Survey Finds Shocking Amount Of Sugar In Hot Drinks

Survey Finds Shocking Amount Of Sugar In Hot Drinks

According to the campaign group Action on Sugar, dangerously high levels of sugar are being sold on the high street by a number of major coffee house chains. Action on Sugar analysed 131 hot flavoured drinks, and the results of the investigation revealed an amount of sugar in hot drinks such as coffees, lattes, mochas, hot fruit drinks and hot chocolates that a spokesman for the charity described as “shocking”.

Red Labels

The Food Standards Agency has developed a traffic light labelling system, which serves as an indication of the nutritional content of a given food or drink, and helps the consumer decide how often they should eat it or drink it. After reviewing the findings of the their study,

Action on Sugar stated that 98 percent of the drinks tested would receive a red label because of their sugar content, meaning they should only be consumed occasionally or as a treat, and that people should give careful consideration to how often and how much of these drinks they consume.


An average can of Coca Cola contains nine teaspoons of sugar, and a third of the hot drinks included in the study contained at least this amount. Commenting on these results, the Chairman of Action on Sugar, Professor Graham Macgregor, said “This is yet another example of the scandalous amount of sugar added to our food and drink. No wonder we have the highest rates of obesity in Europe”.

Last year, companies like Starbucks, Costa and Caffe Nero came under fire because of the high levels of fat and sugar in some of their Christmas drinks. However, according to Action on Sugar, little has been done in the way of improving the situation, despite this recent criticism.

Results of the Study

Out of the entire range of the out-of-home hot drinks surveyed, over half were found contain more than the maximum daily recommended amount of sugar for adults and teenagers. Three companies make up the top-ten list of worst offenders: Star Bucks, Costa Coffee and KFC. Starbucks took first place with their Hot Mulled Fruit – Grape with Chai, Orange and Cinnamon Venti, which was found to contain 25 teaspoons of sugar per serving.

In total, seven Starbucks hot drink products held positions in the top-ten. Costa Coffee occupied two top-ten spaces with their Chai Latte Massimo coming in at third, with 20 teaspoons of sugar per serving. KFC took ninth place with their Mocha, which contains 15 teaspoons of sugar per serving. A range of other companies also featured further down the list including Caffe Nero, Eat, Pret a Manger, McDonald's, Greggs and Lion.

Of the 131 drinks surveyed, only three did not meet the criteria to be assigned a red label, these were Costa Coffee's Chocolate Babyccino, Mocha Cortado (Eat Out) and Mocha Cortado (Eat In), all of which contain three teaspoons of sugar.

In the survey, each drink was assigned to one of six categories: Hot Mulled Fruit, Chai Latte, White Mocha, Hot Chocolate, Mocha and Caramel Latte. The following infographic demonstrates the most nutritionally offensive drink in each category, in terms of the amount of sugar per serving:

An orange infographic showing the sugar content of different branded coffees

How Does Sugar Affect Our Health?

Not all sugars are equal, and some are absorbed more quickly than others. There are two major categories of sugar: sugars that are naturally found in food, and free sugars that have been added to food. Sugar sweetened beverages contain high amounts of rapidly absorbable free sugars, which are the type of sugars that have been shown to promote obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. A high sugar intake is linked to weight gain in both adults and children. Sugar provides calories, and an excessive calorie intake from any source contributes to weight gain.

However, free sugars provide unnecessary calories without providing any important nutrients such protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Some scientists also believe that a high-sugar diet can affect the response of certain hormones that are involved in regulating appetite. Type 2 diabetes is a condition where the body is unable to properly regulate the amount of glucose in the blood. Normally a hormone called insulin controls the uptake of glucose, but in type 2 diabetes a person's blood sugar becomes too high, either because the pancreas becomes unable to produce insulin or because it becomes resistant to the hormone.

Sugar intake has both direct and direct links to type 2 diabetes, and a recent study published in the International Journal of Obesity states that sugar containing beverages have been shown to impair insulin sensitivity, as well as promoting excessive weight gain, which is also a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. According to the British Dietetic Association, a high sugar intake can lead to tooth decay, also known as dental caries.

Tooth decay is one of the common problems in the United Kingdom, and it is estimated that approximately one in three has the condition. Tooth decay develops as a result of acid in the mouth attacking dentine and tooth enamel, which eventually leads to holes and cavities in the teeth. Symptoms of tooth decay include tooth pain and increased sensitivity, discoloration, bad breath and an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Ultimately tooth decay can result in a person requiring a tooth to be removed.

What is the Government Doing?

Since talk of the Governments childhood obesity strategy emerged last summer, the country is still eagerly anticipating a radical new approach by David Cameron in tackling unhealthy practices by the food and drinks industry. Several dates have been mentioned regarding the release of this new strategy, but commitments in Europe have resulted in the prime minister pushing back it's unveiling, and there is speculation that it might not be published until Easter.

According to Action on Sugar, David Cameron has promised a robust and evidence-based plan to help stem the rising incidences of childhood obesity and type-2 diabetes. However, it is still not clear whether or not a controversial tax on sugar will feature as part of the strategy. So far, the tax, which has been met with opposition by certain figures in the food and drink industry, whilst being a popular concept among groups such as Action on Sugar and the National Obesity Forum, and celebrity campaigners such as Jamie Oliver, has been dynamic in moving on and off the table.

Most recently the prime minister has been reported as having rejected the notion of a sugar tax and is apparently planning on convincing members of the food industry to cut back on added sugar by using the threat of its future imposition instead. This report has outraged advocates of the tax, and Action on Sugar Chairman and founder, Professor Graham Macgregor, described the sugar tax as David Cameron's “one opportunity to achieve a legacy”, and slammed the rejection of the proposal as “stupid”.

The reality of the situation is now that the prime minister has finished negotiations in Europe, the new obesity strategy is likely to be released within the next few weeks. Until then, consumers, the food and drink industry and the NHS, who are all anxious to see how David Cameron leaves his mark on domestic policy and, what he does to control sugar intake and the associated health problems, can do nothing but sit and wait.

Shouldn't We Take Responsibility for Our Own Sugar Intake?

It could be argued that it is hypocritical for us to desire autonomy in making food choices while expecting the government to protect us from ourselves at the same time. Also, it is all too convenient to single out a certain food or food group and label them as the culprit. It wasn't long ago that fat was considered the nemesis of health, and low-fat options were marketed and viewed as a license to indulge in high-sugar treats.

The truth is that, with or without a sugar tax, most of us are aware that sweet foods and drinks are high in sugar, and are supposed to be consumed in moderation. Nevertheless, 25 teaspoons of sugar in a single serving of any food or drink is unacceptable, and compulsory guidelines should be implemented to either limit the amount of sugar that manufacturers are allowed to add, or to better alert consumers to the sugar content of foods and drinks.

Our taste buds soon adapt to less sugar, and, external regulations aside, we can control the amount of sugar we eat by simply reducing the amount of sugar-rich foods and drinks in our diet. Through maintaining a vigilant attitude when choosing foods and drinks, and using food labelling to compare their sugar content, it's possible to reduce our intake of sugar to a healthy level.

How Much Sugar is Too Much?

A number of health organisations including the World Health Organisation, the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on nutrition, and the American Heart Association has issued recommendations for sugar intake. It is typically agreed that the following amounts apply as guidelines for reducing sugar intake to a maximal level conducive to good health:

  • Children aged 4 to 6 years: 19g or 5 teaspoons per day.
  • Children aged 7 to 10 years: 24g or 6 teaspoons per day.
  • People aged 11 years and older: 30g or 7 teaspoons per day.