Food Babe Investigates: Sabotaged at Starbucks

Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe) is a regular contributor on 100 Days of Real Food. To learn more about Vani check her out on “Our Team” page.

Trying to get through the maze of what is offered at Starbucks can be pretty daunting – hopefully this information will clear up any nagging thoughts about what’s REALLY in their food and drinks. I couldn’t help but shake my head at the things I uncovered, which had me asking – how many times have people unknowingly gotten sabotaged at Starbucks?

Earlier this year, it was revealed that Starbucks was using crushed up bugs to color their Strawberry Frappuccinos. Luckily, they responded to the public outcry and eliminated that beetle juice. You’d think they would have taken the time to clean up the rest of their menu, but no such luck. Did you know that Starbucks uses ingredients that are scarier than bugs and could even be harmful to your health? That’s where the real sabotage begins…

Top 5 Ways To Get Sabotaged At Starbucks:

1. Coffee

You might think it is a bit radical to suggest not drinking their most prized ingredient that makes over 85,000 different combination of drinks, but it’s also radical drinking and paying a premium for coffee that’s ridden with potential toxins. Let’s get real here, they do not actually serve organic coffee at most Starbucks locations, which means (like all brands of conventional coffee) it’s been sprayed with pesticides. We all know Starbucks coffee ain’t cheap, but most people don’t know that regular consumption of conventional coffee can be a serious source of pesticide exposure.

Starbucks coffee is grown all over the world in developing nations. The United States doesn’t regulate the type and amount of pesticides foreign countries use in their production of coffee beans, which makes consuming non-organic coffee on a regular basis pretty risky. You could be drinking toxins from pesticides that are in fact banned here in the United States but not else where, like the pesticide Chlorpyrifos that is a contact poison. It has caused human deaths, and has been linked to birth defects. It is extremely toxic to birds, freshwater and marine organisms, bees, and other wildlife.

Furthermore, we know that increased exposure to pesticides are linked to birth defects, nerve damage and cancer. The President’s Cancer Panel has urged us not to consume food sprayed with pesticides and doesn’t believe any amount is safe.

And in regards to their decaf… did you know that conventional decaffeinated coffees are made decaf by soaking the beans with a chemical called ethyl acetate used in nail polish and glues and a carcinogen called methylene chloride?

2. Soy Latte (or anything else with Starbucks organic soy milk)

Logically, it makes sense to choose organic soy milk, since Starbucks decided to eliminate organic cow’s milk as an option a few years ago. But not so fast. Starbucks organic soy milk has one ingredient they would rather you not know about. This ingredient was recently highlighted in a report generated by the Cornucopia Institute and echoed in a recent NYTimes article about non-organic ingredients allowed in organic food. One of those questionable ingredients is carrageenan, which is derived from seaweed and is in Starbucks branded organic soy milk. This substance is reported to cause intestinal inflammation and can be become a carcinogen once it is digested.

How such an ingredient became allowed in organic food is bigger than just Starbucks. However, companies ultimately make the decision to use or not to use these harmful ingredients.

Carrageenan can also be found in other Starbucks food and drink products including their cakes, scones, yogurt and Light Frappuccinos.

3. Baked Goods & Other Food Offerings

Sure, Starbucks made a commitment a couple of years ago to eliminate transfat, artificial colors, and high fructose corn syrup from their food products. They said they listened to us and responded. However, I think Starbucks may need a hearing aid. Just because a company gets rid of certain ingredients doesn’t automatically make the food completely natural or “real”.  For instance, the Reduced Fat Cinnamon Swirl Coffee Cake has over 75 ingredients!

Ingredients in Starbucks food products still include:

