Friday, April 15, 2011

Nutrition by the Cup

One day while I was working at Starbucks, a customer asked me “What’s the skinniest thing you have?” Starbucks has several lattes made with artificial sweetener and skim milk that they call “skinny” lattes. I knew she was looking for something like that, but I couldn’t resist. “Black coffee,” I replied. She frowned, and said she was looking for something more “fun.” I relented and helped her pick out something more like what she wanted.
The marketing labels at issue here are a little misleading from a nutritional standpoint. There are four main elements that determine how healthy or unhealthy a coffee, tea, or espresso drink is. Antioxidants, caffeine, fat and sugar.

Antioxidants are all the rage in the health industry right now. Necessary chemical reactions in the body produce loose oxygen molecules called free radicals. Antioxidants combine to those free radicals to prevent them from damaging cells. Vitamin C and vitamin E are common antioxidants.
I once wondered if antioxidants were worth the hype that health food products and women’s magazines give them. More reputable sources concur (Free radicals and antioxidants in health and disease, Bagchi and Puri). Greater consumption of foods high in antioxidants such berries has been linked toreduced rates of cancer. Coffee and tea have a lot of antioxidants which is one reason that rates of cancer are lower among east Asian who drink several cups of green tea a day.
More and more research finds similar good news for coffee drinkers. Regular consumption of coffee has been linked to lower rates of Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s, heart disease and certain types of cancer. But it’s not just the antioxidants. Different elements of coffee (antioxidants, caffeine, minerals) alone or in combination promote different benefits. In a country of overeating, coffee’s ability to suppress appetite is also probably important (
These benefits are diluted by the sugar and fat that goes in to a lot of coffee drinks. Sugar is a high-calorie food that is void of nutritional benefit. Putting a small amount of sugar in coffee is probably negligible in the big picture, but many coffee drinks, such as mochas, caramel machciatos, etc., contain more than enough sugar to undermine the health benefits of coffee.
The fat in coffee drinks comes from milk. Milk fat is saturated fat, the bad kind of fat, and it should be avoided (Know Your Fats, American Heart Association). Milk does contain protein and calcium, and one can order a latte with non-fat milk or even soy milk, which contains unsaturated fat.  On the whole, dairy is not generally necessary or healthy for adults (a subject for a later date). For now, note that any benefits that espresso might have could be negated by a cup full of milk and sugar. At Starbucks, a small latte does not even have as much caffeine as a small coffee.
In the end, I stand by my snarky response to the customer. The “skinny” latte is only skinny by virtue of what it doesn’t have, saturated fat and sugar. The healthiest drink at your coffee shop is probably black coffee or tea. These drinks are not just healthy relative to your other choices; they genuine have health benefits.

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