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Festive hot drinks are loaded with sugar, new survey shows

Call for milk-based drinks to be in Soft Drink Industry Levy

Jo Carlowe

Tuesday, 03 December 2019

Many festive hot drinks contain huge amounts of sugar, a new survey shows.

High street coffee chains are failing to make progress towards the government’s voluntary sugar reduction targets (overseen by Public Health England) with their festive milk and milk alternative hot beverages – most of which would be eligible for the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – according to a nationwide survey published today.


The survey by Action on Sugar, based at Queen Mary University of London, analysed both the sugar and calorie content of the largest available sizes of hot chocolates and seasonal lattes made with milk and milk alternatives (i.e. oat, almond, coconut, soya, rice-coconut) by popular high street chains. It found that certain seasonal beverages contain almost as much sugar as three cans of Coca Cola. Furthermore, all of the largest available size products surveyed would receive a red traffic light for total sugars – the exception being Costa’s Gingerbread Lattes (Medio) (made either with milk, soya or almond milk).

According to the survey findings, the worst hot chocolate "offender" is Starbucks Signature Caramel Hot Chocolate with whipped cream, using Oat Milk (Venti), which contains 23 teaspoons (93.7g) of sugar in one drink, and 758 calories – the same as eating four white chocolate and strawberry muffins. While Caffe Nero’s Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate (Grande) made with skimmed milk contains nearly 15 teaspoons of sugar (59.6g) and 503 calories.

In comparison, Leon Hot Chocolate (regular) has just over four teaspoons of sugar (17g) and 257 calories, demonstrating that lower sugar drinks can be made and enjoyed.

When it comes to sugary seasonal lattes, Starbucks again ranks the highest with its Gingerbread Latte with Oat Milk with over 14 teaspoons of sugar (56.6g) and 523 calories per portion.

Even without the added sugar from syrups, the sugar content of milk alternatives varies greatlyUnsweetened milk alternatives are naturally similar or lower in sugars than cow’s milk and therefore using sugar-sweetened milks and sugary syrups is completely unnecessary, notes Action on Sugar.

Despite being blasted for their high sugar content in Action on Sugar’s hot beverage survey in 2016, more than one in four (27%) directly comparable products had seen no decrease in sugar but have in fact increased.

Whilst some businesses have made progress as part of the voluntary measures – others are lagging behind and are acting "completely irresponsibly". 

HM Treasury was due to review the continuation of milk-based drinks exemption from the Soft Drinks Industry Levy in 2020 but election manifestos from Labour and Liberal Democrats have each pledged to extend the successful Soft Drinks Industry Levy to include sugary milk-based drinks, which was also proposed in Chapter 2 of the Childhood Obesity Plan and the Green Paper Advancing our health: prevention in the 2020s. Action on Sugar is now urging the next government to ensure that the mandatory Soft Drinks Industry Levy will be extended to both sugary milk and milk-alternative based drinks.

Holly Gabriel, registered nutritionist at Action on Sugar, says: “It is shocking that so many high street coffee chains are wilfully putting their customers’ health at risk despite sugar reduction targets for sugary milk drinks being set in 2018. Responsible coffee shops have shown reformulation is possible within this category.  For example, Costa has made some significant reductions in sugar since 2016 and some now offer smaller sizes as standard for seasonal drinks.

“Coffee shops and cafes need to take much greater steps to reduce the levels of sugar and portion sizes, promote lower sugar alternatives and stop pushing indulgent extras at the till.”

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