What Starbucks doesn't want you to know about their food

Since its inception in 1971, Starbucks has grown from small-time Seattle coffee roasters to one of the most ubiquitous establishments on the planet. By 2018, the chain boasted nearly 30,000 locations worldwide in countries ranging from Argentina to New Zealand. While they are still mostly known for their coffee and espresso-based drinks, over the years Starbucks has expanded their offerings to include teas, specialty drinks, cold-pressed juices, and even a variety of food items. 

The food at Starbucks can be polarizing. While many people enjoy the convenience of picking up a prepared salad or box for lunch alongside their morning coffee, others find the quality of food to be wanting, for lack of a kinder word. The thing is, despite its deep coffee history and high-quality branding, Starbucks is, in some ways, quickly becoming a fast food joint just as much as it is a coffee shop. Considering just how fast the food finds it's way to your hands, it may be unreasonable to expect the food offerings from Starbucks to blow your mind. With that being said, there are still plenty of secrets regarding their food selection that Starbucks would rather you not know. 

They use lighting and merchandising to trick you into buying more

Tempting customers to compliment their coffee order with a $3 pastry helps Starbucks franchises keep those profits up. In fact, 22 percent of Starbucks' sales came from food as of 2017. But how exactly do they encourage customers to go for that blueberry scone? It's all about psychology.

Starbucks employs various psychological tactics designed to encourage consumers to spend more and feel more loyal to the brand in general. Everything, from the über-cozy atmosphere featuring natural construction materials, to the lack of dollar signs on the menu, is intentionally placed with those two goals in mind. 

One of the other intentional things they do is light up the food case. In fact, the area with the sandwiches and pastries is typically going to be the best lit spot in the whole store — and it's not make it more aesthetically pleasing. They want to draw your eye to the display so you're more tempted to splurge on that coffee cake you love so much. Furthermore, Starbucks stores use stand-alone food displays with various grab-and-go items like chips and candy to help form the line to the register. They make it easy to pick up low-cost impulse buys that may not seem like a lot to you, but add up to big profits for the company. Eyeing those fruit bars as you wait for your turn to order? That's exactly what they thought you'd do. 

They've had several strategies — and many have flopped

The suits over at Starbucks headquarters know the value of becoming a destination for food as well as coffee. In the first quarter of 2018, food sales delivered about half of its 2 percent comparable-store sales growth in the United States, according to The Motley Fool. Furthermore, offering items such as sandwiches and salads as lunch options helps increase traffic during the coffee shop's slowest hours during the day — we don't all need that shot of caffeine at noon as much as we do in the morning, after all — while also enabling them to compete with other coffee-heavy food chains like Panera and Pret a Manger. 

They started experimenting with food offerings in 2003. When it comes to food, they've had some hits such as their bistro boxes, yogurt and granola parfaits, and Sous Vide Egg Bites. But they've also had some giant misses like tapas, brunch items, and their $100 million acquisition of San Francisco-based bakery chain La Boulange, which flopped horribly with customers and was largely discontinued after just a few years. 

In 2017, Starbucks partnered with Texas-based Snap Kitchen to sell healthy, ready-to-heat meals in five Houston locations. The same year, they introduced the Mercato menu in 100 downtown Chicago locations. Since then, the Mercato menu has seemed to do the best at catching on with additional locations in Seattle, San Francisco, and Sacramento on the West Coast and stores in Westchester, Queens, Long Island and Brooklyn on the East Coast. When it comes to food, has Starbucks finally found its stride? Only time will tell. 

All the food items arrive frozen

When you buy food at Starbucks, you pretty much always know what you are going to get. If you order a breakfast sandwich, it won't be the one in the display case… but it'll look just like it. You can expect this uniformity of product because everything from the eight-grain rolls to the panini sandwiches are prepared somewhere far away from your local Starbucks before they are delivered, frozen. If you thought there was a top-notch chef toiling away in a tiny kitchen at the back of each Starbucks location, we're sorry to be the bearers of such bad news. 

