Festive hot drink favourites are failing to reduce sugar, say campaigners

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags sugar reduction Uk sugar tax

With trendy plant-based alternatives such as soy milk or almond milk, consumers often find a health halo around indulgent coffee shop drinks. But festive favourites such as hot chocolate and sweetly-spiced lattes contain ‘huge’ amounts of sugar, says Action on Sugar.

A new survey from the UK campaign group found that festive hot beverages can contain up to 23 teaspoons of sugar: around three times as much as a can of cola.

The group is using the survey as ammunition as it calls on the next government to extend its Soft Drinks Industry Levy to sugary milk and milk-alternative based drinks. It also wants the food industry to cut sugar and immediately start using milks and syrups with no added sugar.

Red traffic lights 

Action on Sugar analysed the sugar and calorie content of the largest available sizes of hot chocolates and seasonal lattes from popular high street chains: covering both those made with milk and milk alternatives such as oat, almond, coconut, soya and rice coconut. In total, it surveyed 124 hot chocolates and 79 seasonal lattes.

It found certain seasonal beverages would receive a red traffic light (as used for packaged beverages) for total sugars (>13.5g/portion). The worst hot chocolate offender in the survey was Starbucks Signature Caramel Hot Chocolate with whipped cream, using Oat Milk (Venti). This contained 23 teaspoons (93.7g) of sugar in one drink, totalling 758 calories – the same as eating four white chocolate and strawberry muffins.

The UK’s food and drink industry has been challenged to reduce sugar under Public Health England’s voluntary sugar reduction targets, most of which would be eligible for the Soft Drinks Industry Levy if it were applied to the foodservice industry (the levy is limited to packaged products).

And yet 27% of products (or those directly comparable) have increased the amount of sugar since Action on Sugar’s 2016 hot beverage survey.

Sugar per serve

Starbucks gingerbreak latte Venti (591ml): 56.6g sugar

Costa hazelnut praline and cream latte medio (495ml): 32.5g.

Pret rice coconut crème brulee latte 330ml: 31.5g.

For comparison, a 330ml can of Coca-Cola contains 35g of sugar; a ‘Venti’ size portion of 591ml would contain 62.7g of sugar.

What next for the UK's sugar tax?

The UK’s Soft Drinks Industry Levy was introduced in April 2018. Government policy papers have previously set out ambitions to consider extending the tax to milk-based drinks (drinks with more than 75ml of milk per 100ml are currently exempt); but Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also pledged to review​ ‘nanny state’ measures.

Ahead of the general election on December 12, election manifestos from Labour and Liberal Democrats have each pledged to extend the Soft Drinks Industry Levy to include sugary milk-based drinks which was also proposed in Public Health England’s Childhood Obesity Plan.

Action on Sugar is now urging the next government to ensure that the mandatory soft drinks industry levy will be extended to both sugary milk and milk-alternative based drinks in order to create a level-playing field.

Other sugar reduction methods can also be learned from the packaged beverage industry: such as reducing serving sizes.

Holly Gabriel, a registered nutritionist at Action on Sugar, said: “It is shocking that so many high street coffee chains are wilfully putting their customers’ health at risk despite PHE setting sugar reduction targets for sugary milk drinks in 2018.

“Responsible coffee shops have shown reformulation is possible within this category. For example, Costa has made some significant reductions in sugar since 2016 and some now offer smaller sizes as standard for seasonal drinks.

“Coffee shops and cafes need to take much greater steps to reduce the levels of sugar and portion sizes, promote lower sugar alternatives and stop pushing indulgent extras at the till.”

What are coffee shops doing to reduce sugar?

Starbucks – the world’s largest coffee chain – has committed to reduce added sugar by 25% in its indulgent drinks range by 2020.

It has reduced sugar by 5% in its core syrup range (vanilla, caramel, hazelnut) and reduced sugar by 30% in its hot chocolate range. It has also introduced a ‘go lighter’ initiative which highlights how consumers can change the size or ingredients.

Starbucks says that the customised Signature Hot Chocolate quoted by Action on Sugar (such as the largest Venti size and added whipped cream) represents the most indulgent combinations a consumer can make from their menu.

“All our drinks can be customized, such as asking for our smallest size; Short, requesting skimmed milk and less or no whipped cream,"​ it said in response to the report. "To help make it easier for customers to make informed choices, nutritional information is also available in-store, on our mobile app and online. We are committed to reducing sugar in all our beverages and since 2015, we’ve delivered a 9% reduction in the sugar content of our Gingerbread and core syrup range of vanilla, caramel and hazelnut.”

Costa – which is now owned by Coca-Cola - has set targets to reduce added sugar in its drinks range by ​25% by 2020.

“While only 32% of Costa Coffee drinks contain added sugar (including a Cappuccino which has an optional chocolate dusting) we have made some significant changes to our menu through reformulation, introducing more healthier alternatives and reviewing our portion sizes,” ​says Costa.

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