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. Andrea |

      Um, that “beetle juice” you refer to has been used as a dye since Cortez conquered the Aztecs. It’s in all KINDS of food; it’s not a beetle, it’s a scale insect, and I’d rather eat bugs than artificial dyes, but I see you hate those, too.

      Starbucks isn’t any worse than any other restaurant out there (or grocery store for that matter — read the ingredients on Newman’s Own salad dressings: canola oil is used even in the Olive Oil Vinaigrette.)

      I kind of think your article is alarmist and not well researched. “Beetle juice”? Really? You could do better, but it won’t be as sensational, will it.

    2. Courtney |

      Great Job Food Babe. Thank you for taking the time to research & share the FACTS, especially in your free time. I love the Tazo Passion Tea from Starbucks, unsweetened, & probably will continue to drink it even though it’s not organic. I think that the most important message you share here is that we should really THINK about which companies we support & what we choose to put in our bodies…just like Lisa always says “Vote with your Dollars”. Knowledge is power! It is important for all audiences, whether you agree with this Starbucks post or not,to realize that Food Babe shares this info with us because she wants us to all better our health & lives! Do your own research if you don’t want to read Food Babes!

    3. Jennifer |

      Could you do a post on Boarshead deli meat? that would be great. Or just a post comparing brands of deli meat. Thanks!!!

    4. Kendramnelson |

      Wow, amazing!! Im curious.. how did you find this all out? I work at Starbucks and i cant get my hands on the info you shared.
      I love working for the company because of the flexible hours while Im in college, but Im going to school to be a dietitian/Biology with a minor in Physical therapy. And I swear a little bit of my heart dies every time I hand out a drink. People come there to get a bust of energy, some comfort or to make their day better not knowing (or trapped with no over option that they can figure out) that this is the last thing that will make their day better, and definitely not their life.

    5. JESSICA S. |

      Thanks for the article, it was a good read. I go to Starbucks every morning to work on an online class before going to work. I am majoring in Global Development at school right now and have done research on the global coffee and tea industries. I have even traveled to places in South America to study these industries firsthand. I choose Starbucks because of their Fair Trade Options, something not a lot of other coffee shops have in my area. I forfeit a little bit of my real food diet and healthy eating in order to support a specific player in an industry that can be very harmful to people on the other side of the world. I drink unsweetened coffee or tea with honey there every morning and I am able to feel good about this choice. Organic and pesticide free does not mean fair trade, please research all aspects of your morning cuppa :) Thanks for the read! And I agree, stay far away from the baked goods!

    6. Amy |

      I’m not convinced that the banana chocolate smoothie contains HCFS… Unless it’s in the mocha.. It doesn’t use the Frap base.

      • Esther |

        You’re right! That smoothie has the mocha sauce (sugar, cocoa, and vanillin), milk, a banana, protein powder, and ice. No HFCS.

        • |

          I think you may be referring to another product Starbucks uses – maybe a powder that also goes in the drink? I triple confirmed with Starbucks customer service and the Chocolate Smoothie does use mocha sauce and does contain High Fructose Corn Syrup. Here’s the full list of ingredients again – Corn Syrup, Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Sugar, Cocoa (processed with alkali 13%), Potassium Sorbate (preservative E202), Artificial Flavor

          The other Mocha drinks use this sauce too, including the Hot Chocolate! Feel free to contact Starbucks directly for yourself, if you still have doubts – here’s the number: 1- 800-782-7282

          • Esther |

            Actually, today I made the mocha sauce in my store, and those are definitely not the ingredients listed. The frap base does have high fructose corn syrup, so if it was an ingredient list of a mocha frap, that might make more sense. The hot chocolate and chocolate banana smoothie, along with a plain old mocha, do not have high fructose corn syrup.

    7. Lorri |

      I have an issue I might potentially like to be addressed by the Food Babe. I love my Oikos Greek Yogurt which includes the Organic Stoneyfield Oikos. My problem is that I am only able to find the plain in fat free. I have contacted the company and they said their was no palmitate in it. I am assuming that while they don’t add it, it could still be in the milk? Is there anything else in my fat free yogurt that I don’t want to be eating? Love your pieces!

      • |

        Hi Lorri – I suggest calling them directly and asking. I do not buy this product and have not researched it thoroughly. Good Luck!

    8. Nikki speck |

      I was blown away to read all this. Also, this morning looking at my labels I noticed many of my foods contain caramel color!!! Even my Annies homegrown cereal :(. Which I thought was supposed to be a “good choice”. It says right on the box no artificial colors. What is up with that. I feel so lost with this new information :(

    9. |

      I can definitely appreciate the different perspectives that have been represented in the comments, and I thank everyone for sharing them. May I please share my thoughts?

      When reading the article, it did not seem to be an “attack” on Starbucks … you said yourself that you enjoy visiting there. It seemed to me more of a “just want to pass along some information for you to have in mind when you go there” type article. Am I wrong?

      If that is the case, this article serves as a reminder and great example of how important it is to read labels and know what is in your food so that you can make informed decisions. If you still want that pastry or coffee, at least you know that it contains those chemicals etc when you place your order.

      I’m sure you knew that there would be “backlash” when you wrote it, and I applaud you for hitting the post button. Thanks for the info!

      • CK |

        Great perspective! I echo your sentiments.

    10. Laura Ann |

      I’m curious about their chai concentrate. I know that at the coffee shop where I work (not Starbucks), we have organic chai concentrate that looks like a fairly good option as an occasional treat (it does have quite a bit of sugar).
      Also, given the choice between Starbuck’s regular milk and soy, which would be the better option?

      • Esther |

        The tazo chai concentrate is available for purchase (or to look at the label) in every store, and it is the exact same package used to make the drinks.

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