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How skinny is that latte? Starbucks rolls out calorie counts nationwide

Gabriel Spitzer

Starbucks will begin posting calorie countson its menu boards and bakery cases nationwide next week—something it’s already required to do in King County.

If you’re craving a big White Hot Chocolate with fixings and a pumpkin scone, one look at the new menu board just might tempt to hit a burger joint instead. A Big Mac and large frieshave fewer calories than that Starbucks fare, which packs a 1,120-calorie punch.

Of course there are plenty of lighter options to choose from: make it a Grande White Hot Chocolate with no whip and it drops from 640 calories to 360. Health authorities hope the calorie postings will show people how to customize their purchases and find other ways to cut down their intake.

Starbucks spokeswoman Lisa Passé said it’s another step in helping people make informed choices.

“Conversations are happening with baristas and customers about those choices. From 'Five calories in my iced tea if I don’t have it sweetened?' to 'How do I lighten up my Frappucino?'” Passé said.

Starbucks and other chains in King County already post calorie counts, and the Affordable Care Act will soon mandate calorie labeling across the country.

Uncertain benefits

It’s unclear how much public health benefit these move deliver. Some studies in King County show little effect on consumers’ behavior, though customers at coffee and taco chains were more impacted by the labeling than at other restaurants.

A 2010 Stanford University studylooked specifically at Starbucks locations in New York where calorie displays have been required for years, compared with nearby cities. It found customers did make lower-calorie food choices when calorie counts were posted, though they did not change their drink habits.

Perhaps most important for Starbucks, the study found calorie labeling also did not affect the company’s profits. In fact, displaying calorie counts actually increased revenues for one subset of Starbucks locations: those located near a Dunkin Donuts.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.