It's worth noting that Starbucks is very transparent when it comes to their standards for food transportation. However, delivering frozen foods always comes with several risks for contamination — even when it comes to ready-to-eat items like they serve at Starbucks. Starbucks has a ton of very tight rules and regulations to stop these things from happening, but you know what they say about the best laid plans, right? If something goes wrong in the time it takes between when the food is made and when someone eats it, the consumer is in danger of contracting a food borne illness.

And since food items are so mass-produced, your food can be months old by the time you get it. In 2016, Starbucks dealt with a Listeria-related recall where they voided sandwiches distributed in March that had an expiration date six months later in August.

Some "healthy" items aren't so healthy

When looking at the options in the Starbucks food case, you may be tempted to forgo the sweeter options and instead pick something healthier like the multi-grain bagel crusted with wholesome oats, barley, flax, and sunflower seeds. After all, you should probably get a light breakfast to balance out that venti Frappuccino you just ordered, right? However, just because it looks healthier, doesn't mean it is. 

As pointed out by Pete Cottell at Thrillist, the multi-grain bagel gives off serious "pseudo-health food vibes." The multi-grain bagel clocks in with 350 calories along with a whopping 520 mg sodium and 64 carbs — and that's before you even add on your favorite bagel spread! So when you choose this healthy-seeming bagel, you're basically chowing down on bland bread that has way more sugar and salt than you can taste along with a few seeds and grains sprinkled in for texture. You might as well order the coffee cake or scone and actually enjoy yourself — you'll be taking down about the same number of calories either way. 

The Sausage & Cheddar Breakfast Sandwich is one of the worst items to order

Of course, some of the food items at Starbucks aren't even pretending to be healthy — though they may still be worse than you think.

According to Eat This, Not That!, out of all the hot breakfast options available at Starbucks, the Sausage & Cheddar Breakfast Sandwich is the absolute worst choice. Sure it has a satiating 15 grams of protein, but that's about as far as the nutrition goes. The Sausage & Cheddar Breakfast Sandwich has 500 calories along with 28 grams of fat — 9 grams being of the saturated variety. Out of the 41 grams of carbohydrates, only a measly 1 gram of those attributed to dietary fiber. To top it all off, the Sausage & Cheddar Breakfast Sandwich is loaded with 920 mg of sodium. That's about 40 percent of the maximum recommended amount of sodium for the day — about to be consumed in just the first meal.

As we've already discussed, all the food items at Starbucks arrive frozen and are reheated to-order. So how do they keep those eggs so fluffy between cooking, freezing, and re-heating? There's a long list of additives used to maintain the eggs' appearance. And along with fake butter and soybean oil, the Sausage & Cheddar Breakfast Sandwich is chock full of added sugar. A smarter choice would be the Reduced-Fat Turkey Bacon & Cage Free Egg White Breakfast Sandwich. It's still pretty heavy as far as sodium and preservatives go, but with 18 grams of protein and only 210 calories, it's a waist-friendly option that will help tide you over until lunch. 

And the Ancho Chipotle Chicken Panini has more sodium than a Big Mac

If you're looking at a menu and you see a hamburger and a chicken sandwich, chances are you assume the chicken sandwich is the healthier option. Red meat has more saturated fat than other proteins and chicken is generally seen as a leaner, healthier choice. However, automatically assuming the chicken option is better for you is a mistake. There are plenty of times when you'd be better off getting a burger. Case in point: Starbucks' Ancho Chipotle Chicken Panini. 

This chicken panini has 11 more grams of carbs and 80 more milligrams of sodium than a Big Mac. The Ancho Chipotle Chicken Panini clocks in with 57 grams of carbohydrates and 1030 mg of belly bloating sodium. Meanwhile, a McDonald's Big Mac has 46 grams of carbohydrates and 940 mg of sodium — not healthy by any means, but less than the supposedly leaner Starbucks sandwich.

