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. |

      Hi Vani and Lisa!

      Thanks particularly the Refreshers details!! I searched and searched online because they were offering it FREE on Friday — but I didn’t email customer service — you’re an excellent researcher, and so thorough! Anyway, last Friday, I recommended them on my blog, ooops! The Refreshers description really appealed to me, fresh fruit, herbs, juice, green coffee extract, ….it was all a lie! What a disappointment!! Well, like you mentioned, Vani, the Peeled dried mangoes are awesome! With those and some green tea, you can feel refreshed, and a delicious smelling place to work! If you’re now looking for non-Starbucks energy boost, I just posted this: …Lisa, I really think we’re on the same wavelength, posting similar topics! Thanks as always for the fabulous info and inspiration to keep getting healthier!!

    2. Leah from Iowa |

      From what I’ve read so far, you’re just taking past posts and putting them into new ones. We may not be the most educated folks in the world, but my husband and I (everyone I know for that matter) know that Starbucks, McDonald’s, Chipotle, etc isn’t good for you. We always have.

      This blog is geared towards people who are already making the change to real food, are already eating it, or who are curious. I understand you’re trying to reach those not informed, but a lot of the time you come off as preachy and that turns a lot of people off.

      Fast food kills. So do a lot of things. I say enjoy anything you eat.

      As for the post…I don’t ever buy anything at Starbucks because I’m not spending that kind of money on fillers and syrup. And usually it’s not that good.

      • |

        I appreciate your opinion, but you knew Starbucks used caramel coloring in their “Perfect” oatmeal? I certainly did not before starting this investigation that took several hours to compile. Also – I am pretty sure people didn’t realize that Starbucks is still using high fructose corn syrup in their Mocha Lattes, Hot Chocolate and Chocolate Smoothies. And you knew that the Organic Soy Milk that Starbucks uses had a potential carcinogen?

        • Anna |

          Thanks Food babe! I go to starbucks often and get 1 of 3 items:

          1) plain coffee
          2) oatmeal
          3) croissant (as a treat)

          I could’ve guessed that the croissant had artificial ingredients, but I always felt good about getting a coffee and oatmeal. Now that I know what’s in the coffee and oatmeal, I probably won’t be going there. (Sorry Starbucks). I’m dissapointed to know that Starbucks has such a loose interpretation of “food” and “drink”. Thankjs for doing the research!

        • Reanna |

          I appreciate the footwork Lisa does as far as collecting information re: real food, organic v. traditional, literature to read, etc. I appreciate her guest bloggers as well. I think maybe what the lady above meant was that most people realize most of the stuff we eat is not necessarily in our best interests but that it is placiated with “ignorance is bliss”. Once the information is put out there in a simple and easy to digest format, that ignorance is shattered and one is left with knowledge that was not necessarily wanted. It is very human nature to want to plug our ears and bury our heads in the sand when confronted with facts that challenge our pre-conceived and often very old schemas of just about anything.

          This site and the guests it hosts more often than not turn people’s food worlds on their heads. For some, that’s hard to handle, for others it’s like an “oh poo – well that’s about disgusting and not going into my body anymore.”

          I think the information is fabulous, but then again I must know everything about everything – I love being critical and analytical in just about everything I do. I don’t take much for granted and certainly not many things at face value. A wise woman once told me change of behavior, habits, perception, etc. is possible but it’s usually super hard work and most people don’t want to take on the challenge. I’m all over self-improvment (but not in some crazy Amway convention type of way!!!).

          As far as Starbucks, it’s a treat about once every six months or more, usually with friends. I make my own coffee and that does the trick just fine. :)

          Thanks for the time you spend putting out the information!


      • Laura |

        I did not know about all the information in this blog. I appreciate the attention to detail as I am new to the All natural world! Please continue to educate us newbies!!

    3. Margaret |

      Ack! Your post caused me to read the ingredients on my Silk Organice Unsweetened Soy Milk….sounds healthy, right? But yep, it contains carrageenan….something I didn’t really know about until I read this post. Now that I know, I just can’t drink it. Got any other ideas for “real foods” that reduce hot flashes?

      • Caithlinn |

        Lady’s mantle tea. If you don’t have some in the garden, search for an organic tea supplier for herbal teas. You use leaves and stems, i.e. whole plant, 1 or 2 cups a day and hot flashes should be reduced.

      • |

        FYI – Eden Soy doesn’t use carrageenan. Or better yet, switch to homemade nut milk, there is nothing like it!

    4. Jane |

      I’m really sorry, but am I the only one who is starting to miss the posts that are just about eating good, whole food? These fast food posts are slowly turning the focus of the blog from whole food into an alarmist diatribe against fast food.

      It’s becoming a less useful tool in my daily eating and I find myself visiting less and less. Please go back to focusing on good food that your family eats.

      • Melanie |


    5. Antoinette |

      I have tried for years to keep my son’s diet as healthy as possible. I take him for a treat to starbucks and get a green unsweetened tea for me, a horizon’s organic milk for him and then one of their pops or cookies for him. In attempting to make our diet more ‘real’ I have ben following most of the 100days priciples and incorporating more all the time. That said, I have allowed our ‘sometimes treats’ to remain unexamined. Thanks for waking me up a bit more.

    6. AB |

      Thanks again for another great post! I love this blog and Food Babe’s blog. The recipes and fast food/restaurant information is great.

    7. Sarah |

      Thank you for this post. I love being informed via your blog on real food and potential risks, alerts, etc. Keep up the good work! Do you have a good source that you have found for organic, fair trade coffee? I have experimented with a few, but find I get headaches from most organic coffees. No idea why…

      • |

        If you get headaches you could be sensitive to the diuretic effects of coffee. I would make sure you are well hydrated before consuming it. I love a local roaster called “Larry’s Beans” they are out of Raleigh, NC and have great flavors and are 100% organic and fair-trade.

    8. Tess |

      Just wondering where you got your infomation about the only difference between the cool lime refresher and the very berry refresher is the lime and blackberries added to it???

    9. nancy |

      I spent 2 weeks in Europe last month. The coffee there was wonderful and I felt great.
      When I got back to the U.S.A. I drank a Starbucks and had a burning feeling in my stomach for days! Thanks for helping us press for change. Bigger/Faster is not always better… Sometimes the old ways are the best!

    10. Shannon |

      Thank you for taking the time to put this information together. I do have a question though about the coffee pesticides. How is it possible for Starbucks to be able to import and use coffee coated with pesticides that are banned here?

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