How Many Carbs Are in Your Coffee?

That tasty foam you are sipping is not air

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Gone are the days when a plain, old cup of coffee could be enjoyed without a single carb or calorie. Today, there is an ever-widening array of coffee drinks made with everything from steamed coconut milk and flavored infusions to whipped cream and alcoholic liqueurs.   

The coffee shops of today have become nutritional landmines for health-conscious customers who may not even realize how much a cup of coffee can set back their dietary aims. So much has the coffee culture changed in the United States that drinks once reserved for special occasions have become everyday experiences.

If you are keen on watching your carbs and calories, you need to know exactly where to draw the line between healthy enjoyment and mad overindulgence. It's not as easy as you think.

Coffee Is Coffee

The problem with coffee is not so much the ingredient but the additives. Whether the coffee is ethically sourced or comes out of a tin of Maxwell House, the nutritional value of a brewed cup remains largely unchanged, with negligible carbohydrate or calories.

Generally speaking, brewed coffee made with tap water contains only trace essential nutrients and around 95 milligrams of caffeine per cup. On the other hand, because there are more suspended solids in espresso, there will usually greater amounts of B vitamins, magnesium, niacin, and riboflavin as well as five times the amount of caffeine.

Espresso is ultimately the coffee used most in fancy coffee shops today as well as an increasing number of fast food and quick service restaurant chains.

Espresso-Based Drinks

Many Americans were first drawn to espresso back in the early 1980s because it did give more a concentrated "buzz" with but a few, tiny sips. But, it had also had an extra-robust flavor that some people found overwhelming and even off-putting. 

To overcome this, many turned to milk-infused espresso drinks that became eventually became the standard bearer for the emerging Starbucks empire in the 1990s. Many of today's consumers have been weaned on these types of densely foamed, barista-made confections, which include three main types:

  • Cappuccino, an espresso drink made with hot milk and a lot of steamed milk foam
  • Latte, an espresso with a lot of hot milk and less frothed milk
  • Mocha, a latte with chocolate and often whipped cream on top (at least in the U.S.)
  • Macchiato, an espresso shot with a small amount of frothed milk

There is also plain espresso served in a demitasse ("half cup") as well as caffè Americano made with a shot of espresso and diluted with hot water.

Carb and Calorie Count 

The problem with cappuccinos, lattes, and mochas is that they are less coffee and more milk. Consider for a moment that shot of espresso in the United States is really no more than an ounce of liquid (or roughly two tablespoons). To turn it into the drinks we adore, we need to add milk.

And, that's where tally starts to change:

  • For whole milk, translates to 11.4 grams of carbohydrate and 146 calories per cup.
  • For fat-free milk, that's an added 11.9 grams of carb and 86 calories per cup.
  • For half and half, figure on an extra 10.3 grams of carb and 315 calories per cup.
  • For full or whipped cream, get ready to add 6.6 grams of carb along with 821 calories and 55 grams of saturated fat.

By and large, the nutritional information for coffee drinks doesn’t vary that much from shop to the next. But, once you start adding extra sugar, whipped cream, chocolate, and flavored syrups, the difference in intake can become profound, especially if opting for a larger cup.

Cappuccino Nutritional Value

  • 12-ounce serving: 10 grams carb, 80 to 120 calories depending on milk (more for half-and-half)
  • 16-ounce serving: 15 grams carb, 100 to 180 calories
  • 20-ounce serving: 17 grams carb, 130 to 210 calories

Latte  Nutritional Value

  • 12-ounce serving: 16 grams carb, 120 to 200 calories
  • 16-ounce serving: 21 grams carb, 160 to 260 calories
  • 20-ounce serving:  27 grams carb, 210 to 340 calories

Mocha Nutritional Value

  • 12-ounce serving: 28 to 37 grams carb, 170 to 358 calories
  • 16-ounce serving: 33 to 42 grams carb, 210 to 433 calories
  • 20-ounce serving: 43 to 56 grams carb, 260 to 490 calories

Fancy syrups added even more carbs and calories. A single pump of your favorite syrup may add no less than 5 grams of carb and 20 calories per squirt. Given that most coffee drinks use anywhere from three to five pumps (depending on serving size), you can easily double up your carb intake without even knowing it.

On the other hand, sugar-free syrups don’t add any carbs or calories.

How to Enjoy Coffee Drinks Wisely

Clearly, the best to way to avoid the extra carbs when visiting a coffee house is to go with a plain espresso, a caffè Americano, or even macchiato. If you want something fancier, cappuccinos have the least added carbs, and you can even opt for a sugar-free syrup for extra flavor. 

Some specialty coffee houses also offer soy milk-based coffee drinks, which have more or less the same calories as whole milk but only 2 to 3 grams of carb per cup. Be sure, however, that they are using unsweetened rather than sweetened soy milk, the latter of which can add as many as 15 grams of carb per cup.

If in doubt, take the time to speak with your barista. Many coffee houses today are striving to become more health conscious and cater to people with specific dietary needs. The more you know,  the better choices you can make, whether you are going short, tall, grande, or venti.

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