  • Refined FloursWhite flour that has been stripped of its nutrients and provides nothing but empty calories that contribute to chronic disease & obesity.
  • Chemically Derived Sugars – Some products like the lemon pound cake contain 6 different types of processed sugars (e.g. powdered sugar, glycose syrup, corn syrup, maltodextrin, dextrose, etc.).
  • Preservatives – The Mayo Clinic reported that the preservative sodium benzoate (an ingredient found in the Iced Lemon Pound Cake) may increase hyperactivity in children. Also, when sodium benzoate combines with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) benzene can form a carcinogen and kill DNA cells, accelerating aging.
  • Growth Hormone  Starbucks has eliminated growth hormone milk in their core dairy products, but not in their food products. That means you could be still be ingesting a substance that has been reported to cause breast, colon and prostate cancers.
  • Cellulose Gum – This a filler made from wood pulp your body can’t even digest.
  • Proplyene Glycol – This is an ingredient in the Apple Fritter and Reduced Fat Cinnamon Swirl Cake, which is derived from petroleum and a key chemical that is used to make anti-freeze.
  • Azodicarbonamide – This substance, found in Starbucks croissants, is banned in the U.K., Europe and Australia, and if used in Singapore can result in fines up to $450,000 and a 15 year prison sentence! This ingredient has been reported to cause asthmatic symptoms in people who inhale it and can also increase certain food sensitivities.
  • Genetically Modified Ingredients (GMOs) -Several of the listed ingredients are likely genetically modified. We’ll never know for sure how much of Starbucks products are genetically modified since they are currently not required to be labeled in this country. But we do know that the consumption of GMO foods poses a serious threat to our health and have been linked to toxicity, allergic reactions and fertility issues.
  • Cheap Oils  Soy, canola or corn oil can be found in almost all of Starbucks’ products. Over-consumption of these cheap oils are causing an abundance of Omega 6 fatty acids in our diets. The imbalance of Omega 6 fatty acids increases the risk of inflammation, heart disease, obesity, and prostate and bone cancer.

4. “Refreshers” Beverage

This brand new drink that just came out last week gives the allure of fresh and real, but it’s anything but. The ingredients are the same for both flavors of the refresher drinks. What?  How can one taste like “Cool Lime” and the other one taste like “Berry Hibiscus” when they have both have the same base ingredients? Huh?  Looking at the two different boxes these “handcrafted” drinks came out of, the ingredients read:

Starbucks Refreshers Beverage: Water, Sugar, White Grape Juice Concentrate, Natural Flavors, Natural Green Coffee Flavor, Citric Acid, Erythritol, Antioxidant (Ascorbic Acid E300), Rebaudioside A (Stevia)

Starbucks calls white grape juice concentrate (which involves heating the juice to high temperatures and adding some chemicals to get a more condensed product) “real fruit juice.”  The only difference between the two drinks was the addition of freeze dried lime to one drink and freeze dried blackberries to the other. I guess that explains how they “handcraft” it.  McDonalds must also handcraft their burgers when they put the bun on them, huh?

It is interesting that Green Coffee Extract was not actually in the drink like they advertise. It is included in the refresher products they sell packaged in the store, but not in the version baristas make behind the counter. Is this their way of tricking us into buying a cheaper derivative of Green Coffee – just the flavor and not the extract?

When I realized that both drinks contained added sugar as the second ingredient and “natural flavor,” I immediately knew this drink was pure JUNK. Manufactured natural flavor is contributing to what David Kessler (former head of the FDA) calls a “food carnival” in your mouth.  This makes it difficult to stop eating or drinking because the flavors they have synthesized trick your mind into wanting more and more. Starbucks doesn’t give us the full essence of a hibiscus or cucumber mint – just the best 1 millionth part of the taste – so we only want more of that product, which in turns fills Starbucks’ pockets. When companies use manufactured flavor, they literally are “hijacking” your taste buds one-by-one.

Please note, natural flavor is found in almost all of Starbucks products, not just this new drink. Their smoothies are also made with a product that comes from a box and contains juice concentrate with natural flavors and natural color as opposed to 100% real fruit. I should also note that their mocha chocolate sauce, used to flavor many drinks and their chocolate smoothie, still contain high fructose corn syrup, too. They haven’t eliminated high fructose corn syrup in their drinks, only their food. This is yet another marketing trick Starbucks has played on us.

5. Frappuccinos

Did you know the CEO of Starbucks doesn’t even drink Frappuccinos? And I think I’ve figured out why. Frappuccinos are full of refined sugar, natural and artificial flavors, and a substance called caramel coloring. California recently included caramel coloring on its annual list of carcinogens that require warning labels.

This type of caramel isn’t the stuff you make at home by cooking sugar. This caramel color is manufactured by heating ammonia and sulfites under high pressure, which creates carcinogenic compounds. Caramel color is classified into four different classes; Class IV being the worst and the one that is listed on the Starbucks Frappuccino label. Whether you choose the regular or light version of a Frappuccino, you are getting a dose of this known carcinogen proven to cause liver tumors, lung tumors, and thyroid tumorsin rats and mice.

When The Center for Science in the Public Interest studied two different brands of soda earlier this year, they found that both had dangerous levels of caramel coloring and could be contributing to thousands of cancers in the US. This prompted Coke and Pepsi to quickly change their formulas so they didn’t have to include the cancer warning label on their products in California. I wonder what level of carcinogenic compounds a Frappuccino has, don’t you? Maybe someone should test it. I think it should be removed altogether from the FDA’s approved list of additives considering this substance is only added for cosmetic reasons and serves no real purpose!

