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Are visible calorie counts impacting local consumers' purchases at Starbucks?

Friday - 7/26/2013, 9:03am  ET

As of June 25, all U.S. Starbucks locations have posted the calories for their products on the menu boards and pastry labels. (WTOP/Natalie Tomlin)
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Natalie Tomlin, special to

WASHINGTON - If you're like most Americans and need your caffeine fix in the morning, you may have noticed a recent addition to the Starbucks menu -- and it's not a new seasonal Frappuccino flavor.

As of June 25, all U.S. Starbucks locations have posted calorie information for the range of products on the menu boards and pastry labels.

It is another way for the coffee giant to maximize transparency for its offerings so customers can make informed choices, a company spokesperson says.

The mandate may be the corporation's attempt to get a step ahead of other chain restaurants that have yet to list calorie counts, according to Forbes.

The Food and Drug Administration will soon require restaurants with 20 or more locations to list their calories on the menu.

A Starbucks spokesperson says the company was encouraged to make this step after participating in a study with Stanford University. The study suggested a relationship between consumer behavior and calorie postings.

The Stanford Graduate School of Business found a 6 percent reduction in calories per transaction when restaurants began posting calorie counts on the menu boards in New York in 2008.

So will the additional information influence what beverage D.C. residents choose at the countless locations throughout the D.C. area?

Emily Almand, a regular at the Arlington, Va., Starbucks next to Virginia Square Metro, says the recent placement of calorie counts on the menu has, in fact, impacted what she chooses to order.

"A lot of places now list calories and it makes me more conscious," she says. "I may have already thought about it, but now when I see it, I'm like, 'Oh I probably shouldn't get the extra whip. I should probably get something with fewer calories.'"

Almand, 27, usually purchases a breakfast sandwich in the morning, followed by a coffee in the afternoon. But she usually opts for a basic latte with milk and no added sugar or cream.

"Occasionally, on a day like this, I'll get an iced mocha, but [it's] something more of like a sweet treat, not a regular," she says. "Seeing the calorie count would probably make me stray away from something like a Frappuccino now that I know it's that much of my daily calories."

A Caffé Vanilla Frappuccino®, made with whole milk and whipped cream, has a whopping 430 calories in a 16 ounce cup -- or a "grande" at Starbucks. Customers who go down a size and order a tall version with skim milk and no whipped cream cut 230 calories and save 14 grams of fat.

There are still 46 grams of sugar in this choice, but it's better than 69 grams in the 16 ounce option.

Although the Frappuccinos are known for being the most decadent and caloric, other seemingly simple drinks can be deceiving.

The grande peppermint hot chocolate, for example, has 470 calories, 20 grams of fat and 61 grams of sugar when it contains whole milk and whipped cream.

A grande with skim milk and no whipped cream contains 310 calories, but has nearly the same amount of sugar at 59 grams.

Jerome Copley, 44, finds it pretty shocking how many calories are in some Starbucks drinks. But he didn't notice the recent addition of calorie counts to the menu at the Glover Park Starbucks where he regularly buys his cup of Joe in Northwest D.C.

"I think some people will care [about the calorie postings] and I think some people will ignore it," he says. "Some people will be shocked, but my guess is that it probably won't affect their market all that much because they've had their calorie counts in other regions."

Another D.C. native who only occasionally goes to Starbucks says he doesn't think the calorie information will come as a shock to anyone. However, he thinks it ought to influence the customer's choice.

"When people come up to the counter, it's usually a split-second decision unless they don't already know what they want," says Easten Law, 30. "If they glance at the menu and the number is prominent enough, I think it will persuade people to at least get the smaller size because most people are going to want to what they want anyway."

A Starbucks spokeswoman says the millions of monthly online visitors look at the nutritional information webpage more than any other page on its site.

Starbucks drinkers have also been able to read the company's printed brochures and the Starbucks mobile app to understand the nutritional information of each drink.

The effects of the recently added calorie counts to the menu will vary depending on consumers' spending habits, says Copley.

"Starbucks is kind of a strange phenomenon because a lot of their coffee drinks aren't really coffee," he says. "It's some other kind of concoction. For coffee drinkers who are drinking coffee, I think they're more concerned about how much sugar they're pouring into it more than anything else … I have no idea how it's going to affect their bottom line."

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