Starbucks Turns 40 With Sugary 'Petite' Treats

Starbucks cup showing new logoThe slogan, "it's our birthday, but YOU get the surprises!" may be so tired it's beneath us to repeat it, but Starbucks is making such a big, sweet splash with its 40th anniversary, we couldn't help ourselves. This month, the company is celebrating, rolling out its new logo in a store in Times Square, offering a limited-time-never-again "Tribute Blend" (in stores today), and a new line of sugary treats called "Petites." Fans of the mini donuts and petite vanilla bean scones -- like my little boys -- will recognize the Starbucks concept right away. They'll be free with the purchase of a drink in the afternoons this Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

As birthday treats, they're lovely -- everyone likes a nice sweet, frosted cake pop every now and again. As the newest product line on a company menu that can't seem to get along with itself (are we healthy? are we decadent? are we sustainable?), it's confusing. Howard Schultz has long expressed his unwavering commitment to healthy food because of his own personal healthy-heart diet, insisting on so many occasions that the oatmeal was the company's most successful menu item that one begins to wonder, doth he protest too much? In an interview with the USA Today published Monday, he said it again.Yes, the Petites are advertised as being "under 200 calories." OK, great -- they're petite. Quantity of calories, just like number of fat grams, isn't nearly as important as the quality of those calories and fat grams. These couldn't be any worse for your heart (just ask the American Heart Association). They're all sugar, pretty much. Even before I saw the nutritional content (here's a sample item, the Birthday Pops) I could have gone out on a limb to guess that cake pops and whoopie pies and mini cupcakes are quite sugary.

Not mentioned by the New York Times or USA Today: the Salted Caramel Sweet Square, a decadent mixture of caramel, fudgy chocolate, pecans, pretzels and shortbread. That it's only 15 grams of sugar and 100 calories of fat is testament to its tiny, tiny size. The Tiramisu Cake Pops look delicious too, and have the distinction of actually pertaining to Starbucks' main business. They're 18 grams of sugar and served on a stick. (For comparison, that's more than half the sugar in a chocolate doughnut.) Can you eat just one?

I doubt it. While these treats are indeed low cost and terrible for you, and -- because they're so small and it seems quite acceptable to get more than one -- addictive. (If the vanilla bean scones are any indication, there will be a bargain price for three, prompting consumers to buy them in groups rather than individually.) While birthday treats are the sort of thing I accept on occasion as part of the joy of humanity, a regular menu item that tempts consumers with its small caloric profile and low guilt will, as I'm sure Starbucks product development folks hope, encourage frequent consumption.

How much will $2.25 a day affect my budget? Not much, right? And I deserve a sweet treat in the afternoon. Perhaps. But this is the wrong direction for a company that professes to be concerned about its customers' health. Schultz told USA Today that the new category that intrigued him most was "health and wellness." Little bits of sugar only leave us wanting more, at a great detriment to both our wallets and waistlines.

You're tired of having me tell you that putting on the pounds is an expensive prospect; there are the national estimates about how many tens of billions of dollars obesity will cost us. And I'm tired of CEOs of national chains like Starbucks speaking out of one side of their mouths about commitment to health while stuffing the other side with more cheap, sweet processed food.

I'll celebrate Tuesday with Starbucks as the chain rings in its middle age, briefly. I won't be eating the new treats, no matter what size they come in; and I'm still waiting for this "commitment" to "health and wellness" to really come to pass.
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