Food Babe Investigates: Sabotaged at Starbucks

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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.

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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272 comments to Food Babe Investigates: Sabotaged at Starbucks

  • cat

    Don’t know if it is the starbucks drinks, but here is the info.. look under the food use section

  • Ashley

    Do you consider Erythritol to be real food?

  • grow your business

    Great site. Keep up the great work. Many thanks .

  • [...] exacerbate the symptoms. However, Pizza Hut and many other fast food chains like Subway and Starbucks use this ingredient in their U.S. bread [...]

  • [...] exacerbate the symptoms. However, Pizza Hut and many other fast food chains like Subway and Starbucks use this ingredient in their U.S. bread [...]

  • [...] exacerbate the symptoms. However, Pizza Hut and many other fast food chains like Subway and Starbucks use this ingredient in their U.S. bread [...]

  • [...] exacerbate the symptoms. However, Pizza Hut and many other fast food chains like Subway and Starbucks use this ingredient in their U.S. bread [...]

  • [...] exacerbate the symptoms. However, Pizza Hut and many other fast food chains like Subway and Starbucks use this ingredient in their U.S. bread [...]

  • [...] exacerbate the symptoms. However, Pizza Hut and many other fast food chains like Subway and Starbucks use this ingredient in their U.S. bread [...]

  • Jacqueline G

    “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.”

    Apparently you are unaware that organic and pesticide-free are not synonymous. And don’t think organic pesticides are any safer for you, especially when they have to spray more of it to get the same effects as synthetic pesticides or GMO’s.

  • Jacqueline G

    “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?”

    No, it is the fruit which are soaked in green coffee extract. That is why Starbucks cannot sell the drink when they are out of the fruit.

  • Nick

    Here’s the problem with most of your premise: a) you’re preaching to the choir here. People eating “real foods” aren’t going to corporate establishments driven by profit to get their food. Mass produced product is made from non organic ingredients?!! Really?!! Thanks for the heads up. b) many of Starbucks coffees aren’t “certified organic” because it comes at the cost of the farmer yielding quite a bit of crops over a lengthy period of time. Perhaps you don’t understand that you’re not just generalizing a corporation in this context but actual coffee farmers who have much more respect for the art of growing great coffee than you and your google searches can comprehend. How many coffee farms have you been to? I’ve been to one. Not certified organic, by the way, and while I can’t speak to their seeds I can speak to their lack of pesticides. While I make no argument for food, I do find myself in need of opposing your blanket coffee pesticide attack without any sort of qualification other than the non certified organic stamp. Also search C.A.F.E. practices and enlighten yourself. All of this info can be found from talking to a knucklehead in a black apron making $9 an hour. Have at it.

  • Brianna

    Whaattt? Apple fritters and frappucinos are unhealthy?! Shut the front door.

  • Thanks, Food Babe!! Wow, that is scary stuff and I’m a huge fan of the green tea frappuccino, now since working to be all organic I am having to weed out and change some things! Have to order some organic green tea matcha powder and make my own now!

  • Lauren

    Did you consider that the hot water given to you for your organic tea is fluoridated? That defeats the purpose. Just an FYI- it really sucks :/

  • Stephanie

    I believe the majority of folks are smart enough to know when something isn’t particularly healthy for them. All the reasons you listed put aside, we shouldn’t be consuming treats everyday. The biggest culprit at Starbucks is that people will buy those treats once, even twice a day. The ingredients won’t kill them……the frequency of eating them might, eventually.

    I think they’re pretty nice to let you park yourself there, free hot water and all, without asking anything in return from you. ; except maybe a nice little mention in an article you’ve written…………

  • What’s, in your opinion, is safe to eat/drink at Starbucks??

  • Rafee J.

    A brewed cup of coffee most likely isn’t full of bad pesticides because of the extensive washing, roasting, and fermentation the bean goes through before it even hits the shelf. Read the article above.
    It’s an article that debunks the coffee pesticide issue in regards to the drinker’s health. However, I still see it as a hazardous risk to the coffee growers and environments they are grown in- no doubt there. Here’s a quote from it:

    “Coffee is not eaten raw like lettuce or apples. The bean is the seed of a fruit. The flesh of this fruit is discarded. Along the way the seed is soaked, fermented, and subject to a thorough drying process. Later it is roasted at temperatures exceeding 400°F, and finally broken apart and soaked in near boiling water. This savage history concludes when we consume only the water in which the previously soaked, fermented, dried, roasted, and infused seed was immersed. Given this history of relentless attrition, it hardly seems possible that much if any of the small amounts of pesticide/fungicide residue permitted by law in green coffee ever make it into the cup.

