really, though? Starbucks comes up on the losing end on a huge number of blind taste tests, and one thing they probably don't want people to know is just how badly they do when they're stripped of their logo and put next to someone else's coffee.
As far back as 2007, Starbucks made headlines when it lost blind taste tests to the most unlikely competitor: McDonald's. According to Consumer Reports, not only was the McDonald's coffee cheaper, but rated as better overall. The Bold Italic did a blind taste test with an admittedly small group of San Francisco coffee enthusiasts, and Starbucks came in a dismal last. To add insult to injury, it was beat not only by other trendy brands, but by grocery store mainstay Folgers. In 2016, GeekWire pitted Starbucks against three other choices, and the clear winner of that taste test was, again, Folgers. And perhaps worst of all was Cosmopolitan's blind taste test of pumpkin spice lattes, where Starbucks went up against McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts. Starbucks not only lost, but was described as tasting like nothing more or less than a Yankee candle. Yum.

Everything about the pumpkin spice latte
And speaking of the pumpkin spice latte, there's not much Starbucks probably wants you to know about what's really in your cup on this one. It's one of their most iconic drinks, but it wasn't until 2015 that it contained something that might have seemed like a bit of a given. (That's pumpkin.)The pumpkin spice latte first hit in 2003, and for 12 years it didn't contain any pumpkin at all. The pumpkin flavor came artificially, and even though the controversial "Food Babe" Vani Hari took credit for initiating the movement to turn the PSL into something with real pumpkin, that's a connection that hasn't been confirmed. While they've added pumpkin, there's still a handful of sugars and preservatives on the list of ingredients, too.

And speaking of sugars, they probably don't want you to know how addicting this particular drink is, either. There's some hard science behind it, and Wired took a look at just why people keep going back for the PSL. It all has to do with the combination of caffeine, sugar, milk fat and salt, and that weird combination has been found to provide a brain rush and dopamine surge on par with some highly addictive drugs.
They only switched to hormone-free milk after consumer pressure
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For as environmentally and socially responsible as they say they are, Starbucks continued using a product that gave most people chills. In 2007, the chain was feeling the pressure from the public regarding the use of milk produced with help from the growth hormone rBGH. Recombinant bovine growth hormone was approved by the FDA but banned in the EU and Canada, leaving the US as the only one using the product found to (probably) not cause any problems for the humans that ingested it. It did, however, cause significant health problems for the cows that were treated with it, and that's not cool, either. As early as 2000, Starbucks seemed to be aware of the potential issues and claimed they were going to go rBGH-free, but seven years later it still hadn't happened.It wasn't until 2008 that Starbucks announced they were rBGH-free, but then, another problem with their milk came to light. In 2014, there was another push to try to get them to make sure the milk they were serving at all their locations was GMO-free, too. With other companies promising to get rid of GMO ingredients, the public began demanding the same thing of Starbucks.

They're a member of the controversial Grocery Manufacturers Association
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Tracking down the truth behind the rumors can be a tricky thing sometimes, and in this case, the story goes that Starbucks was part of a lawsuit against the state of Vermont. Vermont was trying to pass legislation in 2014 that would require the labeling of products that contain GMOs, and Starbucks was supposed to be one of the companies trying to stop that legislation. The shadiness behind this one's pretty clear, and it didn't take long for Starbucks to come forward and say they didn't really have anything to do with the lawsuit at all.It wasn't until 2008 that Starbucks announced they were rBGH-free, but then, another problem with their milk came to light. In 2014, there was another push to try to get them to make sure the milk they were serving at all their locations was GMO-free, too. With other companies promising to get rid of GMO ingredients, the public began demanding the same thing of Starbucks.

They're a member of the controversial Grocery Manufacturers Association
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Tracking down the truth behind the rumors can be a tricky thing sometimes, and in this case, the story goes that Starbucks was part of a lawsuit against the state of Vermont. Vermont was trying to pass legislation in 2014 that would require the labeling of products that contain GMOs, and Starbucks was supposed to be one of the companies trying to stop that legislation. The shadiness behind this one's pretty clear, and it didn't take long for Starbucks to come forward and say they didn't really have anything to do with the lawsuit at all.
This all came from the public's realization that Starbucks is a member of an organization that's generally regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. The Grocery Manufacturers Association is a group that has their fingers in all areas of the food manufacturing industry, in everything from safety regulations to recall information exchanges and allergy awareness. Other members include industry giants like Dannon, Kraft, Pepsi, Kellogg's, and even Purina. The argument from Starbucks was since they hadn't brought the lawsuit directly, they could completely distance themselves from the whole thing.

But others argue that since Starbucks is an active member of the organization, they can't exactly pick and choose when they want to support them. In an issue as big as GMOs and full disclosure to the public, it's an all-or-nothing viewpoint...especially when this potentially precedent-setting lawsuit was being brought at the same time Starbucks was under pressure to switch to GMO-free milk.They've been short-changing customers on their drinks for years
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When you order a Venti latte (or any other drink, for that matter), you're probably expecting you're going to get 20 ounces of said beverage. There have been a few lawsuits in the past few years claiming that's absolutely not what you're getting, and that the company has been shorting their customers for years.In early 2016, two separate lawsuits claimed there was too much ice in their iced coffee, and Starbucks responded with the completely legitimate reasoning that if you wanted an iced coffee, there needed to be a lot of ice in it. It's thermodynamics, not cheating. The California judge in one of the lawsuits had some choice words for the plaintiff when he threw that suit out of court. That led to the end of that problem, but there's another one.

In March 2016, two customers filed a lawsuit that claimed Starbucks underfilled their lattes by as much as 25 percent. According to the lawsuit, the fill line of the equipment used to prepare the lattes doesn't match up with the sizes of the actual cups, which hold the precise amount that's advertised with no room for leaving any space between the coffee and the cup rim. The recipes and procedures were based on 2009 practices, and the federal judge who took a look at the evidence ruled the lawsuit could proceed. When the Today Show bought half a dozen lattes to see just how much was in each one of them, they found none contained the advertised amount. While it remains to be seen how much of it was done on purpose, it is worth knowing that each cup needs to be filled to the brim if you want to get all the coffee you've paid for.So, how bad for you are these drinks?
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No one goes to Starbucks thinking they're getting something diet-friendly, but some of the drinks you're ordering might be much more than you're bargaining for. Have you ever ordered the White Chocolate Creme Frappuchino? If you've gotten the Venti size, you downed a whopping 510 calories. In comparison, a Big Mac from McDonald's has 540 calories. If you went for the White Chocolate Mocha Frappuchino, you passed the Big Mac's calorie count and kept going with a drink that tops out at 550 calories. Think you're making a healthy choice if you go with the Tazo Green Tea Frappuchino? 560 calories. There are others that go on from there, with the White Hot Chocolate at the head of the class with an almost unthinkable 640 calories.
That's not even looking at sugar content, and in 2016 the UK group Action on Sugar analyzed the sugar content in some of the chain's drinks. At the top of that particular list was the Venti Grape Mulled Fruit, and anything that has both "fruit" and "grape" in the name has to be healthy, right? Keeping in mind the American Heart Association recommends limiting daily sugar intake to 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men, how do you feel knowing that this particular drink contains 25 teaspoons of sugar? That's 99 grams and that's insane. Starbucks responded by saying they were planning on reducing the sugar content of their drinks by up to 25 percent by 2020, and even though that's a step in the right direction, it's still only a step to an insane amount that they probably don't want you to know about, either.

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