Whether it's a coffee in hand as we walk through the office door, or a way to beat the 3pm slump, many of us rely on our local barista to get us through our working day. Australians consume a total of 16.3 million cups of coffee each day. While it's easy to adjust your daily energy intake to account for the 300 kilojoules in your small skim latte, the snack you grab on the side – or the coffee alternative – could be using up to half your daily kilojoule (kJ) allowance.
Our latest study looked at drinks and sweet snacks in five coffee chains that combined have more than 2000 stores around Australia: McCafé, Gloria Jean's, Michel's Patisserie, The Coffee Club and Muffin Break. If you can't go past the banana bread, pastries, muffins and cakes, it's likely you're consuming too much energy, saturated fat and sugars.
Daily energy allowance
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend we limit the intake of saturated fat, salt, sugars and alcohol, and eat according to our energy needs to maintain a healthy weight.
Fast food outlets, bakeries and coffee and doughnut chains in New South Wales, the ACT and South Australia are required to place the kilojoule content on their menu boards and prominently feature the average adult daily energy intake of 8,700kJ.
This figure is approximately how many kJ an "average" adult needs each day to maintain weight, but this varies according to your age, height, sex and level of physical activity. You can find the the approximate number of kilojoules you need in a day by using this calculator.
Eating just 500 kilojoules extra a day for a year and not compensating by doing more exercise could mean a weight gain of almost five kilograms over a year.
Taking a closer look at the offerings at the five coffee chains, we found one-third of cold coffee-style drinks, two-thirds of sweet snacks and almost half the large hot flavoured drinks had more than 1,800kJ or 20% of the recommended daily intake of energy per portion.
Some sweet snacks such as Muffin Break's double choc jumbo cookie and Coffee Club's mudcake had more than 3,600kJ or 40% of the recommended daily energy intake.
Some hot drinks, including Muffin Break's hot chocolate and chai latte, provided almost 50% of the daily intake of saturated fat.
Iced coffee and chocolate drinks are notorious for their cream and ice cream, and are often found in super-sized portions. Four of the cold drinks had more than an entire day's intake of saturated fat and 16 had more than 50% of the recommended daily intake. The Coffee Club's iced coffee had 39g of saturated fat (163% of the recommended daily intake) and McCafé's coffee kick frappe had almost 20g of saturated fat.
Eight cakes provided over 100% (and 16% of sweet snacks provided over 50%) of the daily intake of saturated fat. This included croissants (52-65% of the recommended daily intake) and jumbo cookies (69-94%).
Over half (54%) the cold beverages and 16% of the sweet snacks had more than half the daily intake of sugars. Coffee Club's mudcake had the equivalent of 21 teaspoons of sugar and a Gloria Jeans iced coffee had 14 teaspoons.
Perhaps most surprisingly for some, the humble banana bread is nowhere near as healthy as it sounds. McCafé banana bread has 2,570kJ, 30% of daily energy intake, and has 12 teaspoons of sugar.
While the study did not include independent cafés, a creamy coffee and a pastry or banana bread from your local café or bakery will likely be loaded with just as many kilojoules.
The good news is that we found healthier options with lower energy, less saturated fat and sugars and smaller portion sizes. While still not a healthy food, a macaron could be a better way of getting your sugar fix with only 450kJ and three teaspoons of sugar. McCafé offered a mini muffin that has 440kJ.
But some healthier-sounding options may not be great choices. While a skim flat white is a good choice, "skim" or "low fat" does not necessarily mean low in sugar or energy. A large skim Tim Tam iced chocolate from Gloria Jeans, for instance, has 20 teaspoons of sugar.
It pays to look at the kilojoule labelling in the states where it is required by law, or in other states that have not yet made energy labelling compulsory, check out websites such as this for energy information.
But if you're after a caffeine fix, you're better off sticking with a standard flat white or skim latte, and skipping the cake on the side.
Making healthy choices easier
Poor diet and excess weight increase the risk of developing a number of chronic diseases and ten cancers, including bowel, endometrial and post-menopausal breast cancer. Almost 4,000 cancers diagnosed in Australia each year are linked to excess weight and obesity.
Our study did not collect consumption data but the latest information on what Australians are eating shows that just over one-third (35%) of total energy consumed was from "discretionary" junk foods and drinks.
Spending on high-energy fast food and eating out increased by 50% from 2003 to 2010. But while much of the scrutiny of fast food chains is on those providing meals, there has also been a rise in the number and popularity of coffee chains.
To help Australians make better dietary choices, we're calling on coffee chains to provide smaller, healthier portion sizes across their drink and snack ranges. They should also address the levels of unhealthy nutrients in their snacks and drinks by reformulating menu items to reduce saturated fat, sugar and energy content.
There's no need to cut these drinks and snacks out of your diet altogether, but next time you pop out for a coffee, consider how many kilojoules you're consuming and what you're prepared to go without later.
The author would like to acknowledge the contribution to this article by Wendy Watson, Nutrition Project Officer, and Clare Hughes, Nutrition Program Manager, who are both at Cancer Council NSW. Kathy Chapman, Director Health Strategies, Cancer Council NSW & PhD student, University of Sydney This article was originally published on The Conversation.