Drinks You Should Never Order From Popular Fast Food Chains

Fast food drinks are not healthy. That shouldn't be breaking news — there's not a whole lot for sale inside America's biggest chains that puts health first. That's not why we go to those places anyway. If we wanted healthy food, we'd go to the farmers market. We could be brief and tell you to never order anything besides water to drink at a fast food chain, but that doesn't make for very interesting reading. Besides, we want burgers and fries, and an ice-cold drink is essential to finish the salty, savory, and sweet trifecta. So enjoy that Coca-cola, but respect your body's limits. 

We'll be examining a lot of different sugary beverages out there. To give you some context, we'd like you to remember the number 36. This number is the grams of added sugar the American Heart Association recommends that men not exceed — not per drink, but per day. For women, the recommendation is no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day.

Soda and other sweet beverages provide a rush of sweetness that floods the body with dopamine and can trigger the same satisfaction as some drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Fast food restaurants make a killing on soft drinks, and the more sugar they include, the more our bodies want to go back. The quest for more has led to some pretty absurd concoctions. We'll look at the sugariest, nastiest, and most harmful blends you might want to avoid. 

Starbucks' Caramel Ribbon Crunch Frappuccino

You could pick almost any Starbucks Frappuccino for this list. Despite the fun name, these drinks are basically caffeinated milkshakes, which definitely sounds like a good time until you get to the nutrition facts.

We singled out the Caramel Ribbon Crunch because it is the sugariest of the bunch. Forget 36. A venti (large) Caramel Ribbon Crunch Frap contains 78 total grams of sugar and 570 total calories. This drink has 20 fewer calories than a Big Mac but 4 more grams of saturated fat. If you're wondering how a coffee drink can have more saturated fat than a hamburger with two patties, just browse through the ingredient list. You'll notice the word sugar in there about eight different times as well as a few mentions of corn syrup and four different creams thrown in for good measure.

Worst of all, most Frappuccinos don't even use freshly brewed coffee. Employees say the frosty beverages use a powdered mix that's closer to instant coffee than expresso. There is a light at the end of the tunnel: the Espresso Frappuccino selection solves both of these problems. This particular drink is the healthiest of the bunch at 140 calories and 28 grams of sugar in a tall (small) size as long as you skip the whip, and it includes brewed espresso for good measure.

Sonic's Oreo & Reese's Peanut Butter Shake

If you haven't eaten in a week or just finished an Ironman, replenishing your depleted calorie count with a quick injection of 1,720 calories is as simple as a large Oreo & Reese's Peanut Butter Shake. Unfortunately for the rest of us, this shake is more trouble than it's worth. It's only 40 calories less than a Sonic order of 24 boneless Buffalo wings, and the shake somehow has 8 more grams of saturated fat.

The miniature version of this shake alone is enough to send your body into overdrive with 40 grams of sugar and 590 calories. As the ounces increase, the statistics get staggering, and so does the sugar hangover. Packed within the large Styrofoam cup, alongside almost a day's worth of calories, is a creamy Oreo and peanut butter blend that provides 106 grams of fat, 107 grams of sugar, and 30 grams of protein.

The good news is that Sonic stopped short of offering a Route 44-size milkshake option. While it may save us from a few extra bathroom breaks, it doesn't mean we can't daydream about rolling down the highway with cups too large for the cupholder stuffed full of ice cream, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and Oreos.

Culver's Salted Caramel Concrete Mixer With Reese's Cups

Culver's Salted Caramel Concrete Mixer with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups gives the Sonic shake a serious run for its money. The mixer with frozen custard has 90 fewer calories than Sonic's so-called disaster shake, but it found a way to sneak in more sugar — about 50 grams more, to be exact. The Salted Caramel Concrete Mixer with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups has 157 grams of sugar, which is more than four times greater than our magic number of 36. 

Let's take a moment to thank Culvers for its fantastic nutrition breakdowns. The brand's website provides detailed nutrition facts for each ingredient in the concrete mixer that helped us identify the worst possible combination, or the most delicious one, depending on whom you ask. The salted caramel splash adds 38 grams of sugar on its own, and Reese's Cups are doing their part, too, sprinkling in an additional 21 grams of sugar. The Reese's and caramel combination just barely edges out the caramel mixers with brownies and with cookie dough, making it the worst option of the bunch.

McDonald's Strawberry Banana Smoothie

McDonald's did not build an empire on the backs of fresh produce. When walking into the hallowed halls of the Golden Arches, you're better off embracing your experience with burgers, fries, and chocolate shakes. You should never order a salad, and you could even skip the fruity options, too.