Frappuccinos aren’t the only products at Starbucks that contain caramel coloring, the “Perfect” Oatmeal even has it! This is alarming to say the least, considering the oatmeal is one of the most popular and “safer” sounding menu items at Starbucks. To quote Starbucks, “The most important meal of the day is the first. So why not make it nutritious and delicious?” I’m not sure if consuming carcinogens first thing in the morning is really nutritious, are you?

Despite all these ways in which Starbucks can sabotage me, I still like to use their free internet. Many of the stores now carry bananas, organic dried fruit, and some quality granola bars without synthetic ingredients that I would buy if I needed a snack. I always read the label no matter what I am buying just to be sure.

My favorite treat to get at Starbucks is absolutely free. They will give a cup of hot water to anyone that asks. Since I always carry a few extra bags of organic tea with me, I know I can always have a healthy beverage on the go from Starbucks for free anytime I like. I also like to use this free hot water option to make my own quick cooking oatmeal without carcinogenic caramel coloring!

But if you aren’t a tea drinker and are still clamoring for a Frappuccino, but don’t want to consume harmful ingredients…I’ve got a couple of recipes for you! Try my Homemade Organic Frappuccino with no refined sugars, artificial colors, flavors or carcinogens today or try Lisa’s Maple Mocha. Both of these recipes are so easy to make, you’ll never have to worry about getting sabotaged at Starbucks again.

Comments have been closed on this article, which was written by Vani Hari. If you have a question or comment you can reach her at

Vani HariVani Hari a.k.a. Food Babe is an organic living expert, food activist and writer on She teaches people how to make the right purchasing decisions at the grocery store, how to live an organic lifestyle, and how to travel healthfully around the world. The success in her writing and investigative work can be seen in the way food companies react to her uncanny ability to find and expose the truth. To follow Vani, check her out on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

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  • Comments

    1. Kathy |

      Curious about the tea at Starbucks (I hate coffee :0 ). My favorite is the iced Chia Tea Latte with skim milk. Does this have to go for fear of carcinogens? I’m guessing yes that it has caramel color? What about plain unsweetened black or green tea, hot or cold?


    2. Helen |

      I doubt Starbucks is the first place people go if looking for healthy fare….. :)

    3. |

      Awesome comments, I read them all. I love the ones from people who were proud to work at Starbucks. As an independent coffee shop owner I can appreciate MANY things Starbucks does as a corporation. Benefits etc. I know how hard it is to offer things like that. But the really hard part is giving up some of the profit margin to do the right thing! Starbucks created this coffee world we live in and they have the ability to really create change. They do some great things but it’s not nearly enough. Not with the power they have.

      We sell raw, organic milk we get straight from the farmer. We banned ALL nuerotoxins from our coffee bar and only use organic sweeteners. Sure, people freaked when the Splenda was gone, and we might have lost a few customers… but we did the right thing b/c we care. Once you know you can’t look the other way!

      When you serve food to the public. When you stand behind that counter and take their money, you have a responsibility to do your best. Now, a lot of store owners don’t know any better. But once I took the blue pill (matrix) and went down the rabbit hole there was no turning back.

      The food system is flawed, really flawed, so the manufactures have a major responsibility as well. They will not change though, the bigger the place the longer it takes to change.

      So the last part of the puzzle is the consumer. It takes all 3.
      The manufactures, the store and the consumers. If we all demanded organic coffee of Starbucks then they would change. Then the organic coffee that we buy would be even cheaper b/c of their power. Imagine if Starbucks told the dairy farms we will only buy organic milk! The farmers would change to keep that account. Everyone always says it’s a supply issue. It’s not! It’s a lazy and $ issue.

      It’s blogs like this that get the info out so the customers can take action. But if you do plan to say something don’t bother doing it at the airport and grocery store locations…. those aren’t starbucks employees.

      Keep up the good work Food Babe!

      • molly |

        EXCELLENT comment! Very true!!!

    4. Blueberry |

      Yes they do use these ingredients. Thanks for letting us know. Remember everyone. So do most other food companies. So much of our food contains, carageenan (ice cream) ‘natural’ flavoring. pick an additive any additive. I’m not sure it’s fair to pin-point just one company. Starbucks is maybe the most recognizable They’re all equally as guilty. Read your labels folks. Educate yourselves. I’m thankful we have 100 Days to help us out. : ) Processed food? Yuck!