  • Tik B. Lang

    Is Roo-BAw-Dayosayd-Ah (additional synthetic sweeteners) in Starbucks ReFresheres safe for daily consumption? I like the Berry Hibiscus with real Blackberries but had concern on the artifical ingredients. I pay premium for the product and I want the best my money.

  • Melinda Gonzalez

    I applaud food babe for how she handles all these comments coming from every direction. It would be hard for me to keep my cool… in fact I know I wouldn’t, LOL.

    I will say, sometimes I do get irritated because it seems like food babe is being “preachy”. From the comments apparently others do too. However, it is simple psychology: the things that bother us the most are the things we don’t like about ourselves… or can’t deal with inside ourselves. Obviously, most of us KNOW we are eating bad. We just can’t or won’t deal with the thought we need to change. And… we get defensive and shoot the messenger.

    We have to figure out a way to face our bad food choices … whether those choices are/were knowingly or unknowingly.

    Companies will always give what the consumer asks for. If we all came together and asked for only non-gmo organic foods… I guarantee the stores would give it to us. We are the people who keep them in business.

    However, because people can’t stand to face reality … they continue to “ask for” chemical laden, processed foods with every dollar they spend at places that serve them.

    Thank you Food Babe for facing the thing so many of us are too afraid to face. It’s not about living in fear about everything we eat. It’s about FACING our fears, and moving past them by making the choices we KNOW we should be making.

    We need more food babes out there. We need more people to care. We need more people willing to face the parts of themselves they couldn’t face before. I hope more Americans will take charge of their food choices…other countries already have.

    Keep the articles coming. Sources would be great, but just keep writing and researching. It is making a difference.

  • Natasha

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. You have changed the way that my family and I eat and you are helping me to make sure that I raise my 17 month old daughter in a healthy environment. You are fantastic!!

  • Drew

    They have a blueberry bar with ‘organic’ blueberries. I don’t buy it, both literally and figuratively…

  • Marie

    While I find your post on Starbucks very informative, I also find it quite distasteful and hypocritical to bring of your own teabag and buying a small piece of fruit just to use the free internet.

    • Tabitha

      She is there doing her research and trying to make a better life for you people who don’t know anything about what’s going into your mouth! She is trying to say that there ARE healthy options at Starbucks, just not the ones that they heavily advertise. You are distasteful.

      • Sandra

        Regardless, have to agree with the lack of class in bringing your own food and/or drinks into an establishment – especially to capitalize on customer perks, and even further when pointing out the negatives of said establishment. If there are healthy options available, then those can be purchased instead as a balanced way to do good research at the same time as respect the services that are being offered.

        • Mike

          Agreed with Sandra. Regardless of what “important research” she’s doing (that could be done just as well from home), she’s ethically failing here. Bereft of class. On that note, I want to include that the snarky/smart-ass tone in this article brought me down. I went looking for information about the dangers in some of Sbux’s products, which I found, but it could have been put together in a much more convincing manner without all the “attitude” the author added… leaving me NOT to wonder why only a few hundred people have cared enough about the article to comment. When you make yourself sound just as childish as your target is unhealthy, well then… who the hell do I believe? I’m going to get a latte. Nice, seemingly biased, semi-informative article, led by the girl taking up a whole table in the lobby.

  • Thanks for the article! We stopped frequenting Starbucks years ago mainly due to the fact that they do not serve organic coffee among other reasons. However, one thing people should also be aware of is that, according to recent California Proposition 65 findings, all brewed coffee can be carcinogenic. In fact, the law has made it mandatory for coffee shops to display warning signs to inform people about the presence of the carcinogen, Acrylamide (Proposition 65 requires the State of California to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm). This toxic chemical is not added to coffee, rather it is created via the roasting of the beans and is found in high-carbohydrate foods baked or fried at high temperatures as well. You can read more about this here:

  • Patrick Wells

    In response to your comment about Cellulose Gum:
    Our body doesn’t digest fiber, but I don’t see arguing against that.

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