Ignore 'health halo' of vegan milk, say experts...it can be more sugary and calorific than cows milk

Sarah Knapton
Coffee drinkers are warned to check the sugar and calorie content of their festive drinks  - Moment RF

Drinks containing alternative milks may be less healthy than those made with cow’s milk, health experts have warned, as they urged shoppers not to be fooled by the ‘health halo’ of vegan foods.

A new study of seasonal hot drinks by Action on Sugar has found that many coffee shops are not adequately labelling drinks containing alternative milks to show just how much sugar they contain.

Starbucks' Oat Milk Venti Latte has more than seven teaspoons of sugar (29.5g) and 350 calories compared to the same drink made from semi-skimmed milk, which has just five teaspoons, and fewer than half the calories (168).

The US chain’s Signature Caramel Hot Chocolate with whipped cream using oat milk, was found to have more than 23 teaspoons of sugar, the equivalent of eating four white chocolate and strawberry muffins or drinking three cans of Coca-Cola.

Similarly Pret’s regular hot chocolate containing rice-coconut milk contains 10 teaspoons of sugar compared with Leon’s whole milk version, which has just four teaspoons. 

Action on Sugar warned that consumers looking for an alternative to cow’s milk are unknowingly consuming excessive sugar due to lack of labelling and the ‘health halo’ of vegan options.

The research showed that switching from oat milk to almond milk could cut the sugar content of drinks by nearly one third.

Katharine Jenner, Campaign Director at Action on Sugar, based at Queen Mary University of London, said: “Customers looking for dairy alternatives could be shocked to learn that many coffee shops and cafes use pre-sweetened alternative milks as the nutrition information is often very difficult to find – with information only available on websites or not at all.”

The campaign group has called for the government’s sugary drinks tax - the Soft Drinks Industry Levy - to be extended to milky drinks and those with added syrups. 

They also warned that many high street coffee chains were failing to reduce the sugar in their drinks, and even ramping up the content for Christmas. 

All of the largest available size products surveyed would receive a red traffic light for total sugars, more than 13.5g per serving, with the exception being Costa’s Gingerbread Lattes and Pret’s Soya Pumpkin Spice Latte which would receive amber.

Starbucks’ Gingerbread Latte with Oat Milk has 14 teaspoons of sugar (56.6g) and 523 calories per portion – the equivalent of eating 17 custard creams.

In comparison a regular latte contains just 29.5g of sugar. Caffe Nero’s Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate (Grande) made with skimmed milk contains nearly 15 teaspoons of sugar (59.6g) and 503 calories. An average person would have to do 90 minutes on the cross trainer to work this energy off.  A normal hot chocolate has nearly two teaspoons less sugar. 

Likewise EAT’s Honeycomb Hot Chocolate, made with semi-skimmed milk contains 449 calories, and 47g of sugar, or 11 teaspoons. Yet its normal hot chocolate contains just 35g and is 317 calories.

And some stores have even increased their sugar content since the last survey was done three years ago. In 2016, a regular Vanilla Latte in KFC had 19g of but now has 26g sugar.

Dr Saul Konviser of the Dental Wellness Trust charity said: “The findings are deeply concerning especially given that many children also consume these festive sugary drinks which are not only bad for their overall health but also their dental health. 

“Every day, at least 100 children are in UK hospitals having rotten teeth pulled out because of decay caused by sugary food and drinks that is entirely preventable. 

“It is high time coffee shops and cafes act more responsibly and that means reducing the sugar and portion sizes across their drinks menu and stop putting profits before the health of our nation which is feeding the UK's obesity, Type 2 diabetes and tooth decay crisis."