Childhood Obesity and Starbucks: What’s Up With That?

Starbucks Freak

Every now and then, some part of the food industry proves to be head and shoulders above the rest. In the realm of addictiveness, for instance, one of the unquestioned leaders is Starbucks. Back in 2006, The Wall Street Journal reporter Janet Adamy took on the retail giant in a piece called “Getting the Kids Hooked on Startarbucks.” One month after the launch of the banana Frappuccino, the corporation sponsored a promotional event in Phoenix, at which the caffeine version of the product was served to adults:

… the coffee retailer also set out samples that the kids flocked to: tiny cups of Bananas & Crème Frappuccinos made with banana puree and whipped cream, no coffee…

Adamy went on to say,

The company says it isn’t aiming its new noncoffee Frappuccinos at children.

Wait a minute. The event was a free day at the zoo, described by the company itself as “family-oriented.” This would seem to imply a crowd consisting mainly of children. And, the phrase “aiming its new noncoffee Frappuccinos at children” is significant. That’s what advertising is all about. They even call us targets. Starbucks should have been ashamed at itself, especially since the corporation apparently was stepping outside the bounds of a self-imposed policy of not marketing to children.

But Starbucks maintained that its policy had not changed. Adamy writes,

The coffee chain’s written policy says its ‘overall marketing, advertising and event sponsorship efforts are not directed at children or youth,’ although some ‘community activities’ end up reaching kids. The company reviews marketing materials to avoid distributing ones that could be ‘inadvertently appealing to youth,’ the policy says.

That sounds like a bunch of baloney. But you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Adamy also quoted Michael Coles, president of Caribou Coffee, who offered what many alert readers would consider a lame rationale:

Better they should get hooked on an ice-blended beverage than maybe something else.

As we have pointed out before, the Weigh2Rock website is the source of an enormous amount of information about, and insight into the minds of, obese children and teenagers. In his presentation, “What’s Really Causing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic? What Kids Say,” Dr. Pretlow quoted several of them. They are not afraid to talk about addiction, and they know about such concepts as tolerance and denial.

In Slide #65, a child admits being addicted to Starbucks products. In Overweight What Kids Say, Dr. Pretlow backs up the opinion of Dr. David Kessler with his own:

Starbucks was at the point of bankruptcy when the company discovered how to get consumers hooked on its products. Starbucks created the Frappuccino. According to Kessler, ‘This sweet, rich, comforting milkshakelike concoction utterly transformed their business.’ It appears that Starbucks has succeeded with kids…

As evidence, Dr. Pretlow quotes a seriously overweight 12-year old girl who not only drinks a Starbucks concoction every day, but admits to being addicted to the stuff. Sarah Hughes has also covered the same topics, explaining further the theory of the bliss point, the peak experience where we get the greatest pleasure from eating sugar, salt, or fat. She says,

Kessler says it all comes down to the bliss point. ‘The right combination of tastes triggers a greater number of neurons, getting them to fire more,’ he explains… Certain foods trigger the bliss point more than others, among them… Starbuck’s frappuccinos…

What has Starbucks been up to recently? J. P. Freire, who is an associate editor for Commentary, looked into this question and reported the answer in the Washington Examiner, framing it of course as a kick in the pants to the current administration:

In an apparent betrayal of First lady and food inspector-in-chief (and apparent Starbucks drinker) Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ healthy lifestyle campaign, Starbucks announced a new cup size for iced coffee, tea, or lemonade drinks this week, called the ‘Trenta.’ … According to Starbucks’ website, getting a ‘Trenta’ Iced Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha could set you back more than 1,000 calories.

Which is about half the day’s energy requirement, with nary a mineral nor scarcely any other kind of nutrient in sight. Whether Starbucks is unpatriotic or merely commercially motivated, this is not what we would call a step in the right direction.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Getting the Kids Hooked on Starbucks,” The Wall Street Journal, 06/27/06
Source: “Why one cake is never enough: Addictive additives in food MAKE us eat more,” Daily Mail, 08/03/09
Source: “Starbucks new ‘Trenta’ size is no ally in Obama’s war on obesity,” Washington Examiner, 01/18/11
Image by jerine (Jerine Lay), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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