The Ancho Chipotle Chicken Panini is supposed to give you "a taste of the southwest" with a creamy (read: fatty) ancho-chipotle sauce, fire-roasted poblano peppers, red onions, three-chili gouda cheese, and spicy cilantro pesto. For a healthier southwest-inspired sandwich, go for the Chicken Santa Fe on Ancient Grain Flatbread. It contains less sodium and carbohydrates, and only has 370 calories compared to the Ancho Chipotle's 500. 

​You can get Irish butter for anything

There's probably a lot of people out there thinking "What on earth is so special about Irish butter?" After all, it's just butter, right? 

Well, Irish butter — in particular, Kerrygold Butter – is considered superior among the other options on the supermarket shelves because of its ingredients. Kerrygold is made from fresh cream that comes from grass-fed cows. And according to Kerrygold, the grass makes all the difference: 

In particular, Kerrygold is popular among the Keto crowd and fans of Bulletproof Coffee. But even if you aren't about that low-carb life, you can get Kerrygold butter at any Starbucks. For evidence, check out YouTuber Brandon Reese – all you have to do is ask for it. And you don't have to put it in your coffee — smear it on your croissant, eight-grain roll, or scone, to enjoy the rich, creamy goodness. 

​The whipped cream adds at least 80 calories

If you're trying to slim down, just say "no" to the whipped cream on Starbucks specialty drinks. Made with heavy whipping cream and sugary flavored sodas, their whipped cream is loaded with calories and saturated fat. On a tall drink, the whipped cream will add 80 calories and 5 grams saturated fat. And if you get a grande or a venti, you'll be adding 110 empty calories and 7 grams of saturated fat — that's more than half of the daily saturated fat intake recommended by the American Heart Association

Of course, those numbers just cover the calories of the whipped cream. Depending on what you order, you can consume more than a third of your daily caloric intake in just one drink. For instance, the venti White Chocolate Mocha runs 580 calories and the venti Java Chip Frappuccino is 600 calories. Yikes!

​The "secret menu" includes an Oatmeal Latte

The Starbucks "secret menu" features all kinds of crazy concoctions inspired by candies, popular breakfast cereal, and even mythical creatures. But, for the most part, people think of drinks when it comes to these handy hacks. However, there is at least one food option on the secret menu, and it's the perfect way to start your day: the Oatmeal Latte

Here is how you order the Oatmeal Latte

  • Order the oatmeal, but asked for steamed milk instead of water. If you're dairy-free, you can ask for soy, almond, or coconut milk instead. 
  • In addition to the oatmeal, order a shot of espresso (or two if you really need it) and have the barista pour it on top of the oatmeal. 
  • If the barista won't add the espresso to your oatmeal, order it on the side and you can add it yourself. 
  • Top the oatmeal with the accompanying brown sugar and nuts when you're ready to eat. 

You end up with a hearty, filling breakfast that features a decent amount of eye-opening caffeine. It's the perfect all-in-one meal. 

​You get a discount if you buy two cake pops

Cake pops are great. First of all, they're cake. Cake is always good news. But cake pops have the added benefit of the whimsy factor. But for all the deliciousness and whimsy that comes with a cake pop, it's lacking in size. A single cake pop does not a satisfying dessert make. What you want is two. 

According to Reader's Digest, there's a discount when you buy two cake pops together. You may not have noticed it on the menu board — because no Starbucks pro ever looks at that — but it's there. According to them, you save "somewhere between 40 and 60 cents." This is backed up by the site Fast Food Menu Prices that lists a single Salted Caramel or Birthday Cake Pop for $1.95 while two Salted Caramel or Birthday Cake Pops will put you back $3.50… a 40 cent discount for ordering two. There may be discrepancies in final prices depending on location and sales tax, so keep that in mind. But feel free to go ahead and treat yourself to two cake pops next time you have a sweets craving. It's the better deal!