I would never order a chocolate shake with no chocolate in it or french fries without any potatoes. So why order a Strawberry Banana Smoothie with no fresh fruit in it? Tiktoker @kallme.yaniii showed the world how McDonald's makes a Strawberry Banana Smoothie, and it did not involve many steps. Workers press one button on a machine, and the smoothie pops out. You can patiently wait for part two, but that's the whole process.

The smoothie's nutrition facts aren't terrible. Sugar appears sixth on the ingredient list for the fruit base and second on the list of ingredients in the yogurt, which is better than most cereal brands can say. Best of all, there are zero added sugars. That doesn't mean there's no sugar. A large drink comes with 68 grams of sugar. The only problem is that despite McDonald's advertisements frequently posing the smoothie next to strawberries and bananas, no fresh fruit is added to it. It's a premade mix of fruit purees, juice concentrates, and yogurt. If you're craving fresh blended berries, consider heading to Jamba Juice.

Starbucks Refreshers

Speaking of fruit drinks, these Refreshers make McDonald's smoothies seem fresh-squeezed by comparison. The world leader in coffee has rounded out its beverage menu with drinks for all occasions, including cool glasses of fruity bliss for hot summer days. Starbucks Refreshers launched in 2012, with the company promising handcrafted beverage innovation that delivers "a distinctly new take on thirst-quenching refreshment," essentially meaning a combination of green coffee extract plus real fruit juice. While it's true that there is real fruit juice in the Refreshers, currently up for debate is what kind of fruit Starbucks puts in the juice.

In July 2022, Starbucks marked a decade of cool beverages with the release of a new Pineapple Passionfruit and Paradise Refreshers. Less than a month later, a class action lawsuit was filed, alleging that the Refreshers do not contain the fruits listed in the names of the drinks. Among the allegations are accusations of no mango in Mango Dragonfruit Lemonade, no passionfruit in the Pineapple Passionfruit Refresher, and no açai in the Strawberry Açai.

Court proceedings are ongoing, so we'll wait to see whether Starbucks has a bit of mango concentrate hidden up its sleeve. At the moment, there isn't a whole lot of evidence to support the chain. All it takes is a quick trip to the ingredient list of any one of these Refreshers to notice two things: a lack of the mentioned ingredients and a consistent base of water, sugar, and white grape juice concentrate.

Wendy's Lemonade

Even though some employees say the recipe for Wendy's All-Natural Lemonade has tons of sugar (49 grams per serving), the process behind this citrusy concoction might leave a sour taste in your mouth. Before we criticize further, we'll give Wendy's some credit. Nowhere does Wendy's claim its lemonade is freshly made. Still, the all-natural label might rightfully give you the impression that a lot of fresh lemons go into making this beverage, especially considering a location or two may have set out sliced lemons in celebration. While the chain might be taking lemons and making lemonade, it's definitely not happening in-store.

A Wendy's worker confirmed our fears when they walked the world through the lemonade-making process, which left a lot to be desired. The worker took a lemonade concentrate and mixed it together with tap water. That's all fine and dandy; it's the same way most of us would make lemonade from concentrate at home, too. The real reason you should never order this lemonade is that it costs more than a soda from the drink machine, and even the workers will tell you that it's pretty much the same thing as Minute Maid.

Panera Strawberry Lemon Mint Charged Lemonade

While some may argue that a beverage like Panera Bread's Strawberry Lemon Mint Charged Lemonade shouldn't exist, in the land of the big gulp, it's up to you to decide whether to indulge or live to retirement age. The first two words of this lemonade's description says "plant-based." Do we need to specify the botanical origins of our lemonade? You might as well mention it's gluten-free while you're at it. If your lemonade is not plant-based, then you should be telling the world. If not, keep quiet and keep squeezing. Next, it says "Clean," with a capital C. Further research uncovers that this means there are no artificial ingredients in this lemonade from Panera's No-No list. This drink with strawberry, lemon, mint, agave, vegetable juice, guarana extract, coffee extract, and sugar is all-natural.

So far, so good, but here's where things go off the walls. Panera drops the bombshell and boldly announces that this drink packs "as much caffeine as our dark roast coffee." Did anyone ask for that? If you've been hoping to pack more than the day's recommended amount of sugar in the same sips as your afternoon caffeine count, you're better off pouring a Red Bull into a 20-ounce Coca-Cola than ordering a large one of these. This drink almost triples the caffeine count of the Red Bull and Coke combination with 390 milligrams of caffeine, plus it has 98 grams of sugar.

Biscuitville's Sweet Tea

No fast food chains are breaking out secret ingredients to brew their sweet tea. Most managers are simply mixing a black tea blend from Lipton with scoops and scoops of sugar. It's not exactly the healthiest way to drink tea, but we're not here to say you shouldn't drink any sweet tea because we're not your mother.