    5. Beth |

      I am an avid and devoted Starbucks fan and supporter. I also eat/drink 90% of my meals in the “organic” section. I go to starbucks because it is a great environment, they work hard to continue changing and working for their customers and they make an amazing caramel machiato. Starbucks doesn’t claim to be organic or even “healthy”….seriously…their drinks are drizzled with caramel sauce and whipped cream… if that is what people are so “amazed” about and will now not go there, wow, let’s just say America is going “downward” in the self-education department. I think we all have our weaknesses and things we enjoy to partake in, I wouldn’t change my habits over one review, please America, while I can respect this writer for her article, really, you are going to NOW (after reading ONE review and not further investigating) change your habits?? What if she was wrong and while getting her free water and wi-fi happen to get some information incorrectly? Will you then retell someone else the information that you have not personally researched?? I am a teacher and I tell my students all the time, just because it is on the internet, on a website does NOT make it gospel….do your OWN research….take what someone says as an opinion and build on it. Damn, think for yourself and food babe, please respect the people of starbucks enough not to use their wi-fi and products to make you look justified at how you can “show” a company that you are better than them.

      • Ali O. |

        These are great points. Well said.

    6. Krista |

      Thanks so much for sharing! I don’t drink coffee but many of my loved ones do. Can’t wait to see where you go next!

    7. Sarah |

      I’ll take caffe RoM in Chicago over a Starbucks any day. But I wonder how they stack up? Their baker is an local company I believe and their scones are Delish!….Would hate to find extra chemicals inside….guess I should ask for the ingredients list next time I stop in. ;) Great post. thanks for all the insight!

    8. Stijn Hommes |

      People fear what they don’t know. Instead of cutting all these things outright, educate yourself. Carrageenan for example is a type of sugar extracted from sea weed. Not exactly common, but not a fake ingredient or in any way dangerous. With the coffee, you should be glad it is processed, because it washes any pesticides away. Wasn’t their coffee from organic farms anyway?

      High-fructose corn syrup [is] a group of corn syrups that has undergone enzymatic processing to convert some of its glucose into fructose to produce a desired sweetness. They added some more fructose with an enzyme. An enzyme you’d probably be eating in some other form from fresh food anyway.

      Personally, I’m not worried about GMO’s. They’re so heavily regulated that the chance of it being dangerous is ridiculously small. The truth is, people have an idea about genetic modification which couldn’t be more different than the truth.

      My message? Educate yourself about those names on the label and suddenly those ingredients you couldn’t pronounce before turn out to be more normal than you thought. Or should we ban sodium chloride and dihydrogenmonoxide as well?

      • Carolyn |

        GMO’s are “genetically modified”….not the way God intended them to be. They are not regulated at all, we can’t even get the food industry to label them when they occur in food products. I am not taking any chances with GMO’s!

        • |

          I share your opinion Carolyn. We just don’t know what these foods will do long term to our health and they are already affecting our allergies, sensitivities and fertility!

      • CK |

        HFCS is not processed by the body in the same way as regular refined sugar, did you know that? It actually bypasses the liver and is converted to fat. So HFCS does make a difference to your body. Just look at all the obese people in the U.S.
        See Dr.Lustig’s video on HFCS – he says that alcohol and sugar both have the same effect on the body.

    9. Chrissy |

      My husband works for a restaurant in which they offer free wi-fi… While you will have squatters the only way you can turn a squatter into a customer is if they’re in your store to begin with. Like Vani said earlier… The free cup is marketing… The free wi-fi is designed to get people in the door. We eat real food 90% of the time, however their are occasional days that I stop for a bite to eat to get something quick. While I don’t have the time to research what’s in these products at chick-fil-a, subway, and Starbucks, I greatly appreaciate the time Food Babe has invested in getting down to the bottom of what’s really lurking in these foods. Regardless of your feelings towards the information provided it serves no real purpose to belittle her findings. Take the information at face value if you do not agree with whats provided, because their are many of us out there who do appreciate it.

    10. Elisabeth |

      Let me start with the fact that I very much appreciate this post. Starbucks isn’t alone, of course, in producing crappy, chemical-laden foodstuffs, but it’s easy for people to forget this given the elevated prices and “upscale” marketing schtick. The caveat: I guess I just don’t agree that bugs are even close to the same as the other carcinogenic chemicals that are listed here. Even though I’m just as squeamish as everyone else who grew up on processed foods, I know better than to believe that crushed beetles are even close to being a dangerous foodstuff. In fact, there are many cultures worldwide who eat beetles and other bugs on a daily basis (on purpose). Please; bugs aren’t scary, unless you have a bug phobia. Our culture is squeamish to the point of being ridiculous.

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