However, Biscuitville is another story. If you've ever found yourself enjoying a meal in the land of buttermilk baked bread, you may have thought to yourself — wow, this sweet tea hits different. That's because there are a few extra scoops of sugar in there. A 32-ounce serving of Biscuitville's sweet tea contains a whopping 114 grams of sugar. That's more than double the amount of sugar in McDonald's or Chick-fil-A's large sweet iced tea, and it even beats out a 32-ounce serving of Bojangle's Legendary Sweet Tea. There's so much sugar in this sweet tea from Biscuitville that instead of comparing it to other brands' tea choices, you could put it up against most fast food milkshakes, and it would still come out on top.

McCafe Coffee from McDonald's

This isn't a debate about the quality of a McCafé because this is McDonald's after all. We can't expect anything here to be the best in the world, just fast — and clean. Therein lies the potential problem with McCafe coffees. A first-hand account on Reddit from a McDonald's employee alleges that some McDonald's locations don't take the time to clean out their machines. The worker said they didn't have the necessary equipment to get back there properly, so cleaning the machine meant wiping down the exterior and running hot water through the system, which apparently isn't enough to sanitize things.  

McDonald's has tweeted its support for its caffeinated cleanliness, explaining that the high-tech machines clean themselves daily. We know cleaning products are at least used occasionally because McDonald's Canada has accidentally served customers sanitizing chemicals when they ordered lattes. This could be a story of a few isolated incidents more than an epidemic. A few committed workers have pushed back, including one in the very same Reddit thread who said the machines are cleaned nightly at their location. At the very least, you should ask some tough questions before you confirm your order or maybe ask to see a scrub brush.

Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte

Starbucks' official drink of fall was once described by Vox as "equal parts dairy and diabetes." While the Pumpkin Spice Latte has evolved a lot over the years, with the addition of real pumpkin to the ingredients list and the removal of artificial coloring, the untold truth of the drink should still ensure that we order only a small version. Most reasons to avoid the beverage can be found in the nutrition facts, but vegan fans of fall should be aware that there is a surprise splash of dairy inside. The revamped pumpkin spice sauce uses condensed skim milk regardless of whether or not you order almond, oat, or coconut milk. 

Besides the animal products, there aren't many monsters hiding inside this latte, just an espresso shot with a hefty dose of spices and sweeteners. A grande-sized serving of this fall delight delivers 50 grams of sugar, 390 calories, and 14 grams of fat. On a positive note, there are also 14 grams of protein in there. It's like sipping on a sugary autumn dream, but we would recommend it only if you're bulking up to hibernate.

Dunkin' Caramel Swirl Frozen Coffee

Dunkin' takes the crown for sneaking in the most sugar of any drink on our list with this delightful creation. A large Caramel Swirl Frozen Coffee provides 175 grams of sugar,  taking our recommended limit of 36 grams a day and punting it into smithereens. That's nearly five times your recommended daily value packed into one cool plastic cup. The danger in this drink is that it doesn't come across as threatening as, let's say, a large milkshake with Oreos and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. You don't need a health expert to tell you that drinking a large milkshake should be saved for special occasions, but this frozen coffee could be viewed as a relatively harmless take on an iced coffee.

Unfortunately, even a large iced coffee with a caramel swirl can't match the sugar count in the smallest size of this frozen coffee beverage. Many drinks we've looked at today don't hit triple digits of sugar until the larges, but the Dunkin' Caramel Swirl Frozen Coffee flirts with the century mark from the get-go, with 94 grams of sugar in a small. It takes a whole team to put up numbers like that. This drink's ingredient list includes at least eight mentions of sugar, corn syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup, and that doesn't count instances of sweeteners camouflaged under code names like dextrose.

Anything with ice in it

We'll finish off our drink round-up with a general plea. No matter the fast food chain, gourmet kitchen, or hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint, you should never get ice in your drink. It might feel farfetched to commit to avoiding ice every time you go out to eat, but study after study has come up with some pretty disturbing results. In 2013 the Daily Mail tested 10 restaurants and found that ice in six of them had more bacteria than water from the toilets. In 2017, similar tests were run, and similar results were found. There are also several first-hand accounts from the professionals who are hired to clean the machines that confirm the studies.

In an interview with Click2Houston, Andy Spellins, a technician specializing in ice machine sanitation for QBR Refrigeration, admitted he frequently finds slime "right where the ice starts to drop out of the chute and into the ice bin." The article goes on to define slime as a moldy bacteria that can apparently sprout fingers, and there are plenty more ice machine horror stories where that came from. 

Tiktoker @jantheman____ is an HVAC technician who provides plenty of video evidence with a series called "May I get that with no Ice." The playlist shows 20 trips to different commercial ice machines in various states of disgusting disrepair. Every single edition is a great visual testament to the fact that these issues are ongoing — the last post in the collection was